Do you remember the first fancy restaurant you went to? White linen tablecloths, more than one fork and spoon at every place setting, a liveried server hovering at your elbow. Even today, no visit to Bangalore is complete for my father without a visit to Tandoor, a north Indian restaurant that promises all these indulgences with the meal. The fact that the food - while delicious - isn’t particularly original or mind blowing seems secondary.
Perhaps it is because, growing up, these were the restaurants many of us saw on television and considered aspirational. Michelin-starred, run by an egomaniacal chef, populated by glamorous people at the other tables. They were hallowed halls into which entry was earned.
All that changed for me once Anthony Bourdain came about.
In the way of most Indian programming, No Reservations was telecast in bursts. Our screens were flooded for months with Bourdain’s shows until we lost track of which was which. It disappeared, then re-appeared. But what shone through every episode was the joy he found in food and the sincere respect he had for those making and eating it. His shows were not about making a region’s food palatable for Western tongues. He tucked into a vegetarian Punjabi thali -- one that famously changed his long-held view of vegetarian food -- with the same enthusiasm I would at lunch-time. He waited patiently for dinner to be served, hanging out in the living room with the children, while a Kashmiri chef and his wife cooked a meal from family recipes. He courted a funny tummy after a night out eating street meat with friends in Bombay.
Anthony Bourdain ate like me, and called it good dining. Unlike many self-proclaimed "foodies", Bourdain was determined to appreciate food for what it was - an expression of people’s place in the world, where they lived, what they had access to, what they could afford, and what they had grown up eating. With Insta-story engagement and Zomato influencer klout, this attitude had nothing in common.
He made food more joyous by centering the people behind it, cutting through the bull of pretty plating, celebrity endorsements, rare ingredients turning fads, and the pomp and show of what good dining had become. In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Bourdain explained, “I'm happiest experiencing food in the most purely emotional way. When it's, like, street food or a one-chef, one-dish operation, or somebody who's just really, really good at one or two or three things that they've been doing for a very long time, that's very reflective of their ethnicity or their culture or their nationality — those are the things that just make me happy.”
As a food writer now -- thanks to him -- I experience food beyond the dichotomies of just good and bad, fancy or pedestrian, and whether the ingredients are worth what it costs. The joy of sharing a meal with someone contributes to what each dining experience means to me. If the food isn’t to my taste but the company is, no meal feels like a wasted endeavour. Bourdain’s approach to food broadened my palate in a way no training could.
His Twitter bio is just one word - “Enthusiast”. He taught me, too, to try to live unconstrained by restrictions, enjoying each experience life brought me. The utter bliss he demonstrated while eating pork buns with David Chang himself at Momofuku seemed familiar. Wasn’t this how I felt when Amma made my favourite koora for Sunday lunch at home? Every meal Anthony Bourdain had, seemed to have been enjoyed with unbridled excitement. I wish he had stuck around to have one more.
Sushmita Sundaram writes about funny people, odd things, and anything edible. Find her on Twitter at @sushmitas.
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