Earlier this year, I visited San Quentin prison on the edge of San Rafael, Calif., where I grew up. I was speaking with a group of inmates when one of them interrupted me.
“I know you and Iran because of Anthony Bourdain,” he said. His face lit up, and tears welled in his eyes. “I traveled the world with that man. He was like family to me.”
I tell that story today — on what would have been Bourdain’s 63rd birthday — because it reminds me of what makes him so special to so many people around the world.
It’s his rare ability to humanize those who are different than us by providing a vehicle for telling their stories. I write of him in the present because that impact is as profound as ever — even though we’ll never see a prison episode of “Parts Unknown.”
Bourdain, though, left an incredible body of work that tells the story, usually two beats ahead, of our times. He also left a large extended universe of characters to keep telling those stories, among which I’m proud to count myself.
Several weeks ago, two of his closest friends, chefs José Andrés and Eric Ripert, both of whom immigrated to the United States as adults and went on to become icons in the culinary world, decided to proclaim today Bourdain Day, asking friends, fans and others influenced by Bourdain to mark the occasion by raising a glass and sharing it online.
They also helped set up a scholarship for students of the Culinary Institute of America —Bourdain’s alma mater — to study abroad and explore their curiosities.
I asked Andrés why it was so important for him to honor Bourdain’s legacy at this time.
“He was the voice of the voiceless, and we miss him in moments that immigrants in the USA and refugees in the world are under attack,” Andrés told me via text message from Singapore, where he and Ripert celebrated Bourdain Day by eating chili crabs and drinking beer at a street food stall.
I thought of the first encounter I had with Bourdain at a mountaintop restaurant in Tehran. My wife and I joined him to shoot a segment of “Parts Unknown.” I was embarrassed by the lackluster performance the kitchen turned out that day. I had told the kitchen staff before Bourdain and the crew arrived that they were about to serve the most influential person in the history of food journalism.
Bourdain was unfazed, though, by the mediocre kebabs.
“It’s not always about the food,” he told me, and he meant it.
Food, though, was a great connector, and by the end of that meal we were discussing the important role culinary diplomacy can play in breaking down walls of misperceptions between civilizations. He knew why his work mattered.
Fortunately, so do we.
Bourdain “brought us all closer together,” Andrés told me. He “made us not be afraid of those that were not like us. One story at [a] time.”