Without Anthony Bourdain, Food Instagram Culture Wouldn't Exist
Anthony Bourdain didn’t think much of Instagram. The idea that sharing food photos constituted a generous and glorious form of fandom didn’t sit well with him. "It’s bullshit," Bourdain told Smithsonian in 2014. "It’s about making other people feel bad about what they’re eating. And a certain knowledge that what you’re eating is more interesting." To his own 2.3 million followers, Bourdain was more likely to post images of art or classic-rock icons or his girlfriend than meals. When he did turn to food, the images seemed like a targeted dig; he displayed mounds of caviar on a yacht, glistening golden egg yolks, and in his final post, a unreasonably large steak lunch. ("I want them to feel bad," he told Time in March.)
But if Bourdain never loved Instagram, he certainly understood it more than most—after all, he’d built an entire career by evoking a primitive pre-social-media kind of FOMO in his readers and watchers. Bourdain's motto was vague, if relatively consistent: "Move." But that didn’t just mean go anywhere … and it certainly wasn’t an endorsement of refined, institutionally-sanctioned restaurant eating, even if he did love El Bulli. Bourdain’s axiom was a rallying cry to run toward the things and experiences that no one else was having—the kinds of things that, at the time he launched his show No Reservations in 2005, few Americans thought were worth having. Often this could make his travel shows function as one big weirdness flex. Could Bourdain top rotting shark guts in Iceland, with roasted sheep testicles in Morocco, with a still-beating cobra heart in Vietnam? He could: warthog anus. In one episode, he expressed this antiestablishment tilt in an all-meat tour of San Francisco—screw the vegans.
Nothing expressed Bourdain’s fascination with the dark, strange innards of things better than his first book, Kitchen Confidential, published in 2000. At the time, food culture was firmly about the experience in the dining room, with a side detour for the accomplished chef lending a name to the establishment. But Bourdain shifted that spotlight toward the army of foul-mouthed soldiers doing the daily churn behind the scenes. His insider vision of the coke-addled misfits of New York City’s fine-dining establishments was a roasted sheep testicle version of a restaurant kitchen. The book, like everything Bourdain produced, forced the weirdness into your face. "Good food, good eating, is all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay," began the New Yorker piece that led to the book. For better or for worse, Kitchen Confidential legitimized food, and the people who make it, as a subculture, worthy of fully understanding.
And yeah, often it was for worse. Kitchen Confidential had been out for almost a decade by the time I first read it, at 22, and its brash celebration of testosterone-infused food culture played a small part in pushing me out of the restaurant industry. (I saw no good future for myself in Bourdain’s caricature of macho kitchens, so I quickly packed my figurative knives and left.) And while Bourdain deservedly gets credit for highlighting and exposing food, often cooked by women, from around the world, he was still a white guy, galavanting around the developing world, usually with another white guy by his side.
Bourdain, who was found dead of an apparent suicide today at age 61, grappled with this himself, especially in later years. "Should white guys get famous and successful for cooking the traditional cuisine of poor ethnic groups on the other side of the world?" he asked on the series finale of No Reservations. Bourdain was talking about Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker, but the double meaning wasn’t lost on his audience. Though he acknowledged that his book had "usher[ed] in a subculture of meatheads," for years Bourdain brushed off any criticism that it had adverse effects on the industry. That changed with the #MeToo movement, which Bourdain immediately—and vocally—embraced. "I became a leading figure in a very old, very oppressive system," he told Slate. "So I could hardly blame anyone for looking at me as somebody who’s not going to be particularly sympathetic." Yet he was, very much so. And as he did with so many episodes of No Reservations, and later Parts Unknown, he used his platform to share stories that often went untold, or at least unheard.
But if Bourdain can be credited with creating anything it’s the foundations of a culture that he both loved and loathed: Instagram. Bourdain’s wanderlust ripped his viewers out of the sanitized restaurant experience and made them all curious about food as a way of exploring the world. Without Bourdain, you don’t have street-food trucks selling lunch on the Google campus—it’s a quick step from No Reservations to #vanlife. It was Bourdain trekking everywhere that taught us that food could be a cultural artifact, the beginning of a conversation—an experience to be cultivated and bragged about to the world.