What Travel Writers Can Learn from Anthony Bourdain


Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Turner


“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life–and travel–leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks–on your body or on your heart–are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt.” 


Anthony Bourdain opened up the world. He made our planet more accessible and smaller by finding the human connections we all share across continents. He was one of the most gifted storytellers on the planet. For decades he took his audience to faraway places they couldn’t even identify on a globe. Bourdain never tried to impose the idea that he had discovered any country, cuisine, or culture. As he stated, "I am not an expert on the places I visit. I'm not an authority, I'm a visitor, a traveler, an enthusiast.” 


Tony, as he preferred to be called, did right by the marginalized people of the world. He accurately represented the places he visited by featuring the stories of locals. He was unapologetic about weaving social and political components into his storytelling. It was vastly apparent that he was committed to exploring cultures without exploiting them. Bourdain didn’t bring preconceived notions into the restaurants, street stalls, and family homes he reported from across the world. Through this remarkable demeanor, he was able to connect with people from all walks of life from all corners of the globe. 

Bourdain didn’t try to encapsulate a place through his perception. Instead, he acted as a fly on the wall. His approach was simple, yet unique and growing more and more uncommon among travel writers. What he did was to ask questions and observed in order to get a pulse on the vibrations of a place. Bourdain once said “We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions “we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”

All Bourdain knew was that he knew nothing. He once said, “I like being the stupidest person in the room.” Of course, he was far from stupid, he had a beautiful, witty, and intelligent mind but remained humble throughout everything he did. He always seemed a bit aghast that he’d achieved such extraordinary success purely through pursuing his passions.

Although Bourdain wasn’t religious he was unintentionally practicing the Buddhist method of mindful speech and seeking the truth. He knew his opinion of a place wasn’t what mattered. He didn’t fuse his westernized standards into his work. He was inquisitive, always maintained a respectful tone, and approached everything with an incredible sense of open-mindedness. His stories centered around the people he encountered and the lives they’d led, he lifted up their voices in order to let them speak of their own culture for themselves.

He threaded empathy and insight into his reporting–whether on film or in print. Curiosity drove him to far off places that even the most well-traveled writers didn’t care to visit. He got caught in war zones, ate on sidewalks where rats picked up his scraps and has consumed meals that I could never stomach. Bourdain was fearless in his approach to exploring the world’s many cultures and cuisines, and shared his experiences transparently since his 1999 article in The New Yorker, "Don't Eat Before Reading This." 

Bourdain was an expert at getting people to open up and share their lives with the world. His method was simple, he just showed genuine interest and excitement. He didn’t aim to put culture on display but was eager to understand it. His curiosity was his golden ticket to explore the inner workings of a place. His subjects knew how grateful he was that they invited them into their kitchens and allowed him to taste their food. He used his extraordinary pose to examine humanity and celebrate it.

"If you’re hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.”


He shattered the notions of what we think divides us by uncovering the dichotomy of the bits and pieces of the human condition that bring us together. He did this by exposing the heart and soul of each and every place he visited. He didn’t care if the scenery wasn’t palatable for western consumption or that viewers would be uncomfortable with the foreign food customs they may find grotesques. Even at 6’3’’ he wasn’t bothered by squatting on a child-size plastic stool on the trash-ridden streets of Southeast Asia. He needed to eat that bowl of noodles, even if the occasional rat ran over his foot as he dined. 

Bourdain exchanged deep conversations, audacious laughs, and beautiful food with restaurateurs who are simply preparing the recipes that have been handed down to them from one generation to the next. Most of the places Bourdain chose to feature on his platforms were no fuss and lacked any sort of international recognition. As he once said, “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.” The mark he left behind on the local businesses he visited was that their cultural heritage and food traditions were worth cherishing and preserving. Of course, most of the eateries he visited have found immense success after gaining exposure through his shows and are forever grateful. From luxurious restaurants to mobile street carts as you travel you’ll see framed photos of Bourdain dining at these establishments, some have even immortalized the tables where he’s sat.

