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Bourdain’s Legacy Reaches Far Beyond his Career as Food Expert

Anthony Bourdain’s true legacy is not solely from his career as a food expert, but also from his journey as a humanitarian.

Chef Anthony Bourdain was arguably the most fascinating, liberating, and adventurous “foodie” on the planet. He was a true connoisseur of gastronomy’s most mysterious cuisines, as he fearlessly traveled the world to explore the story behind every dish. His taste buds were the subjects of his global food experiment in which he embraced the world’s most sought-after, the most bizarre, and occasionally the most feared foods.

As news broke of Bourdain’s suicide on June 8th, his viewers began to remember him for his antics and his sense of fearlessness in his food journeys. But his deepest impact goes far beyond the edible.

Bourdain’s true legacy is not solely from his career as a food expert, but also from his journey as a humanitarian. To remember him only for his adventures in taste testing is to remember Oprah only for being a host on a talk show. His impact is far greater than the culinary world.

In 2013, Parts Unknown first premiered on CNN, and Bourdain took America along on his most liberating journey around the world. With food as his vehicle, he broke down stereotypes, embraced new and rich cultures, navigated tense political climates, and helped dissipate the barriers between “us” and “them.”

Whether he was learning about the hip-hop scene in post-war Libya or exploring the art scene during an on-going drug war in Mexico, Bourdain showed us that there is beauty in humanity across all borders.

Humanitarian Legacy

I look back on Bourdain’s humanitarian legacy to the world and find solace in the ripple effect he has left on his viewers. As an ER physician and a Global Health specialist, I have always considered myself a humanitarian at heart. I have worked in 11 different countries, from post-war northern Uganda, to the ring of poverty in Costa Rica, treating patients on the first day of their life, and the last. I have seen individuals when their spirits are broken, their emotions are raw, and their destiny falls in the hands of a stranger.

Over the years I have developed a passion for exploring the human race through its survival; I have witnessed steadfast resilience and beautiful transformations in the face of suffering. But Bourdain explored humanity through a much different lens, one that is equally high-powered, and arguably more universal – the lens of food.

Some of our most universally raw emotions are thirst, hunger, pain, and pleasure. Regardless of an individual’s race, religion, gender, age, or socioeconomic status, these primordial emotions reside in all of us.

They are the foundation of love and suffering alike. The relationship between food and emotion is one of the most complex and yet fascinating relationships in human behavior.

At one extreme, fatty foods can cause a cocaine-like addiction, creating a strong sense of pleasure along with cravings and emotional dependence. At the other extreme, hunger and starvation can lead to severe depression, social withdrawal, lethargy, and apathy. For the majority, however, food simply triggers a sense of comfort, pleasure, and satiety.

Over a lifetime an individual will develop strong associations with various cuisines. The smell of food alone will trigger the olfactory cortex in our emotional brain, which can create a powerful sense of nostalgia, recalling memories as far back as our childhood. These deep emotional memories have allowed food to play an imperative role in the evolution of the human race. Today, cooking has evolved into a powerful tool to express hospitality and culture.

Bourdain realized that these emotions could be used to divide our world, or to unite us, and he dedicated his career to using food and hunger as a culinary vehicle to further our curiosity for humanity. Through his journey, Bourdain has broken down countless walls that separate us from the “parts unknown” of our human race.

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