By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
The Capitals won the Stanley Cup on June 8, 2018. I had waited for the moment for my entire life; being a long-suffering D.C. sports fan, it appropriately triggered a sports-based euphoria I had not experienced since the Maryland men’s basketball team won the national championship in 2002.
After a night of sweet dreams, I woke to this text from my daughter: “Dad, Anthony Bourdain died.”
It would be an embellishment to say I consider Bourdain a hero - a term used far too casually. I’m 45 years old, and like most of at least my vintage, I don’t impress easily anymore. I’ve been disappointed by enough people, particular those occupying positions of power or of some famous persuasion, to apply a hero label to another human being only with great caution.
Bourdain was, and remains, however, a person of great significance in my life. I’ve watched all of his shows – “A Cook’s Tour”, “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown” – over the years and read his career-launching book “Kitchen Confidential”. Wherever his work appeared and in whatever form, I consumed it.
My Bourdain affinity started simply because I love food and he consistently found the new, the bizarre, the simple and the exotic and presented it in a reckless, a devil-may-care, I-can’t-get-enough-of-this way. But food became only part of Bourdain’s attraction. The mysterious places, the cultures, politics and what it all said about us – humanity – became as much of the story as the food itself.
Ultimately, though, it was the host - Bourdain himself – that kept me coming back show after show, year after year. He looked comfortable in any setting, in any culture and with people from all walks of life. He could dine at a table adorned with fine linens and the best china, eat noodles street-side while sitting in a plastic chair or devour freshly harvested game while sitting on a log near an open fire. As a person whose counts among his greatest food experiences eating rockfish fresh off of a charcoal grill or devouring famous orange crustaceans dumped from a garage steamer pot and dosed with Old Bay, Bourdain’s style resonated.
Bourdain was able to connect with so many different people around the globe because he never judged a way of life or preached the virtues of his. A man of many flaws, ones he expressed with great transparency, Bourdain was never arrogant or condescending to his hosts. He led with his curiosity and expressed genuine appreciation and respect for wherever he was, for whomever he was with and for whatever he was eating. It was never about what a destination and its people lacked; it was always about opening your mind, learning and appreciating the culinary and cultural creations of the people in some far off land. That the land was unfamiliar, the language often different and the environment sometimes unimaginable just added to the charm and the seek-to-understand challenge Bourdain was issuing to his audience.
Whether it was bull fighting, soccer in Marseille, France, baseball in Cuba or Japan or his own love of Jiu-Jitsu, sports were occasionally weaved into Bourdain’s plot. But his show was always about sports – at least for viewers seeking a connection. The lasting and indisputable lesson from Bourdain’s globetrotting was this: Despite differences in geography, ethnicity, culture or political ideology, humans are far more alike than different…and bridging divides to our common humanity takes little more than an inquisitive, fearless and respectful catalyst.
Through the lens of sports, Bourdain’s work and this message was a discreet wink and a nod to locker room leaders, coaches and General Managers about how to mesh a collection of humans from all around the country or the world into a cohesive unit. Through the lens of life, he left a formula for how bring the diverse members of our teams – our families, colleagues, communities and country – a little closer. Whether we achieve any of it is on us. But while Bourdain’s gone, we will be buoyed by the demystifying seeds of curiosity, decency and understanding that he spread globally as he “took a walk through this beautiful world”.
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