The Literary Anthony Bourdain, Master Chef and Traveler

There are more TV chefs than we can count.  There are also more cooking shows than we can count. You find these chefs and shows all over the entertainment spectrum – from “very entertaining” to “why-is-this-on-TV”. Some chefs and shows actually teach you something. Some chefs and shows actually give you ideas. Most of the time, however, neither of these instances occur. Not so with Anthony Bourdain.

Anthony Bourdain being interviewed in the WNYC Radio Studio, June 21, 2006
Source: WNYC New York Public Radio

Anthony Bourdain has hosted a series of interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining shows. My personal favorites are No Reservations for the Travel Channel and Parts Unknown for CNN. The premise for these shows is the same: Bourdain travels the world looking for local foods to try out. This sounds like any other regular chef-on-TV-with-a-travel-account but when put in the hands of Bourdain the result is very different indeed. The places he visits are places where most people just would not go, for example the Congo, Libya, or Iraqi Kurdistan, or places most people are not aware of, such as the Missouri Ozarcs.

The goal of his travels might be food oriented, but the reason for his travels sometimes are not. In the case of his visits to Tangier and the Congo (Parts Unknown) and to the Ozarcs (No Reservations), the destinations has just as much to do with food as it has to do with literature. It is his personal relationship to the creative work of William S Burroughs, Joseph Conrad and Daniel Woodrell that makes him book the trip.

It is the literary spin that sets Bourdain apart. By incorporating his love of literature, and seeking out authors he admires, Bourdain demonstrates what we all know but rarely consider, that to live life is to live art. Food, books, and travels are part of the life experience and it is life experience that makes art. By taking part in life, we also take part in the creation of art. This is true for everyone, not just writers, actors, painters and what-have-you. This is what Anthony Bourdain shows us.

Or perhaps I enjoy the work of Bourdain as much as I do because he reminds me of another man whose work I have followed for many years: Jeremy Clarkson of BBC’s Top Gear. He, too, travels the world, not to find food to try out, but to find a road to drive down.

Jeremy Clarkson on the set of Top Gear, May 17, 2006
Source: Ed Perchick, flickr

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.

Photos of Anthony Bourdain and Jeremy Clarkson have been downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

The Yangambi Research Library

Last night I watched the last episode of Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown on CNN. This time he visited the Congo, which truly is a place where paradise and hell are juxtaposed. Following a life long dream of traveling the Congo River, ignited and fueled by a passion for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Bourdain ventured into an area few other people will ever see with their own eyes. By doing this, Bourdain has done us all a great service.

Watching the program, what touched me the most was the Yangambi Research Library, which belongs to an abandoned Belgian research station in the middle of the jungle on the Congo River. The Belgians left 50 years ago and since then no research has been performed here. But still the librarian and the administrators come in everyday to catalog, organize and apply for funding from the defunct Congo government. There is no electricity to protect the books from the humidity, window panes are broken and let the rain inside, and no one receives a salary. Still they come everyday to keep up whatever they can of the maintenance, eeking out a patch of normalcy in all the craziness that currently is tearing Congo apart. If there ever were people who loved their library, it is the people who care for the Yangambi Research Library on the Congo River.
I sincerely hope that Anthony Bourdain will return to CNN for a second season. Parts Unknown has been an experience to watch and it has truly been a thrill to see the world according to Bourdain.

In the words of my friend, the Australian: I shall return.