As the world continues to grapple with the untimely death of celebrity chef and television host Anthony Bourdain, many are reflecting on his contributions that went beyond the culinary world. His reporting style in his shows such as No Reservations and Parts Unknown have received praise, with his ability to embed himself in a country’s culture without erring on neo-colonialism or fetishising, as so many travel documentarians and chefs do. Despite being both a travel documentarian and chef, his work has been applauded for never feeling exploitative and instead allowing viewers to truly learn about a country and cuisine without a voyeuristic lens skewing the view.
“Bourdain never treated our food like he ‘discovered’ it,” American comedian Jenny Yang tweeted. “He kicked it with grandma because he knew that HE was the one that needed to catch up to our brilliance. I wish so much for his legacy to take hold in western (mostly white) food media culture.”
But, aside from his respectful reporting when it came to nations and recipes he had never before encountered, his allyship expanded to women’s causes, too. Bourdain was one of the most vocal and high-profile male supporters of the #MeToo campaign, which highlighted sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood and, over time, other industries, too. His girlfriend Asia Argento, a film director, was one of the first to make public allegations in 2017 against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and Bourdain frequently voiced his support for her and the cause.
"I stand unhesitatingly and unwaveringly with the women," he wrote in December last year. "Not out of virtue, or integrity, or high moral outrage – as much as I'd like to say so – but because late in life, I met one extraordinary woman with a particularly awful story to tell, who introduced me to other extraordinary women with equally awful stories."
His continued challenging of himself, of what he could have done differently to make the lives of women in the industry easier earlier, is what truly made him one of the greats
CNN broadcaster Christiane Amanpour called him a "vital male partner" for women's rights, adding that "he spoke up publicly for us", and actor Rose McGowan, who has accused Weinstein of rape, has mourned the chef, saying that “the world is not better without you”. Equally as important, however, Bourdain publicly questioned and analysed his own past behaviour, challenging his complicity and, at times, contribution to what he dubbed “meathead culture”. In an interview with Slate last October, he was open about how kitchens, like many other male-dominated spaces, were rife with harassment, and that he saw women’s inability to speak to him about it as a personal failing.
“I’ve been hearing a lot of really bad shit, frankly, and in many cases it’s like, wow, I’ve known some of these women and I’ve known women who’ve had stories like this for years and they’ve said nothing to me,” he said. “What is wrong with me? What have I, how have I presented myself in such a way as to not give confidence, or why was I not the sort of person people would see as a natural ally here? So I started looking at that.”
Bourdain went as far as questioning how his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential may have endorsed “bro culture”. Pegged as the industry’s bad boy and often playing up to the macho image that endured for several years, he admitted that earlier in his career he didn’t much challenge the status quo and spent much of his later life doing just that:
“I am a guy on TV who sexualizes food. Who uses bad language. Who thinks our discomfort, our squeamishness, fear and discomfort around matters sexual is funny. I have done stupid offensive shit,” he continued.
Anthony Bourdain’s legacy lies not just in food and exquisite storytelling, but in what others can learn from him about allyship. He not only listened to women but amplified their voices, and did the work that most allies find more difficult – looking inward. Bourdain was one of the good guys and could have easily taken up that mantle without question or critique. But his continued challenging of himself, of what he could have done differently to make the lives of women in the industry easier earlier, is what truly made him one of the greats.