Like many people around the world I was shocked and saddened by the recent death of chef and writer Anthony Bourdain. He was someone who was perhaps less well known in the UK, but he was a big favourite of viewers of CNN around the world who had been inspired by his series Parts Unknown. I was certainly one of them.
In the show, Bourdain travelled the world with a small film crew, met local people, ate their food with them and talked. It was a simple format for a show, but Bourdain's approach to meeting people and his open attitude to new experiences transformed each encounter into something very special. He was easy going, but always happy to ask any questions, and the rapport he built up with people was inspirational. Here are just a few of the things I think we can all learn from Anthony Bourdain.
Bourdain was himself a great storyteller - just read some of the hair-raising tales from his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential. And he understood, fundamentally, the power of stories, and how they can hold the attention and reveal something new about people and parts of the world we might not know so much about. His secret to finding these stories was simply to listen - of course he asked some great questions too, but he was always ready to just sit back and let people talk.
Food was a great medium for this - it is a shared passion that people from different backgrounds and cultures can talk about. And for Bourdain, it formed the basis of the relationships with the people he met on his travels. It took him into their lives and into their homes, and created an environment in which people felt happy to open up. Bourdain was brilliant at being ready and open to listen, when they did.
Be prepared to take one for the team
I remember listening to an interview with Bourdain in which he spoke about the some of the food he encountered in his travels around the world. The interviewer asked him if he had ever refused to eat anything that he had been offered, and I thought his answer was fascinating. He said that he'd never turned anything down - even when he could see that hygiene standards maybe weren't as good as they could be and he knew that he would probably be ill as a result.
What I love about his response was that it wasn't born out of a macho desire to not show weakness in front of his team, but instead it came from a deeper understanding - that if you share people's food with them, they will tell you their stories. Bourdain understood that the main reason he and his team were there was to find out more about the people in those places - and that by eating their food he was helping to make this happen. So, he was ready to ‘take one for the team’ - even if it did mean suffering afterwards.
Never give up
Bourdain had a long, hard career in some pretty tough kitchens before his big break came at the age of 44 with the publication of his first book Kitchen Confidential. He was heavily in debt and struggling to make ends meet before he found success.
And when he finally did, it’s to his great credit that he managed to maintain his unique, open and generous approach to everything he did – and it makes it an even greater tragedy that this fascinating journey he was on has been cut so short, so early.