Bourdain made these declarations in his trademark roguish style, and that’s in part why you listened to him: He didn’t seem to suffer fools or clichés. His charisma sprung from a gruff confidence that—along with the resources of major American television networks and the freedoms of an American passport—allowed him to saunter about the globe and tell you what was what.
But Bourdain’s brashness came with an immense humility that really made up the warp and weft of his TV shows. There’s a long tradition of Western travelers passing sweeping, self-aggrandizing judgments on the rest of the world, and he wanted no part of it.
After learning of his death, I recalled a scene from the Democratic Republic of Congo episode of Parts Unknown, in which Bourdain takes a perilous boat trip down the Congo River. I say perilous not because it was unsafe, but because it threatened to teeter into a dangerously overwrought evocation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: the inscrutable jungle-clad shoreline, the muddy expanse of the river, a white man alone on the prow of the boat as it puttered into the depths of the dark continent. Thankfully, the “horror” he discovers on that voyage lies not in the jungles or in the fallen hearts of men, but in the kitchen.
He wrestles with disaster in trying to make coq au vin for his crew on the boat. The chickens prove tough and scrawny and rather gruesome to kill. Then the single knife onboard is so dull that dismembering and cleaning the carcasses takes up the remaining daylight hours. The boat’s generator fails, plunging the increasingly frantic prep into darkness. “I can’t cut what I can’t see,” Bourdain exclaims. When light does return, it attracts hordes of insects, and the New York chef must finish making dinner with moths swarming around the beam of his headlamp. Finally, a sweating and haggard Bourdain trudges to the table with his cauldron of stew. In a show built on rhapsodies of food, the appreciation for his nightmarish toil is notably muted. A colleague shrugs and offers Bourdain the barest compliment: “Tastes like chicken, man.”
I find this scene clever for a number of reasons, first as a sly analogy for the farce of grand European designs in foreign lands (how else would you describe coq au vin in a skiff on the Congo River?) and second for its admirable humor and self-deprecation. On the other side of the ordeal, Bourdain makes a breakfast of egg and spam sandwiches and muses about how he might become a modern-day Mr. Kurtz. “They’ll find us 10 years later,” he says, “naked in the bush with a necklace of spam cans.”
There is a powerful awareness in both Parts Unknown and its prior incarnation on the Travel Channel, No Reservations, that the old metaphors and ways of seeing won’t do. The great gift Bourdain gave to his American audience was to remind them that no place exists outside of time. No simple image of eternal squalor or romance, chaos or tranquility is sufficient to describe any place.