Anthony Bourdain dead at 61; Bourdain saw the humanity in all of us

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(CNN) — Anthony Bourdain, who died in France on Friday at 61, was always more of a teacher than an avatar. For the millions who watched his television series, “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown,” he redefined not just the travel show, but the whole point of travel itself.

If you were paying attention, he offered a wonderfully inquisitive, quietly humble and profoundly empathetic way to move through the world.

Bourdain’s medium was food: eating it, making it, sharing it. He rose to fame not through his knife skills, but by his tales from the kitchen, which were bawdy and funny and sometimes dark. And he skyrocketed to superstardom when he started appearing on TV. What set his shows apart wasn’t the cinematography, although they were always shot beautifully, nor his decision to visit places both far-flung and nearby, although that, too, was a smart and creative choice — his episode in the Bronx, for example, is one of his best.

What truly made Bourdain special was his fundamental desire to connect with people, and the fundamental openness he brought to that effort. It’s easy to travel — and to make a travel show — where you check off the boxes: the great art museums, the masterful architecture, the tallest whatever or biggest something else.

Bourdain eschewed all of that in favor of something more penetrating and democratic: how people all over the world use food to bond, to express their creativity, to nurture their loved ones, to carry forward tradition and memory, and to indulge in new experiences. Touching on the near-universal pleasure of eating allowed those of us watching to explore the world a little differently through Bourdain.

What we saw, over and over again, was empathy and humanity. Nearly everywhere, people take great pride in the food they make, and nearly everywhere, feeding others is a way of showing affection, love, devotion, and hospitality. And Bourdain wasn’t mostly eating the fanciest, highest-end food prepared by professionally trained chefs. He ate what was good — food prepared in a street-side stall, or in a plastic-chair, hole-in-the-wall — or in a home kitchen.

Food was a tool through which to learn a little bit more about the values, history, and priorities of the person feeding you. Food was a tool through which to understand a place, to broaden your own understanding of the world, and maybe to break open the door to a new chamber within yourself.

Bourdain was also special in the genuine respect he showed his hosts — which didn’t mean being obsequious or fawning, as some well-meaning travelers are, or condescending and arrogant, the way many less-well-meaning travelers can be. His irreverence and cynicism made him a relatable and trustworthy host, so different from other professional television personalities on feel-good exploration shows, for whom everything seems to be amazing and stunning and unique and magical.

His curiosity made him an ideal guide, away from the tourist stretches, through back alleys, and into homes. Physically and personally, he loomed large, and yet an almost adolescent devil-may-care attitude dappled his work — the motorbikes, the ATVs, the cars with their tops down. And of course, the darker side of that affinity for risk-taking that he sometimes discussed: the substance abuse issues, the depression, the exploring and eating and pleasure-seeking as a way, perhaps, of getting himself out of his own head in order to feel something closer to good.

Perhaps most notable was the simple way in which Bourdain treated people wherever he went like human beings, with all of their human virtues and flaws. The people he met, and Bourdain himself, were often generous, sometimes frustrating, always complicated. They weren’t cardboard cutouts of a culture; he wasn’t a caricature of an entitled globetrotter.

He didn’t shy away from politics, nor offer simplistic platitudes to salve the consciences of often advantaged-by-birth viewing audiences. His show was as much an adventure as it was a challenge to those who watched it: be better, be more thoughtful, be more welcoming.

Today, the Instagram-documented travel journeys that highlight street food over the tourist strip seem ubiquitous past the point of cliché. But this way of traveling — seeking to experience a place, not just see it — is, for the lucky few of us who get to voluntarily move beyond our own borders, a profound gift.

In a world where small-mindedness seems to be growing and walls are rising and life experience sharply diverting along lines of class and politics, Bourdain brought a powerful, outward-looking ethos into living rooms around the country.

For all of human history, there have been people who have burrowed into their well-known holes, hewing close to family, tribe, culture, race or nationality. And there have been the notable fewer who struck out, not to own or conquer or take or evangelize, but to see, experience, absorb, and enjoy, with all the discomfort and exhilaration and great humility that entails.

Bourdain was quite obviously one of the latter. How wonderful that he took us along with him for as long as he did.

(CNN) — Anthony Bourdain, the gifted chef, storyteller and writer who took TV viewers around the world to explore culture, cuisine and the human condition for nearly two decades, has died. He was 61.

CNN confirmed Bourdain’s death on Friday and said the cause of death was suicide.

Bourdain was in France working on an upcoming episode of his award-winning CNN series, “Parts Unknown.” His close friend Eric Ripert, the French chef, found Bourdain unresponsive in his hotel room Friday morning.

“It is with extraordinary sadness we can confirm the death of our friend and colleague, Anthony Bourdain,” the network said in a statement Friday morning. “His love of great adventure, new friends, fine food and drink and the remarkable stories of the world made him a unique storyteller.

“His talents never ceased to amaze us and we will miss him very much. Our thoughts and prayers are with his daughter and family at this incredibly difficult time.”

Bourdain joined CNN five years ago. In an email to employees, the network’s president, Jeff Zucker, remembered him as an “exceptional talent.”

“Tony will be greatly missed not only for his work but also for the passion with which he did it,” Zucker wrote.

