By watching his plate we saw humanity through Anthony Bourdain’s eyes

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food.” Anthony Bourdain 1965-2018.

Anthony Bourdain was cherished around the world for his televised food adventures in his popular shows Parts Unknown and No Reservations, which aired on CNN and the Travel Channel. For Africans, Bourdain’s honest curiosity grounded in reality was a relief, and a beauty to interact with in a world where Africa has been the subject of derogatory and stereotypical tropes for decades.

The chef and bestselling author died by suicide at 61 on 8 June. A statement released on CNN said, “It is with extraordinary sadness we can confirm the death of our friend and colleague, Anthony Bourdain. His love of great adventure, new friends, fine food and drink and the remarkable stories of the world made him a unique storyteller. His talents never ceased to amaze us and we will miss him very much. Our thoughts and prayers are with his daughter and family at this incredibly difficult time.”

His death is certainly felt around the world, as celebrities, fans and supporters have shared messages of the ways he helped expand their view of the world. Many praised Bourdain for being one of the few visual storytellers on television whose coverage of culture of African countries was devoid of the stuffy, narrow lens that many cultural explorers and anthropologists employ when telling stories from the continent and diaspora.

Parts Unknown, the award-winning American travel and food show on CNN where Bourdain travels the world exploring places unfamiliar to his audience premiered in April 2013. The show has won 5 Emmy Awards, garnered 11 nominations for writing, sound mixing, editing and cinematography, as well as a 2013 Peabody Award. Bourdain was working on an episode of the show in Strasbourg, France at the time of his death.

As he did wherever he went, Bourdain’s trips across Africa helped viewers connect with his local experiences by managing to capture the essence of the places he visited, and their people, while being respectful of, and unpretentious about, their realities. Bourdain was essentially what Ozoz Sokoh, a Nigerian chef who has dined with Bourdain herself, would call a Traveller by Plate. The work he produced often challenged what people thought they knew about places foreign to them, possessed with a no-bullshit attitude, a humble awareness of his privilege as a white, male American, and an appreciation for everyday things like a cold bottle of beer, or a plate of hot noodles, whether he was looking chic in Milan or dusty in Mozambique.

His willingness to try foods unknown or unusual for most viewers shone through in episodes of his shows in South Africa, Mozambique, Ghana, Senegal—which he once referred to as “a jewel of Africa and the world” and “a country that defies stereotypes and expectations at every turn,”—as well as Tanzania(Zanzibar), Morocco(Tangier), DR Congo, Madagascar, Ethiopia (Addis Ababa) and Nigeria of which he said of its Lagos: “mad, bad, delicious, confusing, and I’ve never seen anything like it”. 

In Johannesburg he sampled futu, a popular cornmeal porridge, and roasted eland—the world’s largest antelope species. Zanzibar served up mandazi, Swahili donuts, and bhajias, lentil fritters. And while in Dakar, he opted for, among other things, thiéboudienne—Senegal’s national dish of rice and fish. Bourdain never ate alone and often chose locals as his dinner companions.

In addition to his travels, Anthony Bourdain inspired people through his books, most especially Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain took viewers around the world to places he went, showing people’s humanity in an original and compelling way that will continue to resonate with all of us.