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Anthony Bourdain's gift? Embracing those we too often demonize

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain dead at 61

Bourdain achieved celebrity status after the publication in 2000 of his best-selling book "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." Bourdain went on to achieve widespread fame thanks to his CNN series "Parts Unknown."
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Bourdain achieved celebrity status after the publication in 2000 of his best-selling book "Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly." Bourdain went on to achieve widespread fame thanks to his CNN series "Parts Unknown."

Anthony Bourdain's death by suicide was like the loss of a good friend, because the 61-year-old celebrity chef, author and raconteur projected humanity from exotic locales while introducing delicious food to a worldwide audience drawn to his glorious CNN show, "Parts Unknown."

I don't really watch TV shows much anymore, but I avidly followed Bourdain because his program was not only about great food. It was not only about discovering the beauty of cultures and cities and people of all colors and customs. It was about making human connections with people we didn't know or understand.

Bourdain didn't only go to France or Spain or Greece, countries many Americans visit each year. He visited nations and regions that Americans fear and distrust: Iran, Libya, Oman, Cuba,and Armenia. Bourdain traveled to the occupied West Bank and did something no one else does on TV: He portrayed Palestinians as real people. He cooked food with them, broke bread them, respected them.

Some might view that as an attack on Israel, but it wasn't. It was an embrace of common humanity. It was a gesture of peace, and a reminder of simple, everyday rituals that unite people at a common table of fellowship.

Bourdain did that when he dedicated an entire show to Latino culture and cuisine in Los Angeles. He gravitated to the food truck entrepreneurs and street food masters thriving in LA neighborhoods not frequented by tourists. Bourdain expressed solidarity with Mexican American culture and though such a gesture on his part doesn't sound like much, it really was.

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Here was a white guy from New York with a massive following who was saying – without a hint of condescension or pandering – that he loved Mexican American culture and people.

Who else with such a platform did such a thing? I can't think of one.

Bourdain used his show to talk to young Mexican Americans on the ground in L.A. about what it's like to fight for their places in America. He did this while the President of the United States demonized Mexico and fostered antipathy toward anyone who fits that ethnic profile.

I've watched that episode over and over because it captured and celebrated the real contributions that a maligned culture brings to every day life in California. Bourdain wasn't just talking about food: He was an antidote to Trumpism. He wasn't about dividing people based on how they looked or where they were from. He wanted to understand people and their cultures. In his public comments, Bourdain pushed back against the hypocrisy often expressed by Americans toward immigrants.

"As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy – the restaurant business as we know it – in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers," Bourdain said on his Facebook page recently.

"Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are 'stealing American jobs.' But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position – or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do."

It would be nice if Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, the heavy favorite to be elected governor in November, would speak as forcefully and would push back as hard on anti-immigrant comments as Bourdain did in his life. It would be nice if other influential people did as well. Not enough do, which emphasizes why Bourdain's death is more than just the passing of a celebrity.

Bourdain was a celebrity who used his platform to advocate people and cultures often trivialized or marginalized in American culture. He traveled to Houston, but instead of doing a show on BBQ and rodeo, he focused on Houston's massive population of Indians and Pakistanis. He spent time with Congolese farmers who had relocated to Houston and were growing their food there.

Bourdain ventured into inner city Detroit, where he ate with street-food vendors selling delicious and inventive food in abandoned urban areas often portrayed as graveyards in a dying city. Bourdain found beauty in Detroiters who were persevering, who loved their city and were trying to make it better.

He traveled to western Massachusetts, where his show became a meditation on the heroin epidemic engulfing that region. He talked about his own heroin addiction as a young man.

Asian men are often portrayed as comic relief on American television. But Bourdain loved Asia and Asian Americans.

One of his first shows was in Koreatown in Los Angeles, where dynamic young chefs and artists were fusing their ancestral culture with American culture to create beauty. Bourdain turned his big-hearted cameras in their direction.

Bourdain's death is immeasurable, as are the deaths of the roughly 45,000 Americans who commit suicide each year, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Bourdain's gifts as a TV personality with the soul of a journalist will long be remembered. So will his gifts as a writer, capturing food with depth and heart. He raised being a food writer to a higher level of importance because he didn't shy away from the politics of food, and he didn't whitewash the cultures that produced food that Americans love.

But perhaps Bourdain's greatest contribution was his battle against the American tendency to demonize people who look different and come from parts of the world scapegoated by politicians, politicians such as Trump. Bourdain's show was a rebuke to other celebrity chefs who got rich and famous by appropriating foreign cultures for their own profit while scarcely giving credit to the sources of their wealth and fame.

Bourdain was the star of his show, yes. But he generously and happily shared the stage with chefs of all colors and ethnicities.

His show never visited Sacramento (but he did speak at Memorial Auditorium in 2010). Still, I had this fantasy about bringing Bourdain here and turning him loose on a thriving food and beer scene in the capital region. I talked to some great local chefs about it and everyone thought it was a great idea. I could see Bourdian visiting local farms with chef Patrick Mulvaney, of Mulvaney's B&L. I could see him drinking beer and eating the wondrous, home made sausages at Lowbrau. I could see him at Lalo's, the great Mexican joint in south Sacramento. I could see Bourdain in Little Saigon, or at Chando's Tacos on Arden Way.

He could have talked about the beauty of a capital city often overlooked. He would have been right at home here. He was right at home everywhere he went, from the French Alps to Uruguay to Mozambique and Quebec.

We ran out of time. The curse of suicide took the life of a gifted story teller before he could tell our story in Sacramento, before he could tell many more stories promoting a reality we too easily forget:

We are all brothers and sister, one blood and one people.

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