A tribute to Anthony Bourdain, a Singapore cuisine true believer

Parts Unknown Production Stills
Parts Unknown Production Stills

It’s been nearly a week since Anthony Bourdain died.

There’s no other way to say this — the death of the legendary chef and TV personality is truly, genuinely heartbreaking. The outspoken chef, host, and writer was found dead in his hotel room in France, where he had been filming an episode for his award-winning show on CNN, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. He ended his own life at the age of 61.

As journalists and reporters, we marveled at Bourdain’s work as a writer before his TV career took off. Way before Kitchen Confidential (the New York Times bestselling memoir and the little-known sitcom inspired by it), he published two comedic crime novels set in the restaurant world, but those were alright at best.

No, it was in 1999 when he wrote Don’t Eat Before Reading This for the New Yorker that his name was launched into the stars. The piece (which you can read in its entirety here) is an amazing insight into what really goes on behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens, fluently described in all its bloody glory. From that point on, the renegade chef blazed his own path in the literary world with cookbooks, novels, another memoir and even hyper-violent graphic novels for DC Comics.

Anthony Bourdain, honorary Singaporean

Photo: Parts Unknown screengrab

Like the rest of the world outside the United States, we devoured his food and travel TV shows, stopping our channel-surfing sessions each time he appeared onscreen. As non-Caucasians used to see our cultures ogled at, we were thrilled at seeing this middle-aged white man treating us as actual equals. He never fetishized; he never belittled; he never exoticized. Here was a man unafraid in getting his hands a little dirty and stomping the ground for honest, in-depth assessments of the places he visited, and, as always, showed how food played a key part in everything. In his tribute to Bourdain in Rolling Stone, chef, restaurateur and VICE food personality Eddie Huang encapsulated this perfectly.

“[T]here was something about Tony that screamed, ‘I’m not like other white people. I’m not here to laugh at you.’ He didn’t see dirty immigrants and aliens; he saw fully formed 360-degree humans containing old ways and wisdom manifested in food.”

This respect was brought over to our shores in the multiple times he dropped by Singapore, each time loving the food culture of the city more than the last. It’s no secret that Singapore is one of Bourdain’s most favorite places in the world, and familiar sights of the city have been featured in three season premieres of his various shows: No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown.

He’s a known lover of our hawker center culture and the street food that gets sold at them, forming a firm friendship with prominent local food expert and Makansutra founder KF Seetoh. He loved hawker centers so much that he enlisted Seetoh in an ambitious project in 2014 to set up a Singapore-style open-air food market in lower Manhattan. Bourdain Market by the Hudson River was envisioned to sell street food from around the world, with half of his food wishlist being Singaporean classics. “It is essential that we have good chicken rice, laksa, char kway teow and perhaps nasi lemak and bak kut teh. If we don’t have those, we are nothing,” the 58-year-old told The Straits Times in 2015.

You can understand why it was pretty disappointing to hear the project had to be shut down last December due to leasing complications, delays and difficulties in obtaining visas for the market’s employees and vendors.

“I promised a certain kind of market to New Yorkers and to potential vendors, and if that vision becomes clouded, diluted or compromised, it is no longer something that our city needs,” he said in a statement acquired by Eater. “I remain hopeful that New York will someday have such a market — I still passionately wish to create this resource that New Yorkers deserve.”

Truly, he had such a Singaporean palate that he even knew that the best food at Changi Airport is actually found at the airport’s secret staff canteens.

‘Pure, uncut, unapologetic food porn’

Bourdain’s last-ever TV feature on Singapore is perhaps his greatest tribute to the Little Red Dot. He kicked off Season 10 of Parts Unknown in October last year with a studied crash course of Singapore’s modern history as well as addressing the good and bad of living in an authoritarian state.

And of course, the “pure, uncut, unapologetic food porn.” This is what he wrote in his field notes on Singapore.

“Singapore is possibly the most foodcentric place on Earth, with the most enthusiastic diners, the most varied and abundant, affordable dishes—available for cheap—on a per-square-mile basis.

The hawker centers (basically, food courts where individually-owned mom and pop operations serve street food from tiny shops and booths) are wonderlands of Chinese, Indian, and Malay specialties. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel making food porn in Singapore.

“It’s almost too easy. Colorful, delicious food is everywhere.”

And with that, we bid adieu to a man who truly got Singaporean cuisine, and the Singaporean obsession with food.

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