My tribute to Anthony Bourdain. The man who helped me change my life.

From the acknowledgments section of my book, The Travelling Belly.

Did you hear the news about Tony?

I had just got back to my hotel room in Mangalore on Friday (8th June 2018) from lunch at a local sea food joint when I saw the message on my phone.

It read, ‘Did you hear about Tony? It’s so terrible.’  The message was from, Neera Dhawan, one of the earliest friends that I had made through my blog. She had taken me to a noodle shop in KL where Anthony Bourdain had once been to. 

Going there was a quasi-pilgrimage for me just as was going to Tian Tian, the chicken rice place at Singapore’s Maxwell Centre, was earlier on that trip.

On the Bourdain Pilgrimage trail...
Tian Tian, Singapore, 2014

I rushed to check Twitter on seeing her messages and read the dreadful news.

Anthony Bourdain, food and travel writer, TV show host, 'enthusiast' (as his Twitter bio said), was no moreHe had taken his life, said reports.

The news hit me like a sucker punch. I sat feeling stunned in my hotel room. Messages flew in from friends from across the world. Friends who had read my blog for long, such as Jean Burke Spraker and Poli Gupta for example, and who knew what Bourdain meant to me and of the role he had played in my life. 
They were consoling me. Checking in on me. I did shed a tear or two which is rare for me. That’s how personal the loss felt and the circumstances behind it made it worse. Depression can be so cruel.
Which was rather ironic as Bourdain and I didn't know each other. You will hopefully realise why they did so once you read this post.

A toast to Tony
Karthik Coffee House, Mangalore

Later in the evening I joined, Dr Pradeep Rao, my friend and travel-mate for the Mangalore trip, for a filter kaapi at Karthik, a sleepy coffee shop tucked away in a by-lane of the city.

Pradeep is a doctor and a food lover and a fellow admirer of Bourdain. He told me that many of his friends messaged him about the unfortunate news too. 
‘They are not foodies. I didn’t even know that they knew of Bourdain. However, they all knew and messaged me as I am the only ‘food guy’ in the group.

I must admit that even I was taken aback by the outpouring of grief that I saw on social media in response to the news. Not just from ‘food people’, but from folks from all walks of life and age groups too. 

An indication of how universal Bourdain’s appeal was.

The joys of eating with No Reservations

First of the two amazing Konkani spreads that Shobha Kamath had
cooked for us at her house during my Mangalore trip

We had dinner that night at Pradeep's cousin, Shobha Kamath's place.. She had cooked us a meal featuring Konkani seafood delights, where the dishes ran into double digits. The dinner starred oysters, prawns, clams, whitebait,  anchovies, sardines and kingfish, cooked in a variety of methods and techniques, all rooted deeply in tradition.

This was the second meal that she had cooked for us. The previous night's dinner the was a vegetarian one and was all about seasonal leaves, herbs, shoots, mushrooms and roots. 

Both meals were anchored around the values of eat local, seasonal eating, nose to tail eating and both featured dishes that were from grandma's kitchen...things that made Bourdain gurgle like a happy baby.

I took comfort that night in the warmth of our host and her husband's hospitality, and that of my friend and his family, smiling at their happy chatter as we gave our well fed bellies a bit of a rest before we started on the iconic gadbad ice cream from Pabba’s, the darling of Mangalore.

Their company helped dull the pain I felt that evening a bit.

That's Shobha in green, her husband Girish in black. Pradeep is in the striped tee
and with him is his wife Chetna and children, Rhea and Prannav

Parts Unknown. Mangalore

Breakfast at the new Taj Mahal Cafe, Mangalore. The
biscuit roti (one o' clock) and tuppa dosa (bottom centre)
were revelations to me 
Pradeep's and my breakfast the next day was at New Taj Mahal Cafe. A restaurant in Mangalore whose history can be traced back to 1926. This was at their new premises which was still painted in the sepia tones of the years back. It was as if life had stood still here and yet the food served was so fresh.

We tried an array of south Indian vegetarian dishes there which were new to me. These were Konkani dishes which Pradeep ordered and then talked me through as they were native to his community.

I made two lip smacking discoveries that morning. The  khasta kachori like biscuit roti and the ghee soaked, pan fried, 'deep dish' tuppa dosa.

Both were dishes that I had not heard of till that morning and which, since then, have made it to my list of favourite dishes. This was my first ever trip to Mangalore.

Our lunch at Machali, Mangalore
In one of the small bowls in the middle is gaboli ghee roast

Our lunch that day was at Machali, a restaurant recommended to me by many on Instagram. I was taken there by good old Pradeep on whose family trip to Mangalore I had piggy backed on. At his suggestion might I add. 

The lunch was the stuff legends were made of. Each dish spoke of the complexity of the masalas used locally. The curries were sublime. The ghee roasts intense and unforgettable. Interestingly, the beauty of the seafood shone through, despite the liberal use of spices. The fishing season is over with the rains setting in and yet the crabs, the prawns, the sardines, the squids and the kingfish tasted so vibrant and full of life thanks to the tender love and care with which they had been sent out of the kitchen. The gaboli (fish roe) ghee roast, with its inherent butteriness, made me stop in my tracks and now features right up with grilled foie gras among the most indulgent dishes that I have had had in my life.

Happiness in this world

Pradeep is a friend I had made through my blog years back. We had planned this trip for long.

Joining us for lunch that day was his wife and children. And his cousin, Shobha, who  had fed us the brilliant dinner at her house the previous night. Joining us also for for lunch, were Shriya and Varun, a young couple whom I had met that morning for coffee after they had messaged me on Instagram. They told me that plan to one day bring in a slightly more contemporary eating experience, rooted firmly in the traditions of this land, to the sleepy town of Mangalore.

