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5 important lessons travelers, chefs and writers learned from Anthony Bourdain

In honor of Bourdain Day, we revisit lessons the chef, author and TV host taught us

(Illustration by Alex Fine/For The Washington Post)

At the beginning of his travel television career, just as he began paying rent on time for the first time in his life, Anthony Bourdain had what he called unreasonable, overly romantic and foolhardy dreams. He “wanted to wander the world in a dirty seersucker suit getting into trouble,” he wrote in the book “A Cook’s Tour.” “I wanted adventures.”

Bourdain went on to experience it all, and document those experiences so we could live vicariously through them.

Anthony Bourdain during filming in Lisbon. (Jose Sena Goulao/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

No contemporary traveler has made an impact quite like Anthony Bourdain. He redefined what travel could look like and raised a new generation of travelers as a result.

In honor of Bourdain Day, we spoke with travelers, chefs and writers about what they learned from Tony.

Forgo top-10 lists for local advice

In “A Cook’s Tour,” Bourdain wrote: “The best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one.” He reminded us that our best food memories often stand out thanks to context, not prestige.

It’s a great tip to keep in mind when traveling: You don’t have to go to the best restaurant to have the best meal of your trip.

“He trained a lot of people on how to explore food and how to step away from your commercial list of like 25 restaurants in L.A.,” said Eduardo Ruiz, a chef and co-founder of Chicas Tacos who sat down with Bourdain in a 2017 episode of “Parts Unknown.” “I think he taught me how to look past that and how to go find those unique stories and those unique people.”

Anthony Bourdain in Iran for Parts Unknown. (CNN)

Instead of sticking to top-10 lists, seek out local insight when you’re traveling for a more memorable, Bourdainian experience.

“The way you really have those memorable, life-changing travel interactions is to walk until something interesting happens and ask people where you should go next, and I think [Bourdain] was such an influence on that way of travel,” said Konrad Waliszewski, chief executive and co-founder of the travel app TripScout.

Get to know the locals on a deeper level

Bourdain’s work humanized the “other.” He taught his audience that being foreign didn’t mean being scary.

“He really did a lot to further that idea that we’re all kind of the same in certain ways, despite our beliefs, in spite of religion and despite of skin color,” said Andy Ricker, the chef and owner of Pok Pok who was featured in Bourdain’s shows “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown.” “And he did it through food. He found a common language that everybody could understand.”

Bourdain’s shows didn’t feature locals as props but worked to share their complex stories. They serve as a reminder to go into new places with an open mind.

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“He showed up with a willingness to learn from people,” travel journalist and author MaSovaida Morgan said.

Through watching Bourdain, Morgan learned to “meet people where they are and let them teach you,” she said. “Don’t come in with any assumptions or a narrative that you might have learned.”

Kellee Edwards, a host for the Travel Channel and of the new travel podcast “Let’s Go Together,” echoed that sentiment.

“He made it possible to be okay with not having cookie-cutter conversations,” she said. “I continue to do that and speak out on things that are passionate to me with no hesitation. … That is what Tony Bourdain did. He was unapologetic. And so I go forth with that in everything that I do. I’m a better person for it.”

Travel graciously

Bourdain changed our definition of being a tough guy. While he was rough around the edges, he set the standard for showing genuine humility and respect for those with whom he interacted on the road.

“He never was judging anyone. He got on the floor. He sat in places that were super dirty and he was just very appreciative,” said Kristie Hang, a food and travel host who was featured on Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” in 2018. “He took in all the culture and really tried to learn about everything.”

We can all benefit from leaving pretension behind when we leave the house. Whether you’re traveling to a five-star resort or a rural village farmstead, show appreciation to those you meet along the way.

Anthony Bourdain with a group of kids outside of Gaza City in season 11 of Parts Unknown. (CNN)

But … that doesn’t mean you have to be nice to everybody. Bill Esparza, James Beard award-winning author of the book “L.A. Mexicano,” championed Bourdain for being good at treating people the way they deserved to be treated.

“The way that [Bourdain] really shaped me is [he showed me that] I can be a good person in the world and I can be really kind to the people that deserve it,” said Esparza, who worked with Bourdain’s production company for television shows and wrote for Bourdain’s publication Roads & Kingdoms. “ … I can also be part of a force for helping my community take back its culture.”

Be your authentic self on the road and at home

Bourdain was known for speaking his unfiltered mind. His shows felt unscripted and funny, not generic or clean cut.

A “beautiful thing he had was his wit, he was a very witty man” said chef and author Francis Mallmann, who appeared on “No Reservations” in 2008. “He would take conversations to the edge.”

Viewers felt they were getting the real version of a man traveling the world, not a TV host doing his job.

“He was raw. He was flawed,” Edwards said. “It really takes true courage to own who you are on a global stage without fear.”

Audiences felt they could connect with Bourdain because he came off as authentic. Ricker appreciated Bourdain’s willingness and ability to give thoughtful, good advice. “I think that’s why people call him Uncle Tony,” Ricker said.


Leave the resort, try everything and travel to the fullest

At the end of the first episode of the first season on “A Cook’s Tour,” Bourdain tells the audience “I’m ready to die now. I will have lead a full and rich and satisfied life at this point.”

Bourdain lived an epic life for all of us. Now, we can live that way for him.

“I think the best way to honor his legacy is through living the way that he did,” Ruiz said. “A lot of people fall into very basic categories — they’re not curious enough, or they’re scared to be curious.”

Embrace curiosity at full tilt. Chase foolhardy dreams. Be overly romantic. Try everything once. Keep learning everywhere you go.

“When someone’s offering you food or to tell you about who they are, they’re telling a story,” Hang said. “I really have been inspired by [Bourdain] just to just to try everything because these foods wouldn’t be important to different cultures, different people if there was no reason for it.”

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