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June 09, 2018

When the tragic news came through last night that Anthony Bourdain had taken his own life at the age of 61, I reacted as if I'd just heard about the death of a loved one.

I’m not normally one for the concept of celebrity so why had the death of this particular celebrity hit home so hard for me? The answer is simple; watching Bourdain travel and eat his way across the world had a profound affect on me. Watching A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, the Layover and Parts Unknown, Bourdain literally influenced the places I travelled to and fell in love with. He instilled in me a passion for the wonders of South East Asia; it's peoples, cultures and of course it's food. Maybe Temples and Markets wouldn't have been borne had it not been for Bourdain.

"I remember the moment I first realised I've been living my whole life in black and white. It was like discovering a colour I never knew existed before. A whole new crayon box full of colours, that was it for me. From then on, there was no putting the pieces back together. No going home. Things were different now. Asia had ruined me for my old life." Bourdain.

Bourdain showed his viewers that to truly make the most of a destination you have to hang out with the locals and eat where they eat. He encouraged us to try and taste dishes that may be out of our comfort zone. He certainly influenced the way I order food and that is to order as many dishes as is humanly possible just so you can taste it all. I've been told by waiting staff that I might be ordering too much but no, I want to experience and enjoy food the way he did. 

Anthony told stories of the people who welcomed him into their homes, and shared their culture and cuisine with him. He was a phenomenal and funny story teller, introducing us all to far away destinations most of us will probably never visit, but have added onto our ever growing bucket lists anyway. 

President Obama perfectly summarised Anthony Bourdain within hours of his death with this tweet“Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him”.

In 2016 Bourdain and President Obama shared a bowl of Bun Cha and a bottle of beer in one of his favourite hang outs in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi. This is what Bourdain did; he found the best places to eat around the world and shared those secrets with us. His death has brought back memories of  the places I’ve visited and eaten at because he led me there, and I'll be forever grateful to him for that.

 

LE BERNARDIN, MANHATTEN, NEW YORK

155 W 51st St, New York

Thanks to Anthony Bourdain I experienced singularly the best meal of my life at Le Bernardin in New York in 2010. French Chef Eric Ripert and Bourdain had been close friends since Ripert invited Anthony to Le Bernardin after he'd read “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.”  Chef Ripert was often in Bourdain’s company on his shows, and his restaurant Le Bernardin was firmly on his list of favourites around the world, and a must-eat when in New York. How utterly tragic that it should be Eric Ripert who found Anthony dead in his hotel room in France.

Le Benardin is a million miles away from a Bun Cha joint in Hanoi; it’s a fine dining Michelin starred establishment consistently included in the world’s top 50 restaurants. Fond memories have stayed with me of a high end restaurant with exemplary service, where one really dresses up to eat and men who arrive without jackets are offered jackets for the evening. But it's the exquisite seafood that made it the stand out meal of my life. The seafood menu moves through the stages of ‘almost raw’ to ‘barely touched’ to ‘lightly cooked.’ Food is art and the respect given to the delicacy of incredibly fresh shellfish and seafood is probably found nowhere else but in top end Japanese eateries. There were 3 of us who dined at Le Bernardin in 2010 but we pretended that there was a fourth, just so we could order the extra scallop dish. Our imaginary guest we named Ralph and the waiters played along with us bringing to the table an extra dessert for Ralph. I think Bourdain would have loved that. 

SIN HUAT EATING HOUSE GEYLANG SINGAPORE

659 Lorong 35 Geylang

When it came to Singapore, Anthony Bourdain joked about the nanny state side of the country but also stressed that this was a city for serious eaters.

"New York may be the city that never sleeps, but Singapore’s the city that never stops eating. For a gastro-tourist, somebody who travels to eat, any kind of serious eater, Singapore’s probably the best place you can go for maximum bang in a minimum period of time." Bourdain.

Watching Bourdain eat at Sin Huat Eating House in the early days of A Cook’s Tour made it an absolute not to be missed experience. Geylang, known as the red light district of Singapore isn’t normally on a tourist’s itinerary but aren’t a city's seedier areas where the best food is often to be found?

Despite Sin Huat Eating House being listed on Bourdain's top 13 places to eat around the world many Singaporean taxi drivers will have no idea where it is. They may even try to convince you it’s not wise for a visitor to go to the Geylang district but don't let that stop you.

