Today Would've Been Anthony Bourdain's 63rd Birthday
This story was originally written and published on June 25, 2018.
"This is a judgment-free zone, where there are no mistakes. A world to explore incongruous combinations without shame or guilt, free of criticism from snarkologists. Because there are no snarkologists at Sizzler."
Anthony Bourdain dropped eminently quotable lines the way most of us drop our keys but that one might be my favorite. He says it during the first "Parts Unknown" episode set in Los Angeles, after a trip to Sizzler with artist David Choe who inculcates him into the ways of the all-you-can-eat salad bar and pays homage to one of my childhood fixations — the cheese toast. (Okay, it's also one of my adult fixations.) The two make hard-shell tacos filled with meatballs swimming in bright red marinara sauce and top them with guacamole, sour cream and a waterfall of gooey nacho cheese sauce.
Sure, Bourdain could eat bubbling cauldrons of soon tofu at Beverly Tofu House and ass-burning curries at Swadesh in Little Bangladesh. He could also slurp down a messy, multicolored Halo Halo from Jollibee and revel in a simple street taco at any cart, truck or table in Los Angeles.
"He loved Los Angeles," says Daniela Galarza, a senior editor at Eater. "Just going into and finding the best Thai, the best Mexican, the best that L.A. had to offer and really cheering it on. He was a New Yorker at heart but I think he found L.A.'s soul."
Relentlessly curious, Bourdain loved all the culinary delights of this city and that admiration transcended his swaggering public persona. He visited L.A. multiple times for "No Reservations" and "Parts Unknown."
"He was very interested in L.A. as this place where you could be in one neighborhood in the morning and have one experience, and you could be in another in the afternoon and it would be completely different. And I think he found that really intriguing," says Carolina Miranda, an arts writer at the Los Angeles Times.
Miranda toured the city's Little Guatemala neighborhood with Bourdain for an episode of his online series exploring Los Angeles's ethnic enclaves — Little Ethiopia, Tehrangeles, Little Armenia, HiFi and Chinatown.
Bourdain knew that kitchens in the United States don't run without the cheap immigrant labor of millions of Mexicans and Central Americans, many of them undocumented. During all his adventures, he treated the people who cooked the food with as much respect as the food itself, not a given in the culinary world.
"He spoke up for Latinos in the food industry and not only did he do it once or twice, he would do it again and again," says Gustavo Arellano, the former editor in chief of OC Weekly. "Cousins of mine, friends of mine, working class, they don't care at all about the food world but they care about Bourdain. He's an absolute saint in that regard."
Bourdain was living the dream. He travelled the world. He met fascinating people. He ate and drank ridiculously well — and all on somebody else's dime. But he was an Apollonian masquerading as a Dionysian, a meticulous, driven man who loved playing the hedonist. He was perpetually hungry for new experiences and never wanted to stop learning from them. Wherever he travelled, he tried to see life from the perspective of the people who lived there. He had the rare gift of giving us a glimpse at places we've never been to and making us take a second (and third and fourth and fifth) look at places we think we understand.
Today would've been Anthony Bourdain's 62nd birthday. Whatever parts he had yet to know will remain unexplored for him. But not for the rest of us.