Throughout his career, Mr. Bourdain called for respect for immigrants, without whom, he never let us forget, the restaurant and agricultural industries in the United States would screech to a halt. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Bourdain did not shrink from assailing Donald Trump’s proposed wall at the Mexican border as “ludicrous and ugly,” and declaring we should be “honest about who is working in America now and who has been working in America for some time.” He argued for recognition of the value, creativity and labor of nonwhite and immigrant chefs, noting that it “is frankly a racist assumption that Mexican food or Indian food should be cheap.”
On both “Parts Unknown” and his earlier Travel Channel show “No Reservations,” he treated the people of the places he visited with compassion, modeling how to respect other cultures without exoticizing them. In Vietnam, a place he called one of his favorites, he offered a lesson on colonialism, war and American intervention. Likewise during episodes focused on Colombia, Iran, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, he would marvel at the beauty, the food, the literature and the generosity of the people. Then in the next breath, he’d contextualize stereotypes Americans might have about these cultures with lessons on Western imperialism, political violence and dictatorial regimes.
He also scrutinized inequality at home. He pondered the uniquely American history of Detroit, with insights about race, migration and gentrification. He exuded genuine respect for all of the people touched by these issues, discussing their history not with pity, but with nuance. Perhaps most remarkably, he did all this while also making us laugh.
His work represented a beautiful merging of love of food with an earnest effort to listen to others, especially marginalized people. After he visited Gaza, he openly criticized what he saw as the dehumanizing representation of Palestinians in the media, and proclaimed that the world was “robbing them of their basic humanity.”