They were not the only readers I had met for the first time on this trip. The previous evening, I met Vikram Bondal, who was one of the earliest readers of my blog and continues to be one. He introduced me to the addictive 'Mangalore buns' (fried puris with a thick bhatoore like doughy heart) over filter kaapi at New Taj Mahal and then the gadbad ice cream at Pabbah's, first of the many dishes I had on this trip and had never had before. He told me about his love for the easygoing pace of Mangalore and that he can’t think of going anywhere else.

Their company, love and affection, brought a smile to my face and helped cut through the sense of gloom and pain that I had felt at a near personal level when I had heard of the news of Bourdain's death.

Anthony Bourdain. Medium Raw.

Reading my copy of Bourdain's Medium Raw which I had picked up in Sydney.
Candies, Bandra, 2010
I reflected on my trip to Mangalore and suddenly felt very grateful with the life I lead. I realised that I should treasure the fact that I am not stuck in a dreary corner office but am doing what makes me truly happy instead. 
That’s when the penny dropped. It struck me I am where I am today thanks largely to one man, Anthony Bourdain.
It is inspired by Bourdain I had embarked on a journey more than a decade back which has brought me where I am today. It is thanks to him that I took a path which was completely unknown to me back then, and was unthinkable too.

No, Bourdain didn’t know me, as I had said earlier in this post. We have never interacted, not even on social media. We had never met. It was my dream that we would someday. That was not meant to be I am afraid.

So why do I say that Bourdain led me on this path? Am I talking through my hat? Well, not entirely. Let me explain what I mean. 
It was in the mid 2000s that I first came across Bourdain’s show, No Reservations, on the TLC channel.

The show was a revelation for me. It struck me for the first time that a food show needn’t be just about showing ingredients and then giving a recipe about what to do with them. 'Stand and stir,' to use the term Tim Hayward used in his obituary of Bourdain. Nor did a travel show have to be about gushing tales of pretty places and manicured hotel experiences. 
Bourdain showed that a food show could go beyond just food and talk about the people behind the food too,  of their lives, their cultures, their dreams, hopes and aspirations and of their fears too. This is what one calls the 'sociology of food' and this appealed to the sociology student in me and perhaps the market researcher too.

I hungrily looked for more and found Bourdain's No Reservations blog and then his books, Kitchen Confidential and soon after that, the one that spoke to me more, A Cook’s Tour. I was mesmerised by what I read.

These were the words of someone who was talking to you, not talking at you. It read like the transcript of an unguarded chat among friends, one a chatty one and the other who is happy to listen. These were words spoken with a point of view and that too by an excellent wordsmith, writer and storyteller.

I began food blogging myself soon after that while still working in a market research agency. All I wanted to do was tell stories from my life anchored around food. It has been ten years since then, but that’s still what drives me. I remember my life being in a very sluggish state professionally when I was in my late 30s. I used to tell myself and a couple of close friends that Bourdain and Simon Majumdar (another person I look up to and who has been a mentor to) changed tracks in their 40s and that gave me hope. Sure enough, it was when I turned 40 that my life began to change and I slowly entered the world of food writing and exited that of market research.

As the years went by, I came across more books written by Bourdain and snapped them up and read them hungrily. I saw his No Reservations show take a more documentary feel and then there was Layover and then Parts Unknown and other shows that one tried to catch. One saw Bourdain give one sound byte after another to reporters. Each, it almost seemed, tailored for the world of ‘clickbait'. Bourdain did know how to grab ones attention!

With time, I came across people who had interacted with Bourdain in person and asked them about Bourdain. Not everyone had the some gushing reverence for Bourdain that I had it seemed.No one can be loved by everyone and I doubt if Bourdain had hoped to be so.

I did come across many fellow Bourdain groupies too of course. It was his ability to spin a yarn that held us in his spell. The swagger which came with it was part of the package and of the legend that was Anothony Bourdain. 

He didn’t let anyone or anything, including food, define him. He was all heart, or so it seemed, and that was enough for us.

A fan boy acknowledges a debt of gratitude

Catching some serious ghee roast action
Shetty Lunch Home, Kundapura, June 2018

To be honest, I had toyed with the idea of writing with this post for the last couple of days before I actually got down to writing it.

I wanted to write about my realisation that I wouldn’t be where I am today, doing what I do, if it wasn’t for Bourdain. Yet, I felt a bit wary to do so and asked myself if this sounded too precocious a statement to make, and held myself back. 

Then I saw a multitude of posts on social media from a variety of folks ... writers, chefs, bloggers, bankers, marketers, students, home chefs, home makers, corporate executives ... all saying how Bourdain was an inspiration for them. How Bourdain had showed them that they too could aspire to live the life they wanted to. I was not alone.

That's when it struck me that I’d be doing disservice to Bourdain, and his legacy, if I decided to err on the side of discretion and not speak from my heart and with no reservations.

So here it goes, it was Anthony Bourdain who had helped change my life, even though he had no idea of this, and for that I will be forever thankful to him. 

And I know that I am not the only one.

PS: It is rather fitting that my last meal before I left Mangalore was at a one time dive bar named Mangala Bar & Restaurant where the founder's young daughter and son in law are trying to keep the flame alive in the modern era. The dinner featured some excellent pork rakhti (sorpotel made with pig's blood, offal and tripe), pork masala (bafad), roast pork and pork chilli, local delights which found their way to Catholic Mangalore kitchens thanks to the Portuguese who had converted them to Christianity once upon a time. The food was not Instagramworthy perhaps, but Ugly Delicious, as his friend, David Chang would put it. The tenderness of the farm fed pork used in the dishes was a most apt tribute to Bourdain. 

The tribute to Bourdain Pork Feast at Mangala, Mangalore
First row: Pork masala/ bafad, pork chilli fry
Second row: Pork sorpotel