"I’m from Queens, man
Ain’t shit to do but cook (ay)
Watching Tony Bourdain
Plus I copped his book
Plus I copped his look
That means T-shirts and jeans
Catch me in my borough chasin’ breezers with creame”
That’s Himanshu, a Queens-bred, Brooklyn-based former Wall Street mogul turned rapper, rapping about the man, the myth, the culture-purveying legend: Anthony Bourdain (henceforth: Tony). Whether Tony listened to Ek Shaneesh and reached out to Heemy in awe-struck wonder, or the two New York bad boys simply ran in the same circles, Tony returned the favor by asking the Indian rapper to come up with an intro song for his Parts Unknown episode in Punjab—from whence Hima hails. The result was magical.
Why do I bring up this arcane fact of New York cultural-underground trivia? Because it highlights something that my fellow contributor Hank Felsman brought up when he asked me to write this piece: Tony’s impeccable, all-encompassing, unassuming taste. The man knew about much more than good food. The sheer breadth of people Tony knew, met, impressed, disappointed, and/or otherwise impacted is paramount to his legacy. The fact that Tony felt just as comfortable eating vermicelli noodles in Hanoi with Barry-O (big ups to the G) as he did trading jabs with the undocumented workers, jail birds, and scoundrels of the highest order he once cooked with certainly says something about the man.
Tony’s love for food was his love of culture, and people, and the myriad forces that make humanity what it is. A troubled man in his own right, something in Tony allowed—no, forced—him to look a little deeper than the rest of us, to feel things a little more intensely, to be open in a way few others are. What other type of mensch could eat freshly-caught fish lightly grilled over a fire-spewing, rusty garbage-can on a beach in Senegal one week, and then discuss the intricacies of urban foraging with a 5-star Armenian-Danish chef the next? Who else could be as happy eating steak and blood sausage with a crew of Argentinian construction workers, getting stick-and-poke tattoos in a hut in the jungles of Borneo, or trespassing on the site of Benghazi’s bombed-out former palace compound?
What was so valuable about Bourdain, especially in light of our current socio-political climate, perched on a knife’s edge as it is, was his openness to things. To people. To places. To life. Tony knew there was as much to be learned and respected about a culture from its street food as there was from its fine-dining establishments. This is because Tony knew that we’re all just people, and that food is nothing more than a reflection of the hopes, dreams, failures, and disappointments of the people and cultures that make it.
I wouldn’t dare guess what Tony would want me to say about him. I can guarantee he wouldn’t want me to speak too highly of him, to sing his praises too loudly. Tony didn’t know me, but then again he did. He knew what it meant to be a human being, and he judged no others as harshly as he judged himself.
What Tony B means to me is shaking hands with a Trump voter, telling them “even if I don’t understand you, I don’t hate you, and I don’t think you’re evil;” it means looking at that undocumented immigrant taking out the trash or wiping down restaurant tables and not immediately thinking that they’re some “bad hombre;” he is the understanding that, despite all the good and bad and happy and sad things we do, those things do not define us. Only we do.
Rest In Peace Tony, and thank you.