Sin Huat Eating House occupies a large space on a street corner with tables on one side of the restaurant and live seafood tanks on the floor on the other. Chef Danny greets you in his gumboots and apron; working around those tanks on the floor you need the right gear.  Crab Bee Hoon is Chef Danny’s most well known dish – crab with noodles in a garlicky and gingery sauce. It's utterly divine. I’ve learned to make this dish since but mine in no way compares to the dish that Anthony described as “giant Sri Lankan beasts cooked with a spicy mystery sauce and noodles—pure messy indulgence. Come to Mama!!!"

Chef Danny has been much maligned by many bloggers for his dictatorial manner, telling the diner what to eat because there is no menu. Also Sin Huat Eating House is by no means cheap, in a country where you can eat anywhere well and cheaply at hawker centres, an extravaganza of seafood at Sin Huat Eating House will set you back hundreds of dollars. Crab Bee Hoon can be found elsewhere around Singapore too and for a lower budget.

However Danny Lee is a real character, he knows his seafood and I'm happy to be told what the best dishes are by this master. He  serves delectable garlicky and chilli frogs legs in his special sauce too and incredible Tiger Prawns again with heaps of garlic . A lasting memory of a night at Sin Huat Eating House was of our son Callum, three years old at the time, sitting and watching cartoons with Chef Danny’s young son while we ate. Neither understood each other’s language but they became instant friends. That was a defining travel moment; a love of food bringing people together and the innocence of children who don’t judge each other at a young age, despite their different backgrounds. The Bourdain affect right there.

24 HOURS OF EATING IN HANOI

On a 2016 Parts Unknown episode Bourdain summed up his love for Vietnam as a place that “grabs you and doesn’t let you go.” 

He has to take credit for sharing the wonders of this captivating country with the world. He made no secret of his desire to live there for a year at least, or maybe even to retire there. He certainly played a huge part in influencing where I went in Vietnam and moreover where I ate. 

A couple of years ago I only had 24 hours in Hanoi. It was a layover Bourdain style, so in preparation I googled the street food he sought out on his visits there. Picking a hotel for the night was easy, the historic Metropole with its vintage Citroens out front, is one of Bourdain’s top hotels to stay in the world. From the moment of arrival it’s obvious why. Greeted by Bellman traditionally dressed in the same uniform their counterparts would have worn in 1901 one is immediately ensconced in the hotel's colonial style grandeur. Resplendent in velvet Ao Dai (traditional Vietnamese dress) the Guest Services Representative meets each guest in the luxurious lounge area and congratulates them on their choice of hotel. One doesn’t just stay at the Metropole, one has to experience it - walk through the corridors and read the historic anecdotes and the list of actors and politicians who have stayed here – from Charlie Chaplin to Brad and Angelina.

But it was the street food we'd come for on that Hanoi stopover. A short walk from the hotel and into the Old Quarter and we were raring to go with our first dish that had to be Bun Cha; patties of grilled pork served with vermicelli noodles in a soupy bowl of pickly sweet broth accompanied by a plate of salad leaves, mint and other herbs with chilli dip. Bun Cha, a ubiquitous Hanoi dish forever known now around the world as the dish Bourdain shared with President Obama atBún chả Hương Liên.

Hanoi "motorbike exhaust, fish sauce, incense, the faraway smell of something — is that pork grilling over charcoal? It could be no place else." Bourdain.

We ate Bun Cha Nem Cua Be at 29 Cầu Gỗ, Hàng Bạc and was told by an elderly local gentleman, eating alongside us at the low table, that this was considered the best Bun Cha in Hanoi. I suspect Bourdain would have been there in the past but for lunch with POTUS he would have needed an indoor establishment to keep the Secret Service happy.

"This is the way so many great meals in my life have been enjoyed: sitting in the street, eating something out of a bowl that I'm not exactly sure what it is, scooters going by. It's so delicious" Bourdain

Xen Yoi 

35B Nguyễn Hữu Huân - Phường Lý Thái Tổ - Quận Hoàn Kiếm

Next on that night’s street food itinerary was Xoi Yen,  a corner restaurant of sorts, famous for serving sticky rice with pate and a choice of, what Tony would have described as “mystery meats”. This hugely popular eatery on 4 packed floors is just a ten-minute walk from the Metropole. We were sent to the top floor and were given a rather confusing menu. But this was a night dedicated to eating as Bourdain would, so it was a case of choosing random dishes and just giving it a go. We chose braised pork and Chinese sausage with the pate and sticky rice. A complimentary side portion of pickled cucumber is thrown in for good measure. With 2 beers and a soft drink included we came out only $6 down!  Not a chance we’d have known about this place, found this place, or even ventured in had it not had the Bourdain affect.

