It’s both essential and impossible to think about the influence of Anthony Bourdain on food television. Essential, because his worldview and his demeanor and his enthusiasm has had an outsized effect on what food and travel television looks like. And impossible, because Bourdain’s television shows were the result of an irreducible, alchemical, absolutely irreplaceable personality. You could copy his format, his style, his interests, you could try to replicate his curiosity and his verve, but either you were Bourdain or you weren’t. And obviously, no one else was.
In the years since Kitchen Confidential came out, followed by Bourdain’s various television series — A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, Parts Unknown — the food travel show has blown up into an entire ecosystem. Not all of that is Bourdain’s legacy (or his fault): the food travelogue as a genre began long before he started smiling wryly into a camera and gamely swallowing some unfamiliar animal parts.
But the television influence of Bourdain is now an unshakeable legacy of the genre. There is a format: the arrival, the local guide, the hole-in-the-wall joint, the grandma who keeps the traditions alive, the promise of authenticity. There are tropes: the shot outside on the street, pointing down a narrow alley toward the promised-land restaurant, the “let’s feed the tourist something wacky” bit, the trip into the kitchen, the translator smiling at the host’s ignorance, the bite into the food, eyes closed, mouth moving slowly. These are all parts of the Bourdain recipe, and many people have tried to replicate some part of it. The titles of many Bourdain-inflected food travel shows, even the really great ones, are painfully transparent indicators of just how reductive those replications can get — Man v. Food, Man Finds Food, Bizarre Foods, Food Paradise, Ginormous Food, Somebody Feed Phil. A place, a dude, food.
The thing about a formula is that once it exists, it seems pretty easy to replicate. Someone else figured out what the rules are; now some new dude just has to follow them, eating some different food in some different city, leaning back with his mouth closed to savor the bite. But by figuring out the formula — by kickstarting the TV genre and repeating it episode after episode, over and over, by testing the recipe of a food travel show so often that you could imagine lots of different people repeating it successfully — Anthony Bourdain actually showed us how impossible it is for other TV hosts to fill his shoes. The recipe exists, but there is no substitute for Bourdain.
Many people have already written about why. From Linda Holmes: “he was … infinitely curious, literally hungry for everything … he treated the world as if he had not given up on it.” From James Poniewozik: “He was a student. He presented learning about the world as an obligation and an unbelievable adventure, something we’re ridiculously lucky to be able to do.” From Corby Kummer, at The Atlantic: “Bourdain was deeply moral, and deeply compassionate … [a voice] for respecting the humanity of every person who grew and made that food.”
There is a difference between someone who shows up and wants to have a good meal and make a good television show and someone whose curiosity and delight is so intense that it crackles. Someone who is legitimately, endlessly interested in food as culture, as a part of life, as a practice, as a history. Someone who could make an episode about food around the world without ever seeming to appropriate or mock or exoticize or reduce — who is a traveler without being a tourist.
Bourdain was a food television host who plainly wanted to be a host, not the kind of host who dominates the conversation, but who introduces people to each other, wants them to get along, to understand each other, to really see each other. He was the best kind of educator, the kind who mostly was a pupil and was happy if you got to learn along with him.
It will be impossible for any television show to ever replicate Bourdain, for his influence to ever inspire perfect copycats, because there are so few human beings who give you that feeling that they are so honestly, sincerely, enthusiastic about the world. The food travel
show is easy to replicate in form; Bourdain was one of a kind. But happily for us, the influence of his work extends beyond other food travel shows. His influence and his way of looking at the world has filtered its way into a much more universal, personal ideology about food and travel. It’s underneath the impulse that pushes tourists to look for “real” food culture rather than safe chain joints, and the urge to seek out scary new things. Bourdain’s influence on television is huge — immeasurable. For the people who loved him, his influence on us as travelers and people who eat food and people who live in the world may be even bigger.
It is impossible for us, as imperfect, blinkered, flawed and fearful people, to embody Bourdain’s food travel ideology, just as impossible as it is for any other food TV host to pull it off. When we travel to new places and try our damnedest to look for an authentic meal rather than an easy, sad, familiar chain, we probably will not meet Bourdain’s standard. We probably won’t have a lengthy chat with the grandmother who has been making those dumplings all her life. We may well not find the fish monger at 5 a.m. and eat the oysters that just came in off the boat. But in every impulse to try something new, to see the person who made our food as a human being, to see new cultures and new dishes as someone’s home food rather than an exoticized other in our own mind, in every imperfect attempt to be open to new experiences rather than pivot toward safety, we do get to try to take on some of Bourdain’s legacy for ourselves.