How a 44-year-old man making french fries became a global voice we all needed.
This past summer, a friend told me about the Bun Cha place Anthony Bourdain and President Obama ate at in Hanoi. I looked at a picture they had taken (not this one) of the table. It had become a shrine of their meal. I laughed and shook my head. Only Tony could have pulled that off.
At his best, Bourdain’s work paid homage to Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, which was referenced at the beginning of Kitchen Confidential, giving a voice to some of the most marginalized of society. Some of his best work dealt with the opioid epidemic in his hometown (and his past with heroin) and a heartfelt episode where he went to Puebla with an old co-worker, humanizing the unknown worker who makes the food you think comes from a guy who studied at Le Cordon Bleu (apologies to my friends who went to Le Cordon Bleu).
There was a lot to like and things to dislike about Anthony, but his authenticity in trying to understand, recognize, and bring to life the beauty of one’s home, whether from Buffalo, or the Congo, is what made him so endearing. He always loved every culture’s ability to take the nasty parts and make a stew or dish, transforming it into a lovely thing to partake in. And I think in that, we all recognized that bit in ourselves. The nasty parts could be made palatable. He was a man after people’s own heart. Everyone could come away a bit prouder of who they were because he always dug deeper to find that.
My favorite dish will always be my mother’s Bun Bo Hue, which she’d occasionally make on the weekends. To watch him eat that dish on his show and watch his eyes light up for the first time was something to see. He exclaimed Bun Bo Hue was the best soup in the world. A dish he’d take a date on and if they didn’t like it, there’d be no relationship to be had. And I’m pretty sure most Vietnamese people felt pretty proud to know that he felt that way (even if BBH ain’t your thing).
And for a lot of us, he brought that part of our history, and many others’ history, into our lives. He made us feel a sense of saudade or sehnsucht of a place you were from or had never been. It was a gift.
Vietnamese officials said no statesman would ever be out in public, at a common stall, the way Bourdain and President Obama did, to have a meal. But it was the most Bourdain-like thing to do. A guy who embodied the working class, sitting along with the leader of the free world, eating peasant street food. He said,
“I will sure as sh*t remember this trip to Vietnam. Not very long ago at all, I was a 44-year-old guy still dunking French fries with no hope of ever seeing Rome, much less Hanoi — much less EVER sitting across from the President of the United States, talking about hot dogs.”
In Contact, Jodie Foster’s character is sent to space to tell everyone about what she saw, she said, “They should have sent a poet.”
For many, Tony was your guy. My guy. Our guy.