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Bourdain Day

This is probably not the space to write about Anthony Bourdain. He notoriously did not care for desserts—no cakes, no pastries, sometimes chocolate, but usually stilton, his preferred way to end a meal. In his final cookbook, Appetites, he dedicated one chapter to dessert: a one-page explanation as to why he will not take up any additional space in his cookbook for dessert.

“Fuck dessert,” he says. “Okay, I don’t mean that. I like dessert just fine. But if I had to live without one course for the rest of my life, dessert would be the one to go. I certainly don’t know how to make pastries. Perhaps this explains my career-long suspicion of pastry chefs; they can do something I absolutely cannot.” So yeah. Dessert would be the first to go.

But today is Bourdain Day, so I’m going to do it anyway.

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Bourdain would have turned 63 today. It’s been just over a year since his passing, and there isn’t really a day that goes by where he doesn’t flit across my mind at least once. I woke up to a number of texts and DMs the day he died, alerting me of the horrible news. I was devastated in a way that confused me, because after all, I’ve never met the man. But he meant so much to me.

I honestly don’t have a clear memory of when my first encounter with his works was. Truthfully, I didn’t read his infamous 1999 piece in the New Yorker until much later in life. My first encounter was probably No Reservations, sometime around freshman year of university as I so desperately tried to find an escape from my own life.

I’m not sure what made me so unhappy freshman year. I had moved into my mum’s friend’s basement, which was a 40-minute bus ride to my alma mater. There was no kitchen, and the windows, though not directly secured with bars, looked like they had bars because of the railing around the stairs that led to my suite.

I was never popular in high school, but I had a good group of friends. Then you’re suddenly thrown into this new world, running from class to class, weaving through a sea of strangers, and your friends are now scattered around the city. There was this all-encompassing loneliness I felt that first year of university. Such a large campus, and no friends at all. Bus to school. Sit in class. Bus back to that basement suite. Rinse. Repeat. 

Instead of succumbing to the Freshman 15, I experienced the opposite; I lost weight. You see, I had a really strange relationship with money that was closely tied to guilt. I had no job, and my parents were paying for my schooling, the Basement Dungeon, and my groceries. The only logical solution, to mitigate my own guilt, was not to eat. I don’t know if this constitutes as disordered eating, but I limited myself to a very small amounts of food. Every day would be some combination of cereal and sandwiches. It was cost effective, and it saved my parents money.

The sad thing is, I always found joy in food. My grandma instilled a love for food in me, as did my parents. It excited me and good food was never far from reach throughout my childhood thanks to the matriarch of my family. But I was a burden on my parents, and the only negotiable thing in my life was the amount of food I ate. 

Not many things made me happy that first year, but I did find solace in the episodes of cooking shows I would diligently record every weekend when I visited my parents (they had cable; I did not). My obsession with food grew stronger, and because I couldn’t consume it physically, I would instead seek out whatever food-related knowledge the internet could provide. 

It’s likely that this is when I first read Kitchen Confidential. Anthony Bourdain is a name that appears over and over again when you’re learning about the culinary world. And as I eventually found a job—which meant I could pay for groceries—I learned that food, for me, is a non-negotiable thanks to Bourdain.

I know how this sounds. I understand my privilege. And so did Bourdain. Wherever he traveled, whatever corner of the universe he was in, he carried that knowledge with him. Perhaps it was this that weighed heavy on his shoulders. But food, it seemed, was the bridge that could really connect you with a culture. Food could really connect you with people who don’t speak the same language. Food could really connect you with parts unknown.

Growing up Chinese, I committed a number of treasonous faux pas against Western etiquette. I learned that I wasn’t to chew with my mouth open from my next door neighbours, Sasha and Ariel (ages 4 and 6, respectively), during a backyard tea party. I learned that steamed fish from the previous night’s dinner is not an appropriate school lunch due to its smell, which intensified after hours inside a thermos. I learned that serving chicken in its entirety, head and all, will leave you with some nauseated guests, because those parts of an animal should never see a dining table. 

And so I rejected my culture. I embraced bologna sandwiches. I preferred neatly filleted pieces of fish. I sought out perfectly portioned chicken breasts. I broke my grandma’s heart more than a handful of times.

But then came Anthony Bourdain: champion of offals, lover of bold flavours, an adventurer who was always willing to learn about cultures through food. His openness was inspiring. He was respectful and curious, but most importantly, he saw the beauty in what he didn’t know. If this white man could see the beauty in Chinese cooking, why couldn’t I?

He helped me see just how lucky I am to be who I am: the daughter of Chinese immigrants and the granddaughter of a tremendous cook. To understand the food I was lucky enough to grow up eating is to better understand my own roots, my own culture. And to understand the food of other cultures is to better understand the stories of others, of histories I don’t know, of strangers I’ll never meet. 

To know the food is to know the people, and I never want to stop getting to know the food. Happy Bourdain Day.

Joyce Ng