07/03/2013 10:02 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Anthony Bourdain, Accidental Great Journalist


I've never met Anthony Bourdain. I saw his live performance, "Guts and Glory," at Michigan State University once. I've watched his TV shows, from A Cook's Tour through No Reservations and Parts Unknown, some of them repeatedly, stored on my iPhone for long trans-pacific flights or insomnia.

That's all the biography I have of the man who took on Paula Deen long before the rest of the world did.

Bourdain may not have planned it. Yet, somewhere along the way, he became almost by accident the most interesting, important travel journalist working today. Starting perhaps unintentionally with A Cook's Tour and finding his stride three or four seasons into No Reservations, Bourdain found out how to tell compelling stories about a place and its people, through the organizing principles of food, memory, biography and history. (Prayer and love are implied. And his other shows, The Layover, essentially a frenetic catalog of things to do in 36 hours, and The Taste, a game show, are puzzling detours that I'm choosing to overlook.)

My claim about Bourdain's work is not a knock on the many people who went to school to do this for a living and show us what the adrenaline rush of urgency actually looks like. It doesn't diminish the achievements of good reporters who flesh out important stories. It doesn't overlook the fixers and translators who risk their lives with zero recognition to help us understand things we wouldn't otherwise see or hear. As a former journalist and editor, I know their work opens a window into worlds and circumstances far removed from ours.

A self-described "cranky, miserable bastard," Bourdain, however, didn't set out to do journalism. He set out to see places and eat strange things, like the "business end of lower intestines." Instead, he also gave us extraordinary TV.

What Bourdain's managed to do is recruit the local cuisine and the people who eat, prepare and celebrate it as guides and storytellers, helping sharpen our sense of place. After all, food is universally necessary, commonly beloved. Properly prepared, food can be a catalyst for our strongest memories. And as every Singaporean knows -- and Bourdain points out -- food can spark raging debate, especially in places where disharmony are discouraged.

In Italy, Provence and Croatia, Bourdain shows food as the gospel of simplicity: Large meals, family gatherings, life lived in sunny outdoors. In Myanmar, recently emerged from oppression, condiments are the virtue that convert crude, common staples into what Bourdain would call "something delicious," where need, ingenuity and simple ingredients can transform the table.

Bourdain's shows and Bourdain himself are impolite. F-bombs drop at an average clip of 3.4 seconds. In Kuala Lumpur and Quito, he unabashedly wrestles with bull penises as they flop about in indigenous bowls of true nose-to-tail gastronomy. In a post-modern world, he is avidly self-referential, making pitch-perfect references to Joe Francis, Midnight Express, The Situation's farts, Kim Kardashian's ass.

More importantly, Bourdain isn't timid in the face of difficult questions or uncomfortable truths. And here's where Bourdain and great journalism intersect, at that place James Joyce describes as the junction of pathos and satire.

In Laos, he sits down for a meal with a farmer and his family. The farmer has one arm, one leg, his limbs obliterated by an American bomb dropped during the secret war in southeast Asia. The meal has meat and fish, both luxuries in one of the poorest corners of the globe. Bourdain notes that he and his guide are honored guests. The farmer, we are told, could not provide for his family after losing his arm and leg, a "great disaster for his life." Here's how the rest of the dialog goes:

Bourdain: "Is he angry?"

Bourdain's guide translates for the farmer: "Before the accident, he was a great person, with an open mind and open heart. And then his mind and his heart changed. He was very, very angry." (Note what constitutes greatness in Laos.)
The farmer then asks Bourdain: "Are you afraid of seeing the reality?"

The question catches Bourdain off guard. He offers an answer, squirming, about Americans needing to see the consequences of war.

In Laos, he suspends his cocky attitude, the trademark of an on-screen persona that drives the energy of his narratives, and plaintively asks: "What do you talk about with a guy who lost his arm, his leg, his self-image, his livelihood, his pride, to a bomb your country dropped over 30 years ago?"

A relevant question in Laos, a relevant one today as we leave behind our legacies in Iraq and Afghanistan and Yemen and who knows where else, struggling years later, over a meal with a legless farmer.

He does this again and again, sharing moments of clarity and candor in unexpected places. On the impoverished Isla Tierrabomba, Cartagena's lavish skyline gleaming in the distance, he coaxes a fisherman to proudly proclaim the triumph of happiness in a place of destitution -- an apt scene in a world growing increasingly polarized by the widening wealth gap.

A three-minute segment on a Hong Kong noodle-maker isn't just one of the most beautiful scenes on TV ever made. It is also one of the most instructive, reminding us that slow food, though noble, is in a losing battle with time and technology.

Bourdain has fun without being frivolous. His shows are smart, entertaining, well-thought-out mini-documentaries about people, places and, yes, food, which in the end serves to give us meaningful, poignant glimpses into the lives, the humor and the resilience of people we wouldn't otherwise meet: farmers in Laos, cab drivers in Istanbul, saloonkeepers in Harbin, sausage makers in Detroit.

Food provides the essential fulcrum in the places Bourdain visits, at home and abroad, so a place's people and culture have enough leverage to hoist themselves just a little bit above the humdrum and, by so doing, become distinct. And that, the discovery of the new, the celebration of ordinary people who cherish simple things, however accidental, are what make great journalism.