 

From the pate stop we grabbed a quick Banh Mi (pork roll) at a street market we walked through, then I had to satisfy a craving for Banh Cuon at a hole in the wall spot that we were passing. On nights like these I literally feel like I’m living out my very own Bourdain episode; tasting as much as my stomach will allow and loving every moment of discovery.

Mien Luon Dong Thinh
87 Hang Dieu Hoan Kiem

Our final stop in Hanoi that evening was another buzzing joint famed for its various eel dishes. Bourdain raved about the crispy eel on noodles, it was an ok dish, similar to pigs ear but not one I’d be returning to try again. Didn’t fancy the eel porridge shown in photos on the wall either. None of that is important though; what matters is that we’d followed in Anthony’s footsteps and explored where we wouldn't have otherwise explored. That is the Bourdain affect.

Bourdain’s Lunch Lady, Ho Chi Minh City

"All of the things I need for happiness: Low plastic stool, check. Tiny little plastic table, check. Something delicious in a bowl, check."

I’d wanted to eat soup made by Anthony Bourdain’s Lunch Lady in Saigon on previous occasions but time is always so limited when one travels, and I hadn't managed to get there until the last day of 2016. What a way to end that year. The Lunch Lady is Nguyen Thi Thanh, owner of one of the most well known street food stalls in Saigon. Her notoriety is down to Bourdain’s passion for her soup, the atmosphere around her stall and her different soup for each day of the week, including his favourite, the spicy Bun Bo Hue, served on a Friday. Before Bourdain came her stall was already popular with locals and food bloggers but now she's known internationally. I didn't go on Bun Bo Hue Friday; the day I went was Bánh canh cua Saturday.This is a rich, fishy soup with thick Vietnamese style udon noodles, and heaps of crab meat, prawns, fish cake, quail eggs, beef, pork blood cake, and other indecipherables. In essence its the perfect Bourdain bowl of slurpy seafoody noodles. The soup is served with a side of spring rolls, crispy prawns with lettuce and dips for wrapping. An all round fun and delicious experience. Yes there's thousands of other soup sellers all over Vietnam and some may well be considered better. Not all have the Bourdain affect though. If it was good enough for Anthony, it was certainly incredibly good for me.

The Lunch Lady is making the most of her celebrity status; just look at her sign. Her stall is packed everyday and deservedly so. I suspect she’s about to become even busier now her biggest advocate has left us.How delightful it is that his memory will live on in her ever expanding corner, on the northern edge of District One. 

MEETING ANTHONY BOURDAIN

I was lucky to have met Anthony Bourdain briefly back in 2011. He was in Sydney for the Sydney’s Writers Festival and during the Q and A I nervously stood up to ask him how he doesn’t get fat eating the way he does. He smiled and explained that he doesn’t eat the way he does on camera when he’s not working, and particularly doesn’t eat much prior to filming each travel show episode. I would loved to have spent more time chatting with him, preferably over a bowl of Bun Bo Hue, what a fascinating chat it would have been. But instead I will treasure that short exchange of words we had and the brief photo opportunity afterwards.

Soon I will be travelling to two of the world’s culinary capitals - San Sebastian in Spain and Hong Kong. I will re-watch videos of his trips to both these destinations and make copious notes. I shall be eating the way he would be eating – ordering too much and tasting it all. I will honour a very special funny guy, who had the funniest phrases like “mystery meat”, “fatty goodness” and "come to mama" when talking to food, and a man who steadfastly refused to take part in karaoke in public.

Let’s all honour Anthony Bourdain’s legacy by travelling to far flung places, eating often and meeting new people from different cultures.

“If I am an advocate for anything, it is 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. It’s a plus for everybody.” Bourdain

I can’t know what demons led Anthony Bourdain to take his life yesterday in a hotel room in Strasbourg. He had what seemed to most of us the coolest job on the planet, and was seemingly loved by millions worldwide. We can all hope that his death and the increasing suicide statistics lead us to question the worsening social disconnect in our society, and the toxic state so much of society is currently in. He brought the world community closer together through his travels and story telling yet in reality we are further apart. Last week I witnessed a young couple at the next table of a Chinese restaurant spend their entire evening staring at their respective phones. How is this relevant you may be asking? Anthony Bourdain had 7.5 million Twitter followers and 2.9 million Instagram followers, yet on Friday in France, he didn’t feel there was one person he could speak to before he committed suicide.

 

“Eating well is about submission. About letting go.” Bourdain. RIP.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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