Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Lessons learned from Anthony Bourdain

As a fan of writer and chef Anthony Bourdain , this past week was very bittersweet. On one end I was privileged to see him live in Memphis as he shared stories and anecdotes from his travels at the Orpheum Theater. One a sad note though, last night was the final broadcast of his show No Reservations.

I have been a follower of Tony since I first read his book A Cook's Tour back in 2001. The book chronicled his travels around the world to find various cuisines. As his popularity has grown, Bourdain developed quite a reputation for being cynical and arrogant. Bourdain's first book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly gave insight into the mind of a stressed out and jaded chef. Bourdain made several people mad as he penned several 'secrets' of the culinary industry. His words also spoke volumes to cooks, chefs and kitchen workers as he spilled the truth of what it is like to work in the food industry. Tony soon garnered a reputation as the 'bad boy' of chefs.

As I followed Tony's writings, it became apparent that he was changing into someone different. He stopped using drugs. He began to try to live a healthier lifestyle. He began to travel around the world to capture the culture of cuisine from various people. His experiences and his encounters with world cultures slowly began to erode away at the prideful shell he had once wore.  His experiences with other cultures took him from being a selfish addict that lived to spit venom and criticism to a witness of the world around him. He soon began to see that there are truly, other ways of being.

So if I may, let me wax philosophically for a few. While Tony still thinks a lot of himself and is not the icon of humility, he has experienced some life lessons that I think we can all learn from :

We should see members of other cultures as 'people' not simply as 'exotic'.

One of the real temptations in interacting with members of other cultures is to get caught up in the aesthetics of the unfamiliar. Someone wearing colorful beads, a veiled burka or ornamental tattoos can appear to be 'exotic' if we are not used to seeing them. However at the end of the day, they are not simply symbols of a people group. They are people. They are mothers and fathers. They are daughters and sons.

We should avoid being 'ethnocentric' 

Being ethnocentric is simply thinking that one way is the only way of being. While it may be tempting to think that we in the West have it all together as we watch the 'poor ways' of living of the world's other cultures, it is an error to think that we have the monopoly on living correctly. After all, we are the culture that pays sports figures millions of dollars while teachers and police officers have to take second jobs to make ends meet. We don't exactly have our priorities straight.

We should learn to appreciate diversity

It is easy to become jaded at the word 'diversity' as many of us equate it with stifling mandatory training classes for employees at most major work companies. Critics declare that 'cultural diversity' is a buzzword for being force fed other ways of living. Truly appreciating cultural diversity is accepting that the world is an amazing place of different 'tribes' with our own customs, rituals and worldviews.

When members of a culture share, show respect 

Unfamiliar foods from unfamiliar cultures may seem 'scary' or 'intimidating'. And while it may be tempting to turn up your nose or show disgust, remember someone is giving of themselves when they share their food with you. Foods, practices and customs may appear 'strange' when we are not familiar with them but if you are being offered to take part in any of them, remember you are being trusted. Show respect. Eat the chicken head.

Understand that you represent your culture

One of Bourdain's best stories he told in Memphis centers around how other cultures view our culture in the West. He explained how a goat herder in the Middle East who works very hard to feed his family happens to see something from American television like Adam Richmond's 'Man vs. Food'. He watches as this big guy funnels chicken wings while a host of frat boys cheer him on. He sees him eat all of this food and notices that not only is he eating enough to feed a village but that he's not even enjoying it. He's sweating and wincing in pain. He thinks about the hard work that he has to do to simply feed his family a little as he watches the uber-indulgence of the West on his television. He thinks to himself " I'm going to join Al-Qaeda!"

Humorous yet poignant. How we choose to interact with other cultures affects how are perceived.

Yes, even from the life of a cynical, self indulgent chef we can learn how to be better foodies, better citizens and better humans. Well done Mister Bourdain. Well done.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing these lessons with us, Tony. I know you found Anthony Bourdain through his books, but it was No Reservations that opened my eyes. I knew this season would be the last, so I made sure my DISH Hopper DVR was set to record every episode, including last nights. I was working late at DISH last night, so I had to get caught up this morning. I am sad to see it go. I grew up with travelogues from Burt Wolf and Rick Steves. Those shows were both informative, but they were also stuck in the past. Watching Rick Steves was like going to the museums with Ned Flanders. Bourdain opened my eyes and showed me that travel could be vibrant and alive. He showed me that food could be as incredibly diverse as the people who made it. And he showed me that people can be warm and welcoming even with total strangers who my not speak their language. Anthony may have come off as calloused or crass, but his show often illustrated that no mater how far you are away from your home, there just might be someone willing to welcome you into theirs.