The Media Today

Anthony Bourdain, accidental journalist

June 11, 2018

Anthony Bourdain, who died Friday at 61, lived many lives. Dishwasher, line cook, and journeyman chef; bestselling author and globe-trotting television star; raconteur and mentor to younger chefs. He was also—though he rejected the label—a world-class journalist.

Fame came late to Bourdain, but once his rolicking, back-of-the-house essay hit the pages of The New Yorker in 1999, he was rarely out of the public eye. He turned that piece into a bestselling book, Kitchen Confidential, and spent the 21st century hosting variations of a travel show—the most recent incarnation being CNN’s Parts Unknown—in which, as he told The New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe, “I travel around the world, eat a lot of shit, and basically do whatever the fuck I want.”

Increasingly, what Bourdain wanted to do was explore the intersection of food, politics, culture, and history. With a program centered around the simple act of sharing a meal, he brought curiosity, generosity, and a keen eye for bullshit to dozens of countries around the world and communities across the US. He ate with Barack Obama in Vietnam months before Donald Trump’s election, Putin critic Boris Nemtsov in Russia just before his assassination, and journalist Jason Rezaian in Iran just before he was arrested. He (usually) wasn’t reporting on current events or conducting investigations, but he provided three-dimensional portraits of places and people that went beyond the dictators, battle lines, or economic crises that typically constitute news broadcasts.

As the title of his CNN show promised, he brought an audience of millions to parts of the globe—and even parts of their hometowns—that they didn’t know. The 43 minutes he showed viewers of the Democratic Republic of Congo likely amount to more airtime than the three major evening news programs combined have dedicated to sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country over the past decade. He went to Queens and told the story of immigrants, and he bypassed Cape Town’s tourist mecca to bring viewers to Johannesburg’s up-and-coming urban neighborhoods. He went to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, providing one of the most humanized visions of life in Palestine, and he returned, again and again, to Vietnam, wrestling with America’s legacy in the country.

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As the tributes rolled across my social media feeds on Friday, I saw people from Hawaii, South Africa, Vietnam, and Louisiana credit Bourdain with “getting” their part of the world right. If that’s not the mark of a good journalist, I don’t know what is.

Below, more on the life and legacy of Anthony Bourdain.

  • A revolution in food writing: New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells credits Bourdain with changing the practice of food journalism. By focusing on the people, most of them immigrants, who washed the dishes and actually cooked the meals, Wells writes, Bourdain “opened new subjects to the purview of food writing: immigration policy, labor conditions, racism.”
  • A determined truth teller: “Anthony Bourdain built his career on the telling of truth,” writes The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner. She relates how Bourdain struggled with his image as a bad-boy chef and came, in his final years, to become a leading male supporter of the #MeToo movement.
  • NYT obit: The Times called his a “thrillingly profane, aggressively truthful voice,” and wrote that “his early public persona—the macho, unrepentant, drug-loving chef—evolved into that of a clear-eyed crusader for global food justice.”
  • Remnick on Bourdain: The New Yorker’s David Remnick, who published the essay that brought Bourdain to the public, reflected on the chef’s role as a journalist. “He invented something on television. Which is to say, under the guise of food journalism, he was showing more parts of the world than most television does at all,” Remnick told Eater. “It wasn’t war reporting, it wasn’t political reporting as such, but it had a kind of energy and appetite for knowing the other….If that show was about anything, it was about sitting at the same table with people who are not like you, which sounds awfully corny but is pretty damned noble at the same time.”
  • Obama’s tribute: “‘Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer,’” former President Barack Obama tweeted after Bourdain’s death, referencing a meal they shared in Vietnam in 2016. “This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food—but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.”
  • Favorite episodes: CNN resurfaced a post in which Bourdain picks his 10 favorite Parts Unknown Included, among others, are trips to Libya, Myanmar, Iran, and Shanghai.
  • Covering suicide: In the wake of Bourdain and Kate Spade’s deaths, Poynter’s Kelly McBride has an important piece on best practices for covering suicide responsibly.


Other notable stories

  • President Donald Trump is in Singapore to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. The two leaders are scheduled to sit down together on Tuesday morning, which is 9pm Eastern tonight. We’ll have more on the coverage of the historic event in tomorrow’s newsletter.
  • Charles Krauthammer, the longtime Washington Post columnist and Fox News contributor, announced Friday that he has an aggressive form of cancer and has only weeks to live. “This is the final verdict. My fight is over,” the conservative columnist wrote in the Post. “I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life—full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.”
  • New York’s Reeve Wiederman looks at Vice Media at a critical moment. With a sky-high valuation, a workplace culture under scrutiny, and a new chief executive in power, the former digital darling is facing an uncertain future.
  • In the wake of Google’s announcement that it will stop its work with Project Maven, a Pentagon project designed to use Google’s artificial intelligence, CJR’s Mathew Ingram writes that the ties between Silicon Valley and the military still run deep. “Project Maven is only the tip of a rather large iceberg when it comes to Google’s ties to the US government, not to mention the ties of other Silicon Valley giants,” Ingram writes.
  • With a ruling on the AT&T-Time Warner Merger expected Tuesday, The New York Times’s Cecilia Kang, Brooks Barnes, and Michael J. de la Merced have a big piece exploring the implications of the decision. “If the merger is blocked, some executives are likely to slim down their deal aspirations,” they write. “If the deal ends up going through, expect a cascade of mergers and acquisitions.”
  • For CJR, Rowan Moore Gerety looks at attempts to steady the Miami Herald’s newsroom after cuts and a digital reinvention. “It’s difficult, when you have periods of a lot of departures, to reorganize in a thoughtful way,” the paper’s editor, Mindy Marques, tells him. “We’ve had to adjust as managers to the idea that people are not gonna be with us forever.”

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.