Viewers around the world felt connected to Bourdain through his fearless travels, his restless spirit and his magical way with words. Fans, fellow chefs, celebrities and friends reacted to his death with stunned sorrow.

“My heart breaks for Tony Bourdain,” CNN’s chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, wrote on Twitter. “May he rest in peace now.

“He was a friend, a collaborator, and family. A huge personality, a giant talent, a unique voice, and deeply, deeply human. My heart goes out to his daughter and family, and his longtime partners and friends at (production company) ZPZ.”

Former President Barack Obama recalled a meal he shared with Bourdain in Vietnam while Obama was on a trip through Asia in 2016 — an encounter captured in a “Parts Unknown” episode that year.

“‘Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.’ This is how I’ll remember Tony,” Obama posted to Twitter on Friday. “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.”

Bourdain’s death came days after fashion designer Kate Spade died in an apparent suicide Tuesday at her Manhattan apartment.

Suicide is a growing problem in the United States. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a survey Thursday showing suicide rates increased by 25% across the United States over nearly two decades ending in 2016. Twenty-five states experienced a rise in suicides by more than 30%, the government report finds.

‘The Elvis of bad boy chefs’

Bourdain was a master of his crafts — first in the kitchen and then in the media. Through his TV shows and books, he helped audiences think differently about food, travel and themselves. He advocated for marginalized populations and campaigned for safer working conditions for restaurant staffs.

Along the way, he received practically every award the industry has to offer.

In 2013, Peabody Award judges honored Bourdain and “Parts Unknown” for “expanding our palates and horizons in equal measure.”

“He’s irreverent, honest, curious, never condescending, never obsequious,” the judges said. “People open up to him and, in doing so, often reveal more about their hometowns or homelands than a traditional reporter could hope to document.”

The Smithsonian once called him “the original rock star” of the culinary world, “the Elvis of bad boy chefs.” His shows took him to more than 100 countries and three networks.

While accepting the Peabody award in 2013, Bourdain described how he approached his work.

Explore “Parts Unknown”: Everywhere he traveled

“We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions,” he said, “we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”

Friends and acquaintances on Friday remembered Bourdain’s curiosity for the world’s variety of cultures and cuisine rubbing off on them. They included author and humorist John Hodgman, who recalled eating with Bourdain some 14 years ago.

“He was big even then, but he took time to sit with me in Chinatown to talk ‘weird’ food for a magazine piece I was writing. He taught me that our ‘weird’ is the world’s delicious,” Hodgman wrote on Twitter. “We ate chicken feet. The afternoon vibrated with life. RIP.”

Chef Gordon Ramsay said Bourdain “brought the world into our homes and inspired so many people to explore cultures and cities through their food.”

From ‘happy dishwasher’ to addiction to fame

Bourdain grew up in Leonia, New Jersey, and started working in kitchens in his teens — including on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod during the summer.

“I was a happy dishwasher,” he said in a 2016 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air.” “I jokingly say that I learned every important lesson, all the most important lessons of my life, as a dishwasher.”

It was during those early jobs, he said, that he began using drugs, eventually developing a heroin addiction and other problems that he later said should have killed him in his 20s. He often talked of his addiction later in life.

“Somebody who wakes up in the morning and their first order of business is (to) get heroin — I know what that’s like,” Bourdain said in a 2014 “Parts Unknown” episode highlighting an opioid crisis in Massachusetts.

After spending two years at New York’s Vassar College, he dropped out and enrolled in culinary school. He spent years as a line cook and sous chef at restaurants in the Northeast before becoming executive chef at Manhattan’s Brasseries Les Halles.

But it was his writing that put him on the map in his early 40s.

Bourdain drew widespread public attention with his 1999 New Yorker article, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” about the secrets of kitchen life and shady characters he encountered along the way.

“In America, the professional kitchen is the last refuge of the misfit. It’s a place for people with bad pasts to find a new family,” he wrote.

The article morphed into a best-selling book in 2000, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” which was translated into more than two dozen languages.

“When the book came out, it very quickly transformed my life — I mean, changed everything,” he told NPR.

Bourdain found himself on a path to international stardom. First, he hosted “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network, then moved to the Travel Channel with “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” a breakout hit that earned two Emmy Awards and more than a dozen nominations.

In 2013, both Bourdain and CNN took a risk by bringing him to a network still best known for breaking news and headlines. Bourdain quickly became one of its principal faces and a linchpin of its prime-time schedule.

Season 11 of “Parts Unknown” premiered last month on CNN, with destinations including Uruguay, Armenia and West Virginia.

In his final weeks, Bourdain said he was especially looking forward to an episode about Hong Kong, which aired Sunday.

He called it a “dream show” in which he linked up with longtime Hong Kong resident and cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

“The idea was just to interview him and maybe get him to hold a camera. He ended up being director of photography for the entire episode,” Bourdain told CNN in April. “For me it was like asking Joe DiMaggio to, you know, sign my baseball and instead he joined my Little League team for the whole season.”

The show’s website on Friday posted an homage to Bourdain featuring one of his many oft-repeated quotations — one that seemed to embody his philosophy: “If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food.”

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