Anthony Bourdain in 2001, when he was still the chef-owner of Les Halles in New York City.
Bourdain in 2001, when he was still the chef-owner of Les Halles in New York City. Jim Cooper/AP

The work of the acclaimed chef and writer, who has died at 61, provides a model for a truly inclusive urbanism based on the creativity of all human beings.

Anthony Bourdain is one of the two people who have most inspired my work on cities and urbanism. Where Jane Jacobs helped define my intellectual agenda, it was Bourdain, who died on Friday morning at age 61, who motivated me to spread the message of cities and urbanism broadly.

A brilliant chef-turned-writer-turned-TV-star who was as good or better on camera as he was on the page, most people saw him as a chronicler of food and culture. But I always saw him as a chronicler of cities, and a truly great urbanist. He may not have seen himself that way—in recent years he ceased to refer to himself as a chef or a journalist, so single-minded was he as a traveler and epicurean—but it’s a central part of his work and legacy.

Bourdain used food as his lens to explore and unveil the intersection of human creativity, authenticity, and community. In his travels around the world and in the forgotten corners of his own country, he captured the creativity of real people in real communities. His favorite setting, aside from family dining rooms, seemed to be busy outdoor markets. There he could be found sampling street foods, illuminating the essential humanity—the smells and tastes, the honks and shouts—of the marketplace and community.

Watch him, or read him, on and in Pittsburgh, on and in Beirut, on and in Lagos, on and in Berlin.

His cosmopolitanism was the opposite of elitism. After meeting then-President Obama for a meal at a modest restaurant in Hanoi, he told the New Yorker, “I believe what’s important to him is this notion that otherness is not bad, that Americans should aspire to walk in other people’s shoes.” This is what we’ll will miss most about him. On Twitter, many people called attention to his ability to visit poor places that had been subjected to historical injustices without exoticizing them. Instead, Bourdain could highlight the struggle of a marginalized people on their own terms.

When people who are not familiar with my work or with urbanism ask me what I do, I often tell them I aspire to do for cities what Bourdain did for food. In fact, without him, there may not even be a CityLab: In my initial conversations with The Atlantic about forming the site, I pointed to Bourdain’s wide-ranging approach to food and places as a key model for our exploration of cities.

That spirit, in his work and life, was captured in a tweet by the National League of Cities:

He may be gone, but he left us with an incredible gift—his authentic, inclusive, quintessentially human urbanism.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A photo-illustration of several big-box retail stores.
    Equity

    After the Retail Apocalypse, Prepare for the Property Tax Meltdown

    Big-box retailers nationwide are slashing their property taxes through a legal loophole known as "dark store theory." For the towns that rely on that revenue, this could be a disaster.

  2. A photo of a resident of Community First Village, a tiny-home community for people who were once living in homelessness, outside of Austin, Texas.!
    Design

    Austin's Fix for Homelessness: Tiny Houses, and Lots of Neighbors

    Community First! Village’s model for ending homelessness emphasizes the stabilizing power of social connections.

  3. A photo of a mural in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
    Life

    Stop Complaining About Your Rent and Move to Tulsa, Suggests Tulsa

    In an effort to beef up the city’s tech workforce, the George Kaiser Family Foundation is offering $10,000, free rent, and other perks to remote workers who move to Tulsa for a year.

  4. Transportation

    How Seattle Bucked a National Trend and Got More People to Ride the Bus

    Three experts in three very different positions weigh in on their city’s ridership success.

  5. A man walks his dog on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco in the early morning hours on Mount Davidson.
    Equity

    When Millennials Battle Boomers Over Housing

    In Generation Priced Out, Randy Shaw examines how Boomers have blocked affordable housing in urban neighborhoods, leaving Millennial homebuyers in the lurch.