CHICAGO – News about the end of chef Anthony Bourdain’s simultaneously hardscrabble and charmed life reminded me of the passion with which he talked about Central and South American kitchen workers.
“A three-star Italian chef pal of mine … greatly prefers Ecuadoreans, as many chefs do,” said Bourdain in the audiobook version of his best-selling, “Kitchen Confidential.” “‘The Italian guy? You screaming at him in the rush, ‘Where’s that risotto?!’ … He’s gonna give it to you. … An Ecuadorean guy? He’s gonna just turn his back … and stir the risotto and keep cooking until it’s done the way you showed him. That’s what I want.'”
Another favorite: “No one understands and appreciates the American Dream of hard work leading to material rewards better than a non-American. The Ecuadorean, Mexican, Dominican and Salvadoran cooks I’ve worked with over the years make the most (Culinary Institute of America)-educated white boys look like clumsy, sniveling little punks.”
These are just a few tributes to Latino men and women Bourdain unleashed in “Kitchen Confidential,” which became a hit in 2000. He became such an outspoken ally that, in 2017, vivala.com published a roundup called “12 times Anthony Bourdain stood up for Latinxs in the food industry.”
These include instances in which Bourdain criticized a society that glorifies chefs but ignores their workers. He slammed the James Beard Awards for not acknowledging “that Mexicans exist” in the service industry, and railed against the president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric:
“If Mr. Trump deports 11 million people or whatever he’s talking about right now, every restaurant in America would shut down.”
Bourdain was a national treasure, but his full-throated advocacy of people who are seen, by some, as disposable and unhuman gave him a very special place in the hearts of Hispanics.
On Twitter, Steven Alvarez, assistant professor of English and Taco Literacy at St. John’s University in New York, praised “Bourdain’s insistence that the humanizing element of story through the prism of food can teach us how to demonstrate care, to practice care for one another as we build community.”
In an interview soon after Bourdain’s death, Gustavo Arellano, author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America” and a one-time guest on Bourdain’s show “Parts Unknown,” told Slate.com what he admired most about the outspoken chef: “He was not someone who said, ‘Oh, I discovered this food.’ He was always about: ‘This is who these people are, and hear what they have to say – not what I have to say – about them.’ Especially in the food world, that was revolutionary. … He stood up for us and championed us before it became cool to do so.”
Bourdain didn’t just advocate for Latinos, he was an inspiration to the next generation of foodies, chefs and food journalists.
“In 2011, I moved to Detroit to take a job at one of the local newspapers. I found myself incredibly lonely in this new city where it took a while for locals to warm up to newcomers, so on weekends, I would hole myself up in my apartment and binge on ‘No Reservations’ and, later, ‘Parts Unknown,'” said Serena Maria Daniels, a freelance food writer. “Bourdain’s stories had a way of helping me escape the loneliness. More than that, though, he showed me how food journalism can be a vehicle for diving into issues around immigration, identity, culture, politics and class – all issues that I was passionate to write about, but as a young reporter wasn’t sure of just how to do so.”
“He was also such a champion of making space for the subjects of the show to tell their own stories, rather than insisting on pushing his own narrative or agenda on his audience,” Daniels told me. “This respect for communities that are so often marginalized in pop culture encouraged me to forge my own path toward creating media that’s more representative of the communities we live in.”
Today, Daniels is an award-winning journalist and founder of the independent new media food outlet TostadaMagazine.com, a publication that tells stories about how food can preserve culture and at the same time, almost magically, break down barriers between people.
In the wake of Bourdain’s passing, we should grieve his death, at least in part, by celebrating all the diversity in food culture that he helped birth.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda. (c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group.