When news of Anthony Bourdain’s death broke Friday, stunning the world, the outpouring of grief from the friends, fans, and colleagues he’d made on his many trips to Thailand was immediate.
More than simply producing shows on food, Bourdain connected people of different cultures through his storytelling. His ability to find unity and universality in our diversity is what made him truly special.
Bourdain loved Thailand, and the country famously appeared on both No Reservations and Parts Unknown, where he ate brains and blood in the Northern town of Mae On and declared both delicious.
Travel writer and author Joe Cummings today recalled working with Bourdain much earlier than that. He was contacted by producer Lydia Tenaglia back in 2003 for a A Cook’s Tour, a show Bourdain pitched off the back of his best-selling book Kitchen Confidential. Tenaglia asked Cummings to suggest some food filming locations for Bourdain’s upcoming 23-hour stop in Bangkok. They met just briefly at the end of the visit.
Cummings must have made a good impression because they contacted him again when they shot in Chiang Mai years later for the CNN series Parts Unknown, where he helped with pre-production, appeared in the karaoke scene, drank with Bourdain, and did translation work in the segment where Bourdain gets a sak yant, or Thai tattoo.
“He was very quiet when not on camera, mostly sat by himself off set reading paperbacks. Except for the karaoke scene where we all got pretty drunk on lao khao and hung out drinking after it wrapped,” he said of the enigmatic host and chef.
“He was gracious, professional, and easy to work with. The shoots were long and trying, as TV and film shoots tend to be, but he never seemed to get impatient. He did look tired the day of the tattoo shoot. Also I was surprised how stiff he was for his age, which would have been about 55 back then. We had to help him stand up after the inking. But he probably wasn’t used to sitting on the floor either.”
The beloved chef introduced the world to Thai street food scene in an episode of No Reservations (2009: Season 5 Episode 16), where he tried rice gruel, and his team filmed simple table condiments we take for granted in a newly alluring way.
“Why would anyone eat in a restaurant when they could eat like this?” he said as he gleefully pigged out at Amphawa Floating Market, eating shrimp cake from a paper plate on wooden steps amid throngs of Thai people.
In an article he later wrote for Medium, Bourdain said: “To be fortunate enough to be able to visit Thailand, to eat in Thailand, is a deep dive into a rich, many textured, very old culture containing flavors and colors that go far beyond the familiar spectrum. Given our limited time on this earth, and the sheer magnificence, the near limitless variety of sensory experiences readily available, you don’t want to miss ANY of it.”
“He had this unique ability to cut through the noise and go straight to humanity,” Les Nordhauser, a Southeast Asia-based producer who worked Bourdain in 2008 in the production of No Reservations, told Coconuts Bangkok earlier today.
“Whether it is a street vendor or taxi driver — whether the place has five stars or no stars, he wanted to hear your story. Nobody was beneath him.”
Nordhauser remembers Bourdain as a fearless professional and an absolute pleasure to be around. “Everyone who worked with him were close friends with him. It’s nice to have a guy who knows what he wants,” adding that nobody at Bourdain’s production company Zero Point Zero ever had anything negative to say about him.
The Parts Unknown episode, which aired in June 2014, opens with him drinking copious amounts of lao khao (rice whisky) in a field with farmers.
Later in the episode, Andy Ricker, an American chef known for his expertise in northern Thai cuisine, would introduce Bourdain — and, by extension, the Western world — to larb (a spicy Thai salad), followed by discussion of the word authentic as it relates to Thai food.
“Tony, as I will remember him. Always quick with a witticism, always quick with a bit of wisdom,” Ricker wrote in a social media post on June 9.
“I am proud to have known this man a little, maybe enough to call him friend. I don’t know what happened, just saw the news. But knowing the details will not help in the understanding. Gutted. RIP Tony. Long may you run, wherever you’ve gone.”
Meanwhile, Lotus of Siam, a Thai restaurant in Las Vegas featured in Bourdian’s Parts Unknown, also posted tribute to the chef in a Facebook post.
In the episode, Bourdain described the eatery famous for its northern-Thai cuisine as “one of the best Thai restaurants” in the United States.
“With a heavy heart, today we have lost one of the most talented and amazing Chef today. May he RIP, Chef Anthony. Thank you for everything you have done for us and the world that watches you, from opening up our eyes to many different culinary foods in the world to even our own states. It was a honor to have met you and Chef Jet. RIP Anthony Bourdain,” Lotus of Siam wrote in a Facebook post on June 8.
For Thai columnist Tomorn Sukpreecha, who translated Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential (2000) into Thai, Bourdain’s death came as “shocking and devastating news.”
Tomorn said he only learned to know Bourdain through his words and regretted that he never had a chance to meet the late chef and author in person.
“The book was fun, smart, sharp-in-tongue, provocative — and most of all, extremely difficult to translate,” he said of the book, adding he took six months to translate it into Thai.
“One time, when he filmed a TV show in Thailand, I was contacted to be his guide. I don’t remember many details, but it didn’t happen because our schedules conflicted.”
“So I did not have a chance to meet him … and now I will never meet him. Rest in peace.”
Cummings recalled him as an “All around great guy, a guy’s guy. Really sad he’s gone because he was a role model for so many of us, a real trailblazer for food and travel media.”
Bourdain seemed to be planning for the future before the events of last week.He told Maxim last year that he was working on a new project that would bring him back to the region, though not revealing if it was a new book or television-related.
“I’m working on something: Hungry Ghosts — about these spirit houses in Asia Pacific, Thailand, Vietnam. They need to lure the hungry ghosts away from the main house, and I’m obsessed. I’m interested in these figures from folklore and history. In some way I feel a kinship with them — a wandering spirit, never satisfied.”