In a culture that places tremendous value on celebrity, personality and anything culinary, it’s not surprising that Anthony Bourdain’s greatest talent was one that many people tended to overlook. He was a storyteller.
During his time as the host of Travel Channel’s “No Reservations” and “The Layover,” as well as CNN’s “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain used each episode to weave a story that, above all else, had a point, a message, a lesson. Often it was something that he learned from the experience that he could pass on to viewers – something deeper than “Isn’t this place neat?” which was (and still is) the deepest lesson of most Travel Channel programs.
Some lessons were stated plainly, others were in subtext or they revealed themselves over the course of a TV season. Below are some of what we learned about travel from Bourdain’s shows. (Disclaimer: I didn’t know Bourdain. I met him twice, briefly, and we grew up in the same town in New Jersey. What follows is based entirely on the content of his travel shows.)
A place is more about its people than its monuments or museums: As a chef, Bourdain spent a predictable amount of time in restaurants and kitchens, but the most important element of any episode was, for lack of a better description, the cultural Sherpa. There was always a local chef, celebrity, blogger or longtime compatriot who could explain what Bourdain – and the world – needed to know to appreciate the place. And, of course, how and where to eat the most relevant dishes. Monuments and museums that are the staple of most travel coverage were rare here, less relevant.
Context is crucial: You can’t understand what’s great about an extraordinary place unless you also understand the not-so-terrific side. Whether it was the Dracula tourism in Romania or an excruciating eternity in a tourist cave in Jamaica, Bourdain rarely shied away from the “negatives” of a place. They are part of the whole story. Any travel writer, blogger, influencer or TV host who offers only the positive side is giving you a brochure or a greeting card – and he or she should be working for Hallmark instead.
You’ll learn more by slowing down than by speeding up: In the first “No Reservations” episode, Bourdain spends the entire last 3 minutes of the show sitting in a bistro in Paris, slowly noshing on a ham sandwich and sipping coffee. In so many words, the message is that he’s learning more about Parisian culture in the simple no-impact ritual of relaxing and savoring than if he tried to visit more landmarks and attractions. It would become a theme in many episodes thereafter.
There’s more to Africa than safari animals: Western media has a shallow tendency to cover Africa solely through its wild animals. Everyone wants to write about seeing a cheetah in the wild or feeling the thundering migration of wildebeest. But there are far fewer travel stories-posts-shows that cover a major city in Africa the same way the media would approach a European city. During his tenures on Travel Channel and CNN, Bourdain produced episodes in nearly a dozen African countries, including Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Congo, Namibia and Senegal. Most focused on the music, food, art and history of the local culture – through conversations with people – instead of just on elephants, lions, giraffes or rhinos.
Great experiences require being open to them: In travel, it’s too easy to get wrapped up in snobbery, whether about food or anything else. In an essay he wrote for Bon Appetit (republished last week at MSN.com), Bourdain said his father believed that the setting and the companionship during a meal was just as important as the food itself. “Perhaps the most important life lesson he passed on was: Don’t be a snob. It’s something I will always at least aspire to – something that has allowed me to travel this world and eat all it has to offer without fear or prejudice,” Bourdain wrote. “To experience joy, my father taught me, one has to leave oneself open to it.”
The big picture: At the end of most of Bourdain’s TV episodes, he tended to impart what he learned from the experience and the place. Often the lesson was about more than the destination covered in the episode. Bourdain’s style dared viewers to ask themselves not “What did I see?” but “What did I learn?” Not just about the place but about travel, about the world, about yourself. It’s the difference between experiencing and sightseeing. Every place teaches us something, we just don’t always know what it is. If you ask the question after one trip, every trip thereafter you may start to see the patterns, the lessons.
That travel isn’t about living in a postcard: At the end of a particularly emotion-filled “No Reservations” episode in Malaysia, Bourdain is conflicted about where to go from there, physically and philosophically. “The journey changes you. It should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, your consciousness, your heart and on your body. You take something with you and, hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
Spud Hilton is a San Francisco Chronicle travel editor.