Bourdain, the foodie, was also a rare chronicler of cities
He was, undoubtedly, among the best urban chroniclers of this era.mumbai Updated: Jun 14, 2018 00:48 IST
Anthony Bourdain had described himself simply as an enthusiast. He was, of course, much more. In a life lived across the world’s cities with equal parts curiosity, excitement, adventure and a rare humanism, Bourdain was a chef, food devotee, and culture chronicler. But look at the breadth and depth of his work and you would realise he was a master story-teller of urban cultures around the world. Bourdain told his marvellous stories on television, in a way that people in cities as far away as Beirut, Berlin, Kolkata and Mumbai remembered him with affection following his death on June 8. His stories were never simply about the food; food was merely an access into the cities. His stories were at the intersection of local cuisines, urban spaces, cultures, and people. He was, undoubtedly, among the best urban chroniclers of this era.
When he came to Mumbai many years ago to film his show “No Reservations”, he said the city reminded him of his hometown New York, “with the inter-weaving of classes and cultures”. He went to Dharavi, spent an evening in Bhendi Bazar digging into street food like “brains, kidneys and lungs… the best brains I’ve ever had”, urging his viewers to get out of their hotel rooms and taste the city. On that exploration, he also had Mumbai’s favourite snack-meals, the baida roti and vada pao, and re-christened the latter the Bombay Burger.
He showed Mumbai to the world. He wove in its British past; its location as the hub of shipping, finance, technology and Bollywood; the stark contrast between the super-rich and the destitute poor; its food-on-the-go, the dabbawalas; and the sights and sounds that make up the city. He did something similar with Kolkata too. He went into a village to film paddy cultivation, and travelled second-class in a long-distance train telling the world about Indian Railways with its “five billion passengers a year” network. He later filmed in Punjab as well.
His stay in Mumbai coincided with a cover feature I was working on for a news magazine on street food of India. How could we not meet Bourdain, albeit briefly? He wanted to know more about Mumbai’s khau gallis, he was fascinated by the khanavals in the textile mill area, he asked how many variations of recipes exist for vada pao and how a street vendor locks away his cart with perishable ingredients for the night. This did not make it to the show but he was a seasoned reporter, teasing out details, noting down facts, constructing his narrative. This detailing set his stories of cities apart. With rakish charm and honest humanism, he brought into our drawing rooms so many cities of the world, the people who lived in them, their food, language, festivals, marketplaces, and communities by layering food with literature, music, facts and data. He took us to parts of Palestine and Iran to show how people there lived and ate amid the strife and bullets. He showed us London, Rome, Chicago but he also took us to Havana, Okinawa, Addis Ababa, Hanoi, Sochi and more.
Bourdain’s “wide-ranging approach to food and places as a key model for exploration of cities” was what urban thinker and professor Richard Florida called “an inclusive human urbanism”. And America’s National League of Cities tweeted a tribute. He tossed food, history, city, and culture together; occasionally even called out dictators.