He was in the home of millions of global citizens each week as he traversed through parts unknown. He led by example and has inspired millions of travelers to get off-the-beaten-path and delve deeper through their global galivants by visiting rare destinations.

“Move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else's shoes or at least eat their food, it's a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.” Through these words, Tony declared his zest for life and deep appreciation of people and their culture. He inspired me to be a better writer, and traveler. He was uncensored and brutally honest in his appraisal of himself and his experiences. Bourdain truly mastered the art of storytelling.

Bourdain showed us that as travel writers it’s also our duty to be ambassadors for acceptance and advocate for marginalized populations. Bourdain had an unparalleled skill for encouraging critical thinking by exposing the intersection of food, culture, art, and the human soul. Let’s honor his legacy by emulating that mentality. We can use our prose to bring attention to the uncovered parts of the globe, to expose the extraordinary, and to get to know the places were so fortunate to visit more intimately. Let’s make Bourdain proud and continue his life’s work of sharing the corners of the globe that most people have never heard of and seeking out the untold stories that the world deserves to know. 

One thing is for sure, Bourdain didn’t subscribe to the notion that there are various acceptable ways to be a traveler. Instead, he told the world they hadn’t really traveled until they’ve followed the footsteps of locals and indulged in foreign delicacies. He’d hate the mass-generated coverage that stems from press trips of contrived experiences where everyone is carted around to the same places and repeatedly share the same sentiments.

“The sort of frenzied compression of time needed to take the tour, to see the sights, keeps you in a bubble that prevents you from having magic happen to you. Nothing unexpected or wonderful is likely to happen if you have an itinerary in Paris filled with the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.”


Bourdain put my beloved Uruguay on the travel map after he debuted an episode of No Reservations filmed in the country a decade ago. Before the episode aired people I encountered in the States never knew where Uruguay was, they often confused it with Uganda and asked if it was in Africa. His influence on his massive audience was immense. After, when people learned I was Uruguayan they'd tell me they knew about the many rich Uruguayan food customs from Bourdain’s show. 

The proudest moment of my career has been writing about Uruguayan ñoqui for Bourdain’s Explore Parts Unknown as a part of the recent Uruguay episode. I’m not sure that Bourdain would like me very much as he isn’t a fan of plant-based diets and has stated that Uruguay is “no country for vegetarians.” Nevertheless, it was such an honor, felt so validating, and truly full circle to write about Uruguay for the man who helped give the country global recognition among travelers. I’m very grateful that the publication made it a priority to hire writers from within the culture they were featuring. Another lesson travel writers can learn from Bourdain, to elevate voices from within the culture you’re writing about, rather than promoting your own views and ideas about the place.

Bourdain's life's work is an extraordinary example of what the craft of travel writing could and should be. Reporting on travel is an immense privilege and should be done with candor. The greatest hope you can have as a travel writer is to encourage others to push their boundaries and explore the world. Bourdain’s offbeat sense wonder held the attention and hearts of so many. He inspired countless people to embrace an adventurous spirit. In the wake of his death, many of his fans are sharing that in dubious moments of travel they simply asked themselves, “What would Anthony Bourdain do?”

“Travel isn't always pretty, it isn't always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts. It even breaks your heart. But that's okay. The journey changes you. It should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you, and hopefully, you leave something good behind."

4 comments:

  1. Not only was he an eating, traveling man but his steadfast support of the #metoo movement was inspiring. It's hard to believe that someone that was so loved world-wide felt the need to commit suicide - just goes to show you just don't know who is suffering these days.

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  2. This really broke my heart as I am always looking forward to his travels and especially connecting with the local culture. Apart from which his strong support for the #metoo had me inspire him as well. Rest in Power and Peace to one good man.

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  3. Beautiful tribute! Thank you for writing so eloquently about the lessons travel writers can learn from Anthony's work. When representing another culture through our stories, we must elevate the voices from within that culture.

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  4. I was devastated by the loss of Anthony Bourdain. I loved that he humanised humanity. He made the unaccessible much more accessible, the misunderstood more easily understood. I loved his humility, his curiosity, his 'no holds barred' approach to life. The world is poorer for his passing.

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