By Karam Singh Sethi
Jan. 22, 2014
In recent memory Anthony Bourdain has evolved from an attention-whored chef/writer to a famed image of Americans abroad. Proud societies from Malaysia to Myanmar appreciate his flattering approach to diplomacy, using food to cast a fog over politics. His shows “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” are some of the few English programming found in parts of Asia with virtually no electricity, illustrating his wide influence. He’s reached a level of international trust few in government diplomacy ever achieve.
Difficult to swallow, however, is his self-induced angst. Born to middle class French descendants in New Jersey, Bourdain describes in “Kitchen Confidential” the privileged opportunities he had growing up, like family trips to France. He managed to get half way through his undergraduate degree at Vassar, but dropped out before matriculating. After the book’s quick rise, he even accepted the veneration of his drug abuse for the media insignia “culinary bad boy.”
However self-indulgent he might be, the man works hard. Since the beginning of the millennium he has hosted four television series (the two previously mentioned, as well as “The Layover” and “Parts Unknown”) giving him plenty of inspiration to author more than 10 books, contribute to The New York Times, Esquire, The Guardian and even join the writing staff for HBO’s “Treme.” The 58 year old’s grueling work pays off in an honest display of personal growth.
In July 2006 Bourdain and a four-member crew witnessed the Israeli airstrikes on Beirut while filming season two of “No Reservations.” Instead of scrapping the episode they found capital in the capricious opportunity; filming smoke as it billowed atop the international airport, interviewing young Beiruties as they partied through the familiar sounds of explosions, and giving a first hand account of how expatriates got out of Lebanon. Bourdain was eventually quarantined at The Royal Hotel close to the U.S. Embassy (where he even got a child’s view of the fighting) and escaped through the naval vessel, USS Nashville. The episode would later be nominated for an Emmy.
The events in Lebanon made an obvious impact on Bourdain. His professional persona evolved from pretentious television show host to solemn, introspective analyst of current events. In 2008 he visited the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia. In 2011 he put himself directly in a warzone (albeit the “safe” part), shooting in Iraqi and Turkish Kurdistan. In 2013 he went to turbulent post-revolution Libya.
In his honest depiction of cross-cultural exchange, Anthony Bourdain has inadvertently made colossal contributions to American diplomacy. He promotes a positive image of American’s as self-critical, curious and observant while satisfying domestic viewers’ food fetish. As long as he continues giving rare insight into isolated communities and events around the world, his vain media crusade against Rachel Ray will be palatable.
Karam Singh Sethi graduated from Connecticut College with a degree in International Relations and Economics in 2012. He recently completed a Fulbright grant teaching Secondary school English in rural Malaysia. Besides being adept at squatty-potty and eating-with-hands etiquette, he rehabilitates anxiety driven nail biters. He reads, writes, and runs but if you want to get on his sweet side take him on the Brooklyn Brewery tour. He’s been more times than you can count, but his life force has increasingly become free alcohol.