Beyond the kitchen: Communication lessons from Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain left an indelible impression.

His storied culinary career, launched from a single article in The New Yorker, got him a book deal, which led to success and celebrity status.

His energy, intellect and insatiable curiosity transcended countries and cultures. From Bourdain, who died June 8, we have learned many important cross-cultural lessons that can benefit PR and marketing practitioners and global citizens.

Many of us struggle to find ways to connect across boundaries and cultures, and we seek ways to be relevant and relatable. Bourdain did not suffer that affliction.

Here are lessons from Chef Bourdain’s work and his life:

Live simply, and without pretense. Bourdain comprehended the value of the shared experience. Cultures have distinctive ways through food and cuisine to differentiate themselves. Bourdain shared meals with the famous and the not so famous in “Parts Unknown” and he sought out distinctive dishes, flavors and settings.  It is in the simplicity of the connection through a shared experience and understanding that he could connect cross-culturally. Bourdain had even more: He lacked pretense.

A Los Angeles Times article stated:

Bourdain wrote for the people with sheet pan burns on their arms and bits of flour stuck in their hair; for the people who found the deepest parts of themselves inside the stinking cavities of the pigs they were breaking down for dinner service; and for the people who cursed equally well in English and in Spanish. His best pieces tended to be not about great chefs, but about people like the cook who cut every piece of fish served at a three-star gastronomic temple but who had never eaten in the restaurant.

Bourdain was the everyman’s man, the cool father, and the guy everyone wanted to know. His lack of pretense gave him a unique charisma.

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Be open to new things. Bourdain traveled the world and was open to eating all kinds of food—a snake heart, raw eel eyeball and a developing egg embryo complete with feathers. His willingness to try different types of cuisine with a zeal and enthusiasm suggested an uncanny openness to culture that is hard to match.  Though this is not to suggest that the rest of us dine on exotic mystery meats, it does suggest the importance and value of not discounting other cultures simply because we have never experienced them. Bourdain did not cut himself off from experience; his openness defined him.

Cultivate your own style. Distinctly direct and full of energy, Bourdain found ways to apply his own imprint of his cultural experience. Very New York, Bourdain was direct, funny and eloquent. He had his own vernacular. He was colorful and enthusiastic. His openness and respect for differing cultures allowed him to exhibit that style without hesitation, regardless of the location. That style fueled his success and innovation. Bourdain was able to “develop and pioneer an entirely new form of early reality TV that freed him to immerse himself, scriptless, in the experiences he chose.”

Tell stories. As Mitch Ditkoff writes in Huffington Post:

When people tell their stories to each other and are heard, magic happens. People bond. Barriers dissolve. Connections are made. Trust increases. Knowledge is transmitted. Wisdom is shared. A common language is birthed.

Bourdain understood this. He was a master raconteur. His grittiness, vivid imagery and use of profanity made us want all the more to listen and learn. He opened our eyes to other parts of the world, people, cultural elements, sights, sounds, and smells; we could almost taste unfamiliar dishes. Through his distinctive storytelling, we traveled with Bourdain to Beirut, Congo, Libya and countless other places, experiencing them vicariously through his unique ability as a storyteller.

Maintain your principles. His support of the #metoo movement came about as a result of his girlfriend actor, director and activist Asia Argento’s experiences and connection to this topic.

Bourdain was outspoken about sexual harassment and assault and the treatment of women in the workplace.  He was reflective of his and others’ behaviors and the societal standards that he came to abhor and admonish.

He became an early and frequent outspoken rare male celebrity voice in the disturbing #metoo reality. His principled leadership enhanced his credibility as a person of empathy and understanding. These are baseline requirements of cultural appreciation and decency.

Bourdain’s lessons will live on long after his passing. New York restaurateur Martin Butera said, “Bourdain connected to people, he had an adventurous personality that worked both culinarily and culturally.”

Bourdan’s work sets a standard of its own that will continue to connect, engage and inspire. That, among numerous other gifts, is his legacy.

Jacqueline Strayer is a faculty member at NYU in graduate programs in public relations and marketing. Follow her on Twitter @jfstrayer. A version of this post first appeared on the Institute for Public Relations blog.

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