Parts Unknown: The Curiosity of Anthony Bourdain

As tributes to Anthony Bourdain have been pouring into every news outlet across the country, I must confess not knowing very much about him before yesterday.  I knew he was an NYC Chef, hosted a food show, had eaten with President Obama in Vietnam, and Mike reminded me that he wrote Kitchen Confidential. But beyond that, I really never paid much attention.

That changed yesterday as I read so many articles about how he has changed the travel landscape almost as much as the food one.  Throughout the day, the thing that stuck with me most could be pared down to just one word:  curiosity.

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Bourdain was curious about the world.  When he traveled around to “parts unknown”, he wasn’t just curious about the food.  He wasn’t just interested in the best restaurant.  He was interested in the people, in the culture, and in the heart of the cities he went to. It’s a curiosity that I know I don’t have inherently, though I aspire to.  And it goes so much deeper than the superficial exterior of just tasting one dish at a local hotspot. Take the episode “Iran” for example, from Season 4.  He masterfully showed Americans a version of Iran that they had not considered – one that was tolerant, warm, and in his words, even pro-American. His episode “Los Angeles” pretended that everyone who lived there was Korean and stayed within the confines of LA’s bustling Koreatown.

A quote that has been making the rounds over the last day:

“If I am an advocate for anything, it is 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. It’s a plus for everybody.”

Reflecting on his message, I can’t help but feel that Bourdain’s work and life served the world of international development too.  One of the toughest things about running a non-profit that benefits students in Zambia is trying to get people here in the US to understand what life is like for rural Zambians.  What it is like to have children, and to want desperately for them to learn to read and write, but to have no options for schooling. Or to have options that are too expensive, or ineffective.  It’s a hard thing to try and get people to put themselves in the shoes of people they know, never mind a culture of people halfway across the world in a country they haven’t heard about.

But Bourdain inspired and challenged all of us to be a little more adventurous.  To be a little more open-minded.  To be a little more curious about the world around us.  May we honor him by doing just that in our future years.

-Reshma