If you ever come to New Orleans, I will take you my favorite bar. I won’t tell you it’s my favorite, we’ll just go and hang out for a bit. If you’re my kind of person, and I’ve seen this happen several times, somewhere around your second drink, you’ll look around its dimly lit and not especially fancy interior and say, “This is a really great bar.” Once you’ve passed the test, I’ll proudly tell you Anthony Bourdain agrees with you.
I saw the bar on one of the shows he did here in New Orleans many years ago and decided to give it a shot. Sure enough, it has since become the meeting point for me and my friends most nights out. This isn’t to say the man could do no wrong on travel advice. In Panage, Malaysia, I went out of my way to try laksa, a seafood based noodle soup, because Bourdain had gone on and on about its complex and layered flavors. However, the first bowl I got of it tasted like hot garbage. But Bourdain loved it, so I tried it again the next day and at a different place: still hot garbage.
No worries, at the end of the day, I’m sure the man had a tremendously more sophisticated palate than me, and if I ever go back there, I’ll try it again. However, isn’t that exactly how Bourdain sucked so many of us in? He could go from five-star dining with world-renowned chefs to eating street food or sitting in someone’s mother’s kitchen and show the same love, admiration and passion for the food. He took all pretentiousness out of it and used food to show the shared humanity of all people as he traveled the world. He validated what we all already knew to be true, our mother’s cooking is the best cooking.
While food is what made him famous, it was the way he traveled that endeared him to me. Twenty-four hour layover in Paris? There wasn’t a chance in hell you’d catch him standing in line for the Eiffel Tower. He’d just as soon spend his time at a café watching the city walk by. He wasn’t about vacationing, which is what most people mean when they say travel these days. He was about travel for the purpose of seeing, learning, growing and deepening a person’s understanding of the world and their connection to it. He was about the go it alone, get down in the dirt, meet the people where they are kind of travel; travel to out of the way, hard to get to places. And he’d go to these places the same way a local might be it on a dangerously bumpy train in Myanmar, or while riding on top of a bus in Rajasthan.
While I’m sure he was many years removed from even considering staying in hostels, I couldn’t ever get over the feeling anytime I threw my pack down at a new place that he might be sitting in the hostel’s bar or be out on the balcony smoking. I held out that same hope anytime I sat in that bar in New Orleans. I just knew that at some point, someday, he’d come through its doors to revisit our favorite bar.
I’m not one to gush over or connect with celebrities, since I don’t know them personally, but Bourdain was different. He literally changed the course of my life, or at least the course of a few trips, since I’ve traveled to places I otherwise would not have, and been inspired to eat foods I would have otherwise passed on. He was unapologetically himself, wrote with momentum and honesty, and showed the world is full of good people and good food. He balanced being abrasive with being respectful to whatever culture he was visiting. He inspired, informed, humanized and connected. He asked the hard questions and gave voice to those rarely heard from. I thank him for the stories he shared and mourn for the one’s that we’ve been deprived of.
My heart goes out to his family and loved ones. I hope they can take some comfort in seeing this outpouring of emotion from so many people whose lives he impacted in such a positive way.