I don’t remember the first time I saw Anthony Bourdain on TV. I am certain it was in an episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, the Travel Channel show he hosted from 2005 to 2012. Was it the Iceland episode, in which Tony—what he asked people to call him—tasted hákarl, the fermented shark dish he forever after declared the most vile thing he’d eaten in his life? The Uzbekistan episode, in which he found himself on the receiving end of a traditional massage that bordered on torture? Or the Puerto Rico episode, in which he sparred (briefly) with champion boxer Miguel Cotto?
I can’t say for sure, but what I do remember is my first impression of Tony: He was the coolest dude I’d ever seen on TV. He would eat anything, drink anything, do anything. He quickly became a hero to me, and not only because of his merry, world-devouring ethos. In fact, it was when he was upset, when the sarcastic, sulky, swearing, dyed-in-the wool New Yorker shone through, that I liked him best. I could relate to this guy; my dad too was an acerbic New Yorker. (Pops and I used to watch No Reservations together, cackling at Tony’s snide asides.)
I also grew to feel a sort of kinship with Tony, in that we both stumbled into the travel business. He made it to his 40s having never paid his rent on time, a Big Apple restaurant lifer who struck gold when, on a lark, he wrote a tell-all-style story about what goes on in the back of the house and sent it to The New Yorker. The magazine published that story, which begat a best-selling memoir, Kitchen Confidential, which opened the doors to TV Land.
For my part, I barely left the United States until I was in my mid-20s. I joined Hemispheres at age 32, nearly eight years ago now, not out of any ambition to become Anthony Bourdain, but because I was unemployed and applying to every editorial job listing I could find, and the editor in chief here happened to like my cover letter. Since then? I ’ve swum in the Bora Bora lagoon and ziplined through the Guatemalan jungle, eaten ant larvae in Mexico and pig intestine in Singapore, stood at the atomic bomb hypocenter in Hiroshima and touched the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve endeavored to do as Tony would. I eat and drink whatever I’m handed, yes, but more important, I try to enter into every interaction with an open mind and heart.
That’s the true lesson of Tony’s work: No matter how different people from another part of the world may seem, if you approach them without judgment, they will open up their lives to you. That’s a big part of why food was so central to everything Tony did; the act of breaking bread is the world’s great unifier.
I almost met Tony in person once. Ten years ago, I walked into a restroom at LaGuardia, and he was standing right there in front of me. I wanted to tell him how big a fan I was, but I couldn’t do it—not in an airport bathroom. A few years later, I got to interview him for this magazine, albeit via phone, and I told him the story. He laughed and replied that the only time he’d met a Beatle was when he found himself standing at a urinal next to Paul McCartney. On that phone call, I admitted I was a big fan, but I wish I’d said more. I wish I’d told him that I look to him every day to help me do this job right. I wish I’d told him that I think everyone working in travel media today owes him their job. (He would have recognized that for the double-edged sword it is.)
Tony died three years ago last month. The headline was the first thing I saw on my phone when I woke up that morning. I texted the woman I was dating, and she responded, “He was so important. Americans need him.”
We still need you, Tony, to remind us to keep striving to be better, more appreciative citizens of the world. This month, as I watch the documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, and as I flip through World Travel, the book your “lieutenant” and coauthor Laurie Woolever recently published, I’ll be grateful to you, once again, for helping to remove the narrow filters through which I once looked at the world. And next time I land in a new place, I’ll do my best to follow in your footsteps, though I could never hope to fill your shoes.
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