Tony Bourdain gave me agency and taught me, a young Indian woman who wanted to see the world, how to live.
I got the news about Anthony Bourdain’s death in the midst of writing an essay about him and other food personas. “It’s on CNN,” a friend texted, grudgingly, “Hope it’s fake news.”
The essay I was writing was an attempt to track my early aspirations into food journalism. The fact that all my early mentors and inspirations were mostly American, always white men, the truth that Anthony Bourdain — chef, traveler, writer was the main one. It tried to examine how as a young Indian woman I tried to navigate into what seemed like a white-man’s world, an essay that now, in this moment, seems futile, unnecessary, unwarranted, and like today’s news, deeply unfair.
“As a teenage girl in Delhi, there were only two things I wanted” I wrote in the beginning of my essay. “An oversized leather jacket and appetite for noodles like Anthony Bourdain.”
“As a teenage girl in Delhi, there were only two things I wanted…An oversized leather jacket and appetite for noodles like Anthony Bourdain.”
I was 16 years old when I first watched No Reservations, I was 21 when I read Kitchen Confidential. Like many people, I felt something akin to adoration for the man — infinitely likeable, adequately handsome, uninhibited, endlessly charming. I was also like many people, aroused by his way of life.
As I grew into what my parents today call a “bad teen,” the idea of living like Tony became more and more exciting. “Let’s just get out of here,” I would write in an email to my best friend when were 19 years old. “There are so many rules here. LET’S GET THE FUCK OUT!”
In the same year, when I was depressed and bored, she began an intimate campaign which she called “What would Tony Bourdain do?”. “Just think about it like this,” she would say. “When you feel like shit, close your eyes, and think about it — WWTBD? And then live like him, in small spurts, and you’ll feel better.”
And so I would — rip my jeans, make a grocery list, drink a glass (or many) of whiskey, drive to an obscure location of the city, overeat, under-think, make friends with the best kebab cook in Central Delhi, LIVE, as I thought Tony Bourdain would.
“For young girls in India — no one tells you that you can live the way you want, least of all like Tony Bourdain.”
For young girls in India — no one tells you that you can live the way you want, least of all like Tony Bourdain. “Who will marry you!” my mother said when I came back drunk and disillusioned with university. “I will tell your father,” a neighborhood Uncle told me as he watched me smoke a cigarette and take the car out.
When I lived in Europe, bartending, wasting away, living a life I thought romantic — more questions emerged about my propriety. Recklessness, the freedom to live, and more importantly the freedom to fuck-up were not allowed to well-behaved Indian ladies. It wasn’t pretty, I was told. It wasn’t okay.
When I became a food journalist, it continued. “Why don’t you work for the real news?” I am often told as I pack bags to go reporting. “How can you be a food writer if you can’t cook?” people would say when I told them what I was going to do.
“Why don’t you just become a home-chef?” said a relative as I told them about a story I wrote about a sandwich in Rome. “It’ll help you later, when you’re married. All this traveling around is dangerous, beta.” When people asked me these questions, often it was people I admired, and I wanted to scream.
To be a good food writer you didn’t have to cook, Uncle! To make mistakes, to get drunk with your friends, you don’t have to be a boy! I didn’t want to get married, Aunties, not now, maybe not ever! I just wanted to see different places in the world, I wanted to eat things with funny names I can’t pronounce, I want to make many mistakes, I want to do what I WANT.
What would Anthony Bourdain do?
Eventually, WWTBD took me to other places — to a long trip in Southeast Asia during which I made friends with people from countries I didn’t know existed. To Sri Lanka where I went looking for hoppers and large bananas that men carried home on their shoulders. To Cambodia, where I missed a flight back because I was hungover and needed kuay teav – the freshest noodle-soup I ever ate, to Belgium where I walked barefoot on snow to impress a boy I loved. And full circle back to myself. To who I was, what I wanted to be, and to realizing that the way I was, wasn’t in such bad shape after all.
