On her way to the World's 50 Best Restaurants Awards in Bilbao, Spain, Journy co-founder Leiti Hsu reflects on the legacy of Anthony Bourdain.
A version of this piece appears on Forbes.
How much Tony Bourdain resonated with people is clear in eerie ways. My photo on Instagram of the time we met garnered 1,842 likes, which is nearly ten times that of the average photo on my feed. It's the Bourdain effect. He elevates everybody, lifts us up, even now.
He’s always had that much-needed bird’s-eye view of food. "I, personally, think there is a real danger of taking food too seriously. Food should be part of the bigger picture,” he said. He connected food to the bigger picture, in a way that transcended Instagram food porn or food television.
We’re all sad, but the feeling I can’t shake off is that we’re surprised at just how sad we are. The managing editor at Word of Mouth, my twice-weekly food newsletter, was in the middle of an impromptu beach trip when the news of his death broke. Hours later, she found herself in a Starbucks just off the highway, crying over her keyboard as she pieced together a retrospective issue of the newsletter, bewildered that it felt so personal.
I’ve been trying to figure out why, of all the bad news, this one sticks.
Even while he was alive, I wanted to put my finger on what it was about Bourdain that was so different. Is it because he’s this multi-hyphenate chef who reads, writes, travels, and is on TV? Is it because he combines food, culture, and politics? Or was it simply because he seemed extra-fun to grab a beer with in some random airport?
Out of anybody in the public eye, I wanted to steal his job. I'd joke that the world is waiting for an Asian-woman-millennial-Bourdain. I'm reconsidering this one-liner for now. It’s too soon. Alas, who of my idols is left? (Here’s looking at you, Chrissy Teigen.)
It was only later in life that I realized and embraced just how much of a misfit I am. A reformed stereotype, the quintessential Asian kid with perfect straight-As, it took me twenty jobs in my twenties to zig and zag and hack my way to what I’m doing now. Between the two companies I run and own, I can say I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing in this life: food, travel, telling stories, and connecting people. As somebody who didn’t quite belong anywhere, particularly in terms of how I make a living, I’m now simply myself.
Bourdain inspired my work: not just the fun of it, but the mission. Despite his cynical demeanor, the core of his work was in the advocacy of other people and their perspectives. I’m put off by the way everybody—even in memoriam—calls him a “bad boy.” Bad boys can be one-dimensional, bro-y meatheads. They’re loud for the sake of attention and not because they have something to say. They say and do whatever they want without regard to the ramifications.
Bourdain was not that. He was irreverent in the punk-rock sense of going his own way, but he was bad in the defense of good.
“In these current circumstances, one must pick a side. I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women,” he wrote when girlfriend Asia Argento went public about Harvey Weinstein.
As one of the first three women to go on the record in June 2017 about a repeat-offender venture capitalist before the movement hit an inflection point, I'd always wondered whether it'd go from Silicon Valley all the way to my industry, hospitality. And then this icon whom I so admired was speaking out in support of us. What solidarity.
How can you not respect someone who is so responsible with his voice? He built his career on his storytelling ability, but he spent most of his time listening; it was his empathy—not just his acerbic wit—that made him such a singular figure in food media.
Sure, his nihilistic sense of humor was his trademark, but people respected his opinion above all others because he took the time to hear theirs. And while it’s not unusual for celebrities to have committed followings, the tremendous care Bourdain took when addressing his own is not to be taken for granted. That’s as significant as the number of Emmys he accrued.
He shared the stories of marginalized people but never “mansplained” them, speculated but never lectured. He didn’t ask questions expecting a particular answer—or even worse, intending to shape the answer.
“We never met… I’ve lost many people lately. Yours is the death I worry I won’t get over,” said one of countless handwritten notes left on the facade of Les Halles, the New York brasserie where Bourdain once cooked. It was signed: “a gluten-free, sober, vegan fan.”
Bourdain was a misfit. We knew it, but it was only last week that it sank in fully for me. That’s why I, and all you other misfits out there, related with him so deeply.
We could all be more like Tony, seeing and taking people for who they are. Instead of projecting ourselves and our expectations upon other people, we could actually get to learn from and accept one another.
We all should strive to be misfits like Tony. Be your fly, freaky self. Find your people.
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