Humble pies

Joseph Mai

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Bourdain filming in Phnom Penh, 2010. Photo: Vinh Dao

Anthony Bourdain was a sharp storyteller: fun, arrogant and fiercely honest. His life’s work was a unique blend of hip and literary: born to an executive at Columbia Records and a staff editor at the New York Times, summering with family in France as a child. After a comfortable childhood in prep school and two years at Vassar, Bourdain dropped out and went to culinary school. He toiled in kitchens for twenty-five years, surviving both a heroin and a crack cocaine addiction. After a long recovery, Bourdain became a chef at Brasserie les Halles in Manhattan. But he always remained a writer. In 1999 he published a gonzo-inspired, behind-the-scenes essay about life in New York kitchens that he later turned into his best-selling first book, Kitchen Confidential.

With new-found fame and financial security, Bourdain wanted to devote his next project to culinary travel around the world. The result was a book and the first of Bourdain’s television series, both called A Cook’s Tour. In a telling departure from the genre, Bourdain would also include unique and potentially dangerous destinations that few Americans would travel to, places such as Haiti after its earthquake or Lebanon, where he had to be airlifted when Israeli air forces started a bombing campaign against Hezbollah. Bourdain admitted that the idea was rooted in American clichés and attitudes. He wrote that he wanted to travel the world, “doing cool stuff like I’ve seen in the movies and looking for the perfect meal”.

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