Anthony Bourdain, revered cook, writer and TV icon, only attended Vassar for two years before dropping out and making his way across town to the Culinary Institute of America. Despite the fact that he never graduated from Vassar, a tribute to Bourdain has emerged on our campus from an anonymous author. For those who haven’t passed by Blodgett recently, the tribute—which is written in chalk on an empty plaque in the entry to Blodgett courtyard—reads:
To Anthony Bourdain
for his excellence in the field of BEING A FUCKING BADASS
Coolest person to ever attend Vassar
made us laugh, made us smile, made some tasty fuckin’ food.
When Bourdain died by suicide in 2018, he was merely a “I’ve heard that name before” type of celebrity to me. In the past year or so, however, I have watched many hours of his television program, “A Cook’s Tour,” and read its companion book. Despite never knowing him personally, the man has fascinated and inspired me. The legacy he left behind through writing and TV nourished a profound love for him within me and his millions of fans around the world. So, I would like to expand on the already masterful Blodgett Hall Bourdain tribute.
Bourdain’s first brush with fame came after the publication of his first book, “Kitchen Confidential.” It was a poignant critique of the less glamorous aspects of high-end restaurant kitchens and, consequently, set up Bourdain as the “bad boy” of the culinary world. The book also covered Bourdain’s own vices, including his long-term addiction to heroin. His new fame led him to television, where he was contracted to host a show called “A Cook’s Tour.” The show featured Bourdain traveling the world eating novel foods and experiencing local cultures while cracking jokes and showcasing his eccentric personality shine.
During the past year I have spent many hours watching episodes from “A Cook’s Tour,” and I recently finished its book companion. Expertly written, his book, and even the TV show, are the authentic product of his authorial vision. They have a certain edge that their contemporary counterparts, such as Gordan Ramsey’s “Uncharted,” lack. This authorial vision is, however, more than the hedonistic goal of finding the best meal. Bourdain’s writing extends past food; he explores politics, international cultures and discusses the origin of the food he makes. Because of his unapologetic views, Bourdain became a character with whom so many people fell in love.
Perhaps unexpectedly, Bourdain was at first very camera-shy. Filming the early episodes in Japan was a disaster; he couldn’t make eye contact, his jokes didn’t land and he found himself unable to write anything witty. It was not until Vietnam, where he smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while crossing bustling streets and got drunk with villagers, that he really discovered his groove. What I found so appealing about him was the feeling that I could explore a place like Vietnam with the coolest punk-cook on the planet, all from my living room couch. He took us to remote locations to discern how local Vietnamese people harvested and cooked their foods. The scenes Bourdain found himself in mesmerized us, the audience, because Bourdain himself was mesmerized. As he downed shots with 80-year-old Viet Cong veterans, sat down with a massive extended family in rural Portugal, ate bowls of phở with Vietnamese ladies in little floating baskets and went ice fishing with drunk Russians, Bourdain showed us that he enjoyed learning about people as much as he enjoyed learning about food. Lucky for him, the two often came hand in hand.
In all of his travels, a certain tenderness surfaced, and the punk-cook, eccentric Bourdain took the backseat in order to let stories and personalities shine. Bourdain was an admirable man because of both his massive personality and his ability to pack it all in and sit at a dinner table as a humble guest.
The book version of “A Cook’s Tour” emulates his journeys in an equally great, yet different, way. His writing is snappy and engaging—whether he’s being sarcastic, passionate or descriptive. Readers learn very quickly that his journey is not just about the food; it’s about the journey itself. His account of killing a pig (and eating every last bit) on a family farm in Portugal typifies his curious blend of location, family and emotion. His passion for food and people appears in his prose; he is a curious and open-minded traveler. He was even able to find the beauty in New Jersey: in a journal in 2015 he wrote, “The smell of dune grass. Vanilla salt water taffy. Fried clam strips. These things should be eternal. They are eternal” (“Parts Unknown,” 2015).
His passion comes out in more emotions than love—anger, for example. “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands,” he wrote after experiencing the post-war poverty of the country (“A Cook’s Tour,” 2001). In Vietnam, Bourdain meets a beggar horribly disfigured, likely from napalm, and his writing mirrors his sudden change in scope: “Suddenly, this is not fun anymore. I’m ashamed. How could I come to this city, to this country, filled with enthusiasm for something so . . . so . . . meaningless as flavor, texture, cuisine,” he writes. “What am I doing here? Writing a fucking book? About food? Making a petty, useless, lighter-than-air television fucking show?” (“A Cook’s Tour,” 2001). Bourdain’s focus on food takes backstage to his disgust, and the reality of living in post-conflict, impoverished nations crystallizes. The book and TV show center around travel and food, but Bourdain doesn’t simply shoot flashy scenes and leave—even as he dismisses his own project as frivolous, he shows us the value in engaging with other cultures and demonstrates that travel can be approached with humility. He proves that travel can be an educational experience.
Bourdain’s travels mimic how I want to travel in the future. I also want to look for extremes of emotion and experience; I want to launch myself into a new place with nothing to lose. He was rebellious, daring and never shied away from any foods, no matter how scary they looked. He always turned to the local people who were, in the end, more important than any dish or ingredient. Even if Vassar’s tribute to Bourdain doesn’t last, I think that Vassar students can discover and appreciate Bourdain’s legacy on their own. Hopefully in a couple of years, I’ll be squatting at some off-the-tracks noodle shop in Vietnam, and I’ll down a couple of beers in Bourdain’s memory.