We never had the chance to meet and even when you were alive I never followed your work very closely. This was mostly my fault; I have a developed cynicism for people who make it big or go ‘mainstream’ and arbitrarily applied that cynicism to you. My bad.
Since your sudden death and the numerous profoundly admiring eulogies I’ve heard from people I greatly respect, I’ve been going back through your work, watching Parts Unknown from the beginning through to the end, including the most recent posthumous season. I don’t tend to hold celebrities on a pedestal, but I wanted to see what they saw in you. My cynicism quickly melted away and I began to see why they admired you so much.
Despite being a chef and a food ‘personality’, when people think of you and your work they think beyond the food. They think of the way that you told a story; and, you were an excellent storyteller. Food was a way of telling a story about culture, history, politics and people. Food was an entry point for you (and, us through you) to learn more about the world.
I love how in every episode you ask questions of the people you talk with. I love that it happens over food. In the first episode of Parts Unknown you say at one point, “There’s so much I don’t know,” and you carried this humility throughout your travels. You always kept it real. You demonstrated a curiosity and willingness to listen to people, and not just important people. You listened to the taxi drivers, the grandmothers, the punk rockers, and the dissenters.
I wish I would have had the chance to meet you, to shoot the shit over a beer somewhere, to be able to ask you some questions, to discuss the current state of the world with as many robust curse words as we could muster (I’ve long trusted people who curse…).
I’ve been thinking on that potential discussion, and these are some of the questions I might have asked (though, I think I could be happy just being along for a drink during this interview…):
Through your show you often sought to show the ‘real version’ of a place, the place that existed beyond the dominant narratives. But did having a camera ever interfere with you experiencing the ‘realness’ of a place? Did you ever wish that you could visit these places away from the glare and attention of the camera?
You once said “I wish I didn’t have to leave all the time.” What places most gave you this sense of comfort and desire to stay? Why?
Many of your relatives died young and you commented you were the longest living of them all. The man you told this to joked that you were a man ‘living alone’; you agreed. Despite travelling the world and often being surrounded by people, are there times in which you feel alone?
You once asked this of your idol Iggy Pop and I’m wondering how you would answer it yourself. You have a lot of things ordinary people would never have, you’ve led many, many adventures. Given that: what thrills you?
You said in one episode (and revealed in so many more) that “the camera is a liar.” Outside the lens of the camera, what do you wish people knew about you and your life?
I don’t know why you chose to exit this life so suddenly or what brought you to the point where that seemed like the best way forward, but I do know that you’ll be missed by those who loved you from up close and far away. I’ve learned some important lessons from your storytelling, from your passion, and from your commitment. I echo Vivien Sansour in saying, “I hope your feet find their grounding in the other realm.”
May you continue to travel well, Tony.