There’s a soup lady on my street in Bangkok whose soup is so nourishing it makes me cry. Anytime I am sick or in a funk, I head straight to her wheeled cart and take my place in line behind construction workers before ordering a steamy bowl of chicken and rice noodles in a rich bone broth with bean sprouts, cilantro and holy basil and a hint of clove. I add a spoonful of her homemade chili vinegar and a few bumpy slices of of bitter gourd. It goes down like black magic and leaves me feeling entirely loved by a total stranger. Her soup tells a story of centuries of rising and falling kingdoms, silk and spice trades, tropical breezes and family connection and sustenance.
I take this soup for granted now, but I wouldn’t have always known to try it. I think back to the days when I first ran away from home ten years ago. I was just an Arkansas girl in my twenties who had never really been anywhere, wide-eyed and wanderlusty but so very afraid. Leaving the comforts of home to chase a job in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, I had no idea what I was getting into or how to exist in unknown territories. Eventually I learned to thrive overseas, and there is nobody who has influenced my travels more than Anthony Bourdain.
Like many young wanderlusts who watched his show, I treaded in his wake—searching for the same ramen shop in Sapporo where he slurped down buttery ramen with corn or the same falafel shops in Beirut owned by rivaling brothers. I wanted to eat what he ate and travel where he travelled.
It comes with overwhelming sadness to hear the news of Bourdain’s apparent suicide. For those of us who read his books, watched his shows, and were entranced by his self-deprecating humor and raw storytelling, his death feels like the loss of a beloved uncle who we didn’t even know had a problem.
Bourdain taught us to be a student of the world, to be led by that curious itch that wants to connect. He esteemed the food and culture of the lesser-known corners of a city and treated them as the finest cuisine in the land. His original Travel Channel show No Reservations often placed the outdoor food stall on the same playing field as the five-star restaurant. He taught us not to fear the “other”; he showed us how to celebrate and connect over food. Unknown places were made cozily familiar.
I don’t know what Bourdain’s religious affiliation was, but it goes without saying that he lived and breathed a consciousness that was Christ-like. Jesus reached out to the marginalized in a way that was never condescending nor shaming. Jesus dined with the unclean and unreformed. Jesus welcomed the outcast, the forgotten, those on the lowest rungs of society. The religious elites scorned and rejected Jesus’ radical love and welcome—it was always scandalous.
Bourdain embodied that same sense of rebelliousness. Though irreverent, snarky and painfully authentic, he sought out the people and places in the margins. He dined in the forgotten places, he elevated the mom and pop cooks of the Global South, and he did so because he took pure delight in their food and company. There was a real exuberance to what he did—we believed it because it was real.
And part of his shows’ provocativeness was the scandalous pretense. For instance, the episode with Barak Obama in Hanoi was TV gold. Is there anything more salacious than the unseemly visual of a sitting American president enjoying Vietnamese noodles and bottle of beer on a plastic stool in a tiny, simple restaurant with ordinary patrons squeezed in tightly? In one strikingly memorable frame, Bourdain subverted the world’s power structures and the idea of what is good and worthy. He turned it on its head and made us see the simple and ordinary as beautiful and exalted.
Jesus established the shared meal as a subversive act of worship. When he broke bread with his disciples and said, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he used elements of the earth to symbolically point to his self-emptying love. But he also alluded to the divinity of the grapes and the grain and called us to have eyes that see the glory of God that illuminates and animates all things. This is echoed in the prologue of the Gospel of John where it is written that the light that was in Christ is the same light that is in all mankind. Bourdain too saw the humdrum, ordinary places of the world in a glorious light and he helped us see it too.
A common thread throughout Bourdain’s work was the plight of people displaced by war and economic hardships. In refugee communities around the world, Bourdain showed us the beauty and sacredness of food to people who have lost everything. His last episode of Parts Unknown set in Hong Kong featured the hub of urban refugee cuisine with an interview with a Somali and Iranian refugee who are in a state of limbo waiting for resettlement.
When it came to restaurants inside the US, Bourdain was a relentless advocate for immigrant rights. In an interview with SiriusXM host Pete Dominick, Bourdain described his early years in the restaurant industry with humility: “I walked into restaurants and the person always who’d been there the longest, who took the time to show me how it was done, was always Mexican or Central American, the backbone of the industry.”
Today, as a mother of three small kids with a hectic schedule, I don’t always have the time to track down restaurants I see on television. But the influence of Anthony Bourdain’s approach lives on in me as I am seeking to learn Thai cooking at a school in Bangkok’s largest slum district, Khlong Toey. The school was founded by a woman named Poo (endearingly called Cooking with Poo) who worked her way up from cooking on the street to going on book tours in the UK and Australia, even cooking with celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Her growing school has remained in the slum where she got her start; she employs its residents and uses a portion of her proceeds to support other start-ups in the slum. Why am I interested in Poo’s story? Cooking class in the slums? Of course, I’m here because Bourdain made it acceptable, cool even, to learn what they eat in the slums. I wonder how many tourists who seek out her school have been influenced by Anthony Bourdain.
There’s something spiritual in the way Poo connects people over food and builds up her entire community in the process. I see it as a peek into the Kingdom of God, where the last are first, the table is wide, all are welcomed and everybody is flourishing.
In the upside-down wisdom of the Gospel, we learn the righteous are out there, in the margins, where there’s risk, dirt, or poverty. It’s not a stretch to see the magic of Bourdain’s success followed this theme: the best things are often overlooked, marginalized, or misunderstood. We remember Bourdain’s legacy to love our neighbors as ourselves by eating their food.
Rest easy, Tony B. You’ll be missed.