Anthony Bourdain will always be remembered as an amazing world-travelling food storyteller. He made an impression on people who interviewed him, worked with him, and those who have known him from his books and television.
Bourdain was in France working when he was found dead on June 8. He was 61. In this exclusive story, we asked Malaysians who have had the pleasure of his company to pay tribute to the chef, author and TV star.
He was known as the “bad boy chef” for the no-holds-barred way he expressed himself. Sugar coating? Not him. He also didn’t suffer fools, apparently. It was for this reason my stomach was in knots for days prior to my 2015 phone interview with Bourdain, who was doing the rounds for a new travel and food show.
I needn’t have worried. He was charming, friendly, and he took time to answer my questions with thought and enthusiasm. He loved food and it was obvious. He shared stories, anecdotes and more as our conversation went on for an hour.
I asked about his celebrity status and about the fans who had reportedly waited at his hotel lobby for hours for a glimpse of him. He said, “You know, I never saw it coming. I don’t know how younger chefs feel – they probably grew up expecting to be famous – but for my generation, it came as a huge surprise.
“I like chefs. I respect their work. I feel very strongly that, at the very least, chefs do something useful. Chefs feed and nurture people. They work very hard at becoming good at a craft that is useful to people. I think it’s far more appropriate that a chef is a celebrity than a Kardashian.”
There was one question he wouldn’t address: Did he enjoy Malaysian or Singaporean food more?
“I’m not touching that with a 10-foot pole. You’re not getting me to side with one or the other. I would like to contemplate and compare (the two) for the rest of my life because … I love both. Nice try, though.” What a guy. – S. Indramalar, Assistant Editor, Features Central (Star2)
Redzuawan Ismail, better known as Chef Wan, appeared in one episode of Bourdain’s travel show, No Reservations, in 2005. Bourdain was in Kuala Lumpur to sample Malaysian food and his guide was Chef Wan, who when contacted expressed sadness over Bourdain’s death.
“I remember we had fun filming that episode in Kampung Baru. At the end of the shoot, we exchanged a lot of ideas about food. His director at that time even said that I outshone him during our segment,” Chef Wan recalled fondly.
“Later in another interview, I found out that Anthony said he was impressed with my contribution to his show. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have worked with him.” – Angelin Yeoh
Celebrity chef Anis Nabilah, the host of AFC’s Icip Icip and TV3’s 1, 2 Bakar, and another Bourdain fan, was upset by reports of his death. “It’s devastating, I really can’t believe it. He had such a great impact on the culinary world and on me. He was a brilliant man and storyteller. There is no one else like him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family,” she said.
Anis said Bourdain’s amazing storytelling skill in his cookbooks are one reason she hasn’t published her own recipes. “I always say I’m not ready to write my own cookbook because I cannot tell stories like Anthony Bourdain. Anyone can pick up his cookbooks and it’s like reading a beautiful storybook,” she said. – Abirami Durai
Singaporean KF Seetoh, Asia’s guru of grub and founder of Makansutra and the World Street Food Congress (of which Bourdain was a collaborator), was speechless when he heard the news.
“I am beyond shocked,” he said. “I lost a very sincere and hardcore partner in this journey to celebrate life and real food culture. I was just in New York last month (May 2018) speaking to some partners on how we can revive his nixed Bourdain Market … and now this.”
Above all else, Seetoh will remember his buddy for his “brutal honesty”. – Julie Wong
He was the chef and superstar of real food, known for his unflinching approach. I interviewed him about his quest to save street food during the World Street Food Congress in Manila 2017. He had an amazing clarity about the heart and soul of food. Street food in particular embodied for him the culture and history of a region.
I was at that time miffed that Malaysia didn’t get into the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and Bourdain told me, “Now you don’t have anything to worry about. That list is just bull****.” I didn’t quote him then, but he should have his say now. – Julie Wong, previous Food Editor of Features Central (Star2)
Bourdain met food writer Helen Ong in 2012 while filming an episode of No Reservations in Penang. Some of the food he ate there included a Peranakan feast prepared by Ong’s mother.
“Unlike other chefs I’ve interviewed, Anthony was flexible,” said Ong. “I could ask him anything. He was charming. It’s really sad to hear about his death. I had the impression he enjoyed Penang very much. He loved the food. I’m sure my mother who is 85 now will be upset to hear he’s gone.” – Angelin Yeoh
Sherson Lian – another celebrity chef, owner of Hello by Kitchen Mafia, and star of AFC’s Family Kitchen With Sherson, who has watched Bourdain on TV since he was 17 – is deeply saddened by his death. “It doesn’t seem to make any sense,” he said. “He was someone very special. We’re all cooking food, but he’s sharing places that people would never think of going to.”
Lian says he’s a fan of Bourdain’s no-holds-barred approach on television. “He was the only one who smoked and drank on TV. That’s the beauty of his personality – it’s HIM we want to watch. It goes beyond food. He wasn’t trying to please anybody, just true to his core, which is why those of us in the industry looked up to him.”– Abirami Durai