After the news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing, at the age of 61, tributes flooded in. Obituaries tagged him, first and foremost, as a “celebrity chef”. But Bourdain was, at best, a middling chef, most of his years in the kitchen spent as a line cook. Only CNN, Bourdain’s TV home since 2012, got it right: he was a “gifted storyteller” as much as a chef, a global ambassador (both of and for) the United States. Many of his most remarkable episodes reached with empathy towards places such as Palestine, Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, locations that most popular depictions misunderstand or reduce to caricatures. Bourdain tried to show humanity everywhere he went, and nowhere was this truer than in Southeast Asia, and in Vietnam specifically. He was unabashed about his adoration for the country, which he called “my first love, a place I remain besotted with, fascinated by,” as he described it in an episode about Hue. “One of my favorite places on earth.”
It was in Ho Chi Minh City, on the deck of a riverside bar, that I received the news on my phone. I had arrived in Vietnam the previous evening, and I was here largely because of him. I’m not typically one to get attached to celebrities, but reading that initial alert — and since then, whenever I see Bourdain’s photo online, his self-assurance in front of the camera — I thought immediately, it cannot be so. Because what is so surprising and gut-wrenching about his passing is that, both onscreen and off, he possessed absolute vitality. Death was not part of the plan.
Bourdain filmed five episodes in Vietnam, three for Travel Channel’s No Reservations and two for Parts Unknown. He visited Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue, Hanoi and their environs, downing Saigon Beer, banh mi, and, memorably, in Hanoi in 2016, bun cha with President Obama. After Friday’s news, the former president wrote, via Twitter, “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.”
Last January, I used my savings to come to Vietnam during a university break. The impetus for this was, more than I would have admitted at the time, Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode set in Hue, in which he extols the virtues of roadside servings of bun bo hue, banh xeo and other specialties. “This is what you want,” he says of a bowl of com hen, a rice dish with clams and pork. He is talking to the camera, and, at the time, I believed he was talking to me. “This is what you need.”
I trusted him, and he was right, of course. After my plane touched down on the runway in Boston, I was hoping to return. Now, I’m living in Ho Chi Minh City for the next few months, with a plan to hitch rides on motorbikes and eat anything that looks tasty. On Thursday, as soon as I exited the airport into the sticky evening air, before news of his death arrived, I thought back to what he had said about the “pheromonic” nature of this place — that it grabs you and doesn’t let go.
In a 2009 interview, Bourdain tells of his second visit to Vietnam. During his first, he had “immediately recognized this incredibly beautiful country, filled with proud cooks and passionate eaters”. But something changed when he returned, elevating this place beyond the material. On his way into Hanoi, he “burst into tears. [I was] so grateful,” he says. “It was so good to be back.”
Writers are rightly eulogising Bourdain as a truth-teller — someone who called bullshit when he saw it, who refused to get swept up in travel tropes, who was never satisfied with the party line. Even in the early years of No Reservations, you could feel his restlessness and his desire to ask questions, earnestly, of all those he met. But it was only when he moved to CNN that he came into his own, finally able to probe the aspects of the places he visited that aroused his deepest curiosities. He loved food — he loved bun cha, bun bo hue, pho, bia hoi — but it was all an excuse to talk about art, about film, about philosophy and, primarily, about politics.
Bourdain cultivated a reputation of outlawry — he was a bad boy with a kitchen knife, a desperado on the next flight out of town. But at the same time, he pushed hard against cynicism. The only thing he found more noxious than starry-eyed optimism or impassioned dogmatism was a lack of belief. It was in that spirit that in the bun cha restaurant in Hanoi he asked President Obama, with a tremor in his voice after mentioning his young daughter, “Is it all going to be OK?”
I do not have an answer to that. The fact that his death was a suicide is heartbreaking. He spoke unflinchingly, throughout his public career, about his addictions, and he was similarly candid about his feelings of inadequacy. One episode in Argentina had as a refrain Bourdain’s discussions with a therapist. But the fact that the worst occurred is crushing — to a man who, according to his friend Andrew Zimmern, was enjoying the happiest year of his life, and who was in his public persona so intellectually voracious, so culturally omnivorous, and seemed to have such a musical, deeply felt interior life.
He allowed viewers to be close to him, and I was close to him. After all, in the words of New Yorker columnist Helen Rosner, he felt not like a distant figure but like “your brother, your rad uncle, your impossibly cool dad — your realest, smartest friend”. I felt so awed by him that I began, at the age of 16 or so, to dress more and more like him, to listen to the music he liked — even now as I write this, less in devotion and more because I did it without thinking, I am wearing Clarks desert boots, like his, and listening to Lou Reed, like him.
On the plane to Ho Chi Minh City, I listened to a podcast about Saint Augustine’s Confessions. I barely made it through 15 minutes, the discussion testing my patience. But one throwaway line has stayed with me as I mull over Bourdain’s death. When discussing the book, a record of the Church Father’s youth and conversion in the late fourth century, one of the guests says that Augustine managed to shirk criticism because he seemed to have already conceived of all possible criticisms anyone could lob at him. Bourdain, like Augustine, thought of all possible criticisms of himself before anyone else got the chance. He viewed the world through art, through Graham Greene, comics, Hong Kong noir films and Iggy Pop, never content that he had found the correct answer, or even a satisfactory one, until he had listened to everyone who would talk to him. When he believed that something was worth fighting for, he would fight fervently — his advocacy for the #MeToo movement is a sparkling example. But he was never dogmatic, never at rest.
One of the books I brought in my suitcase to Ho Chi Minh City is the collected poems of Walt Whitman. I have flipped through it since yesterday, and I am struck by how much of it I saw in Bourdain. For Whitman as well, life was a mortal struggle with despair, a battle against slipping into nihilism. In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, he writes, “It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall, / The dark threw its patches down upon me also, / The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious, / My great thoughts as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre?”
Whitman was an unabashed man of pleasures, of the visceral. He writes in the poem of the sensuality of watching the faces of others on the ferry, of seeing birds above the river, of bathing nude. But he does not celebrate hedonism for hedonism’s sake. Instead, the body is his answer to the implicit question posed above: how do we live with the dark patches? With the vast loneliness that can be common to anyone so self-critical? He writes, “I too had receiv’d identity by my body, / That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.” Everything comes back to the present: to beauty, to food, to sex, to drink, to the grand gestures of interspatial and intertemporal solidarity such things can offer. Whitman asks, about such an answer, “What the study could not teach — what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplish’d, is it not?”
The greatest questions in life often have the simplest answers. And Bourdain, for so many years, felt the same dark patches and came to a similar answer: much of the time, it was a cold beer and bun cha, with people from whom he was willing to learn, in an attempt — often fruitless, sometimes not — to forge profound solidarity.
Liam R. Greenwell is a writer from Cambridge, Massachusetts