“Tony Bourdain was a white American man, with an accent and mannerisms foreign to me and many others, but he was the best kind of foreigner there was.”
Tony Bourdain was a white American man, with an accent and mannerisms foreign to me and many others, but he was the best kind of foreigner there was. He was curious, but he wasn’t presumptuous. He listened more than he judged. He treated people he met as equals, raising the bar for Americans abroad. He opened up an entire world to everyone everywhere, a world that wasn’t his, but everyone’s who was watching him as well.
“You’ve got to eat this, man” he would say, seemingly directly to the person watching as he ate something incredible in a different part of the world. “You’ve got to come here.”
For Americans, he brought the world to their TV screens — making them unafraid, excited, curious like himself, for the rest of the world that often went ignored in Western media, he waved at us, as if to say: Hey guys, you think we don’t see you. But we do.
What is the most baffling thing about Bourdain’s passing is that he had lived till what would have been his last breath. He recently cheered on as his partner Asia Argento took down one of the most powerful men in the world. In the same week, he released a food guide for Hong-Kong with travel site Explore Parts Unknown. Till the end, Bourdain had been as the world loved to see him – restless, interested, supportive, sincere, funny, and as we are painfully aware because of his suicide, tragically human.
On the day of his death, I incidentally found myself at the mosque with my family mourning another man that inspired me, Gulzar Naqvi, a poet, a philosopher, a radical visionary and activist for peace when India was being divided on religious grounds.
In his memory, an evening meal was in flow: Biryani with thick chicken and butter, rotis, and a mutton korma that was his favorite. As we eat, I thought about Naqvi Uncle, who wanted to be remembered around food, and in the same way, I imagine Bourdain does too.
“I thought about Naqvi Uncle, who wanted to be remembered around food, and in the same way, I imagine Bourdain does too.”
As I write this, the internet is flooding with mentions of the man the whole world loved. Mine seems glaringly out of place. After all, who was I to Tony Bourdain? Not a friend, not a colleague, I had never met him, at most I was a fan, so why was I here, in a cab in sweltering Delhi, in tears over someone who didn’t know I existed?
But while he hadn’t known me, I (evidently along with millions of others) feel like I had known him. Anthony Bourdain had been a celebrity unlike celebrities: the kind that had popped up carelessly in conversation, the kind that you referred to by his nickname. “Tony went to this restaurant in Ubud” a friend texted me when I was in Indonesia. “Really good pork, apparently.”
He was, as the brilliant Helen Rosner put in her tribute to him: “like your brother, your rad uncle, your impossibly cool dad — your realest, smartest friend, who wandered outside after beers at the local one night and ended up in front of some TV cameras and decided to stay there.”
Even though Tony Bourdain had no idea who I was, he had taught me more than he would ever know.
He had taught me that the world was large, beautiful and weird, and it needed our attention. “If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move” he had said, teaching me that if I wanted to go somewhere, I just should. “I’m a curious person,” he said, in a conversation to his friend Iggy Pop, “It seems to be my winning trait”, teaching me that if I wanted to be a writer, I didn’t need to have any obscure, special skills.
But most importantly, as he glided through the world eating its food, he taught me fearlessness in a culture of fear, agency in a world that imposed limitation. While he was famous and celebrated, he was also, even to me, a person somewhere on the other side of the world, somehow incredibly relatable, and in everything of him that I saw, I saw a little bit of myself.
While Anthony Bourdain taught the world how to cook, to eat, to travel, to see, he taught me that a voracious appetite — for food, for life, for friends was all one needed. At 16 years old, as a young woman in India — where life had to be fought for, where dreams always came in the form of revolt, he taught me to take control of life, to let go of that control when I wanted. He taught me something I’d never forget: he taught me how to live.
Sharanya Deepak is an independent writer in New Delhi, writing about gender, food, and the environment within India and abroad. The original version of this essay appeared at https://medium.com/@sharanyadeepak.