Anthony Bourdain knew that the best conversations unfolded over a meal. At Elisco, we know this, too—it’s one of the beliefs that inspired our café-like office where advertising is always made from scratch. As an office full of creative minds who love food and the conversations that come with it, we were saddened to hear that Bourdain—a fellow food-lover and creative—had passed on June 8th.
In his 11-season run as host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, Bourdain sat, dined, and spoke with a myriad of people: chefs making names for themselves in oft-forgotten American cities, local residents in far-flung corners of the globe, small business owners in the Bronx, and a certain Mr. Barack Obama. More often than not, these conversations brought forward issues that aren’t candidly discussed in the mainstream media. For example, while traveling through Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, Bourdain spoke openly with citizens on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Massachusetts, he explored the opioid epidemic that has taken hold of New England while also speaking frankly about his own history of addiction. Following an episode in Iran—a nation which most westerners know little about, despite its prominence in our newspapers— Bourdain wrote, “Nowhere else I’ve been has the disconnect been so extreme between what one sees and feels from the people, and what one sees and hears from the government.” In this way, Parts Unknown became an easily digested and well-disguised public service announcement that allowed viewers to eavesdrop on meaningful conversations from halfway around the world.
Bourdain spent the beginning of his career as a cook toiling on the lines of New York City’s top-rated restaurants, and still, was able to maintain an unwavering belief in simple food. Parts Unknown was made genuine by Bourdain’s inclination to seek eateries off the beaten path. Ever a fan of the 24-hour diner, Bourdain preached the virtues of street food, imbibed in dive bars, and shared a $6 meal of noodles and beer with Barack Obama. For all of the unfamiliarity featured on Parts Unknown, these modest locales gave the show a grain of humility, and endeared viewers to its host with the implication that you, too, can eat like Anthony Bourdain.
Bourdain visited our home city of Pittsburgh in a Parts Unkown episode that aired on CNN in October, 2017. The saga of Pittsburgh is a familiar one: an industrial town enjoys a period of intense prosperity in the early 20th century before falling into economic collapse in the late-1980s. In recent years, however, we’ve been able to enjoy Pittsburgh’s renaissance first-hand. The city’s slow but steady revival is due in part to the introduction of big tech names to the area—not to mention its cultivation of a nationally-recognized arts and culinary scene.
Parts Unknown: Pittsburgh adhered to Bourdain’s “simple food” philosophy— while in town, Bourdain skipped Pittsburgh’s more familiar establishments, such as Primanti Bros., and opted instead for under-the-radar joints in the Hill District and East Liberty. In a nod to Pittsburgh’s more refined fare, he also shared a meal with notable Pittsburgh chef Kevin Sousa at Sousa’s restaurant, Superior Motors, in Braddock.
The episode was met with mixed criticisms from those who know—or have always assumed to know—Pittsburgh. Some felt that the show laid too heavily upon Pittsburgh’s gritty past, rather than highlighting the strides the city has taken to reach its glowing present. Others felt that the critique was fair for a city that seems all-too-eager to move forward, regardless of what or who may be left behind in the process.
Even still, in this dispute, Bourdain’s segment on Pittsburgh achieved what his work has always set out to do: encourage people to step outside of themselves and look at the world around them. For that reason, the episode—not to mention the show, and Bourdain’s career as a whole—should be regarded as an overwhelming triumph. Bourdain created a media phenomenon using three simple ingredients: a passion for food, a talent for storytelling, and an innate ability to get people talking.
It seems especially pertinent now, after his passing, to ask ourselves how we can take these same ingredients and create our own recipes. At Elisco, talking and eating comes naturally for us—and if we’ve learned anything from Anthony Bourdain, the stories should only follow. With simple food and genuine curiosity, not only can we eat like Anthony, but we can live a little bit like him, too.