Why Anthony Bourdain (Still) Matters

In a word, Empathy.

It’s been a week since the world heard the news that Anthony Bourdain – the culinary adventurer and storyteller of CNN’s “Parts Unknown” – had been found dead by apparent suicide in a hotel room in France. He was only 61.

Already it seems that his loss has been forgotten by national and social media, the focus being shifted as it does back into the toilet of the news cycle. This week it was the fallout from a tweet storm in Canada, a historic meeting of two cartoonish heads in Singapore, and a Bluff City visit from a media star. These crass developments (yes, lacking sensitivity, refinement, or intelligence) in the week since Bourdain’s death stand in stark contrast to the work of a man who, in feeding his own insatiable curiosity, realized profound empathies for foreign cultures abroad and in our own backyards.

From gun-toting entrepreneurs in West Virginia to a diplomat in Russia, from a budding country star in a honky-tonk in Nashville to having a beer and noodles with former President Obama in a Vietnam restaurant, he never wavered in setting aside judgement. He let his subjects tell the story.

Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama sitting at a table together in May 2016
Bourdain’s beer and visit with President Obama, Vietnam, May 2016, from Bourdain’s Instagram account.

The news of his death came the same week as tributes were pouring in over the 50-year commemoration of another death, and a figure whose work hinged on maturing curiosity, compassion and empathy: Robert F. Kennedy, who was struck down by an assassins bullet in the kitchen of a California hotel when his career was reaching new heights during his 1968 campaign for president.

Tony Bourdain’s career seemed to be reaching new heights as well, as his travelogues became more thought-provoking, resembling more and more the work of an activist storyteller. And like Bobby Kennedy, he seemed to be in the middle of a climb that was taking him to surprising unknowns in his exploration not just of places and cultures, but of his soul and even the souls of others.

About his subjects, Bourdain was irreverent and unfiltered. He asked locals simple yet difficult questions about their country, their city, their town, their neighborhood. “What makes you happy here?” he was asking. He was no bullshit. He was called the “original rock star” of the culinary world. To call Anthony Bourdain a celebrity chef would be an insult. Through its culinary treasures he explored the world’s streets and people; food was simply one way to understand a culture.

Some may have been put off by his brash appearance, or his seemingly cavalier attitude, or his colorful use of curse words. But there was poetry in his language, whether written or spoken.

His style for story-telling was not to bombard the viewer with his opinions. He didn’t show disdain for any city or country; he showed you its ugly and beautiful virtues. His interview subjects were carefully picked. Whether they were local officials or street urchins, he made sure we saw a city, its culture and its food, from alley- and basement-level.

About his selections he wrote that “Some episode locations are chosen because of historical obsessions, previous experiences, sheer curiosity, personal connections, the sheer challenge of going to the same place again and doing it differently …”

In recent years he told us that he was no journalist. “I hardly ever cook anymore,” he said. And his “Parts Unknown” travelogues, they weren’t for tourists.

In his tribute to Bourdain, CityLab’s Richard Florida said that “I always saw him as a chronicler of cities, and a truly great urbanist… (with Jane Jacobs) one of the two people who have most inspired my work on cities and urbanism.”

Bourdain’s work appealed to a kind of cultural, urbanist adventurer in us, and lulled us into putting on other sets of glasses, to “walk in other’s people’s shoes,” as he often said.

He was in short, a storyteller. And a goddamned good one.

Anthony Bourdain
Still taken from the foreboding coda of one of Bourdain’s last episodes – “Parts Unknown: Seattle”

Of one of his last episodes, in Seattle – an episode whose moody and foreboding coda almost seems like a farewell – he wrote in his field notes that “It’s a strange and beautiful place: gray, rainy, moody, and culturally rich—a place that seems to weed out those who are less than determined to reinvent themselves, break away from the pack, do their own thing however oddball it may be. It’s also yet another American city in transition: changing from company town to music town to tech center, with all the good and bad that comes with that.”

Replace company with cotton and tech with entrepreneurial and he’s talking about our Memphis.

Tragically, he never filmed his signature shows here to give us his take on our city in transition. There was no “No Reservations – Memphis” and there will never be a “Parts Unknown: Memphis.” But on a visit to Memphis on a Friday fall evening in 2012, he entertained an Orpheum crowd and promised to return to film an episode here. We know from that visit that he liked our Barbecue. And based on his takes on Nashville and the Mississippi Delta, we can imagine what parts of our Bluff City he might have been drawn to. Chances are it would not have been Graceland or Bass Pro or a Grizzlies game.

My guess is that he would have visited The P & H, or maybe Loflin Yard in South Junction or Soul Food Express on S. Main, taken a tour in a convertible with “Road Ethnographer” Tad Pierson and had a soul burger at 2am at Earnestine & Hazel’s. He might have talked to someone like a Dr. Earle Fisher or maybe a Henry Nelson – look ’em up – but would have stayed clear of City Hall.

Or he might have stood on the balcony of the Lorraine, looked out at the back of the old boarding house across the street, and talked in voiceover of a town’s struggle with its pride and its shame, and not judged us. “This is a town,” he might have said, “that loves and loathes its rich, bawdy past. It has the soul of a slave – silently defiant, struggling with old shackles, refusing to die, hopeful for liberty and redemption.”

We need more people like Anthony Bourdain. Hell, we need more like Bobby Kennedy too. We need people and voices who don’t judge, who tell us not to be afraid of those different from us, who are willing to walk in our shoes, who tell us not be ashamed of where we live, who recognize the beautiful and ugly virtues in all of us, our streets, our town.

We need voices who show us, in a word, Empathy.


Anthony Bourdain died June 8, 2018 in France. He was born June 25, 1956 in New York.

Mark Fleischer is the founder and executive director of StoryBoard Memphis. The Orpheum’s Forgotten History was originally published as a front-page feature in StoryBoard’s former print edition in November of 2018. This summer-long online series expands from the confines of print and features more in-depth stories and analysis, never-before published interviews and stories, and recorded interviews from the participants who brought the vintage palace back to life.

4 Replies to “Why Anthony Bourdain (Still) Matters”

  1. Outstanding Mark! Your perceptions of Anthony Bourdain are spot-on and shared by many that will never forget the impact he had on defining how to live life largely and honestly. Thank you for this excellent piece of writing.

    1. Thanks Willy. I would have loved to have seen how he would have portrayed Memphis. I can easily see him sitting with you in E&H’s talking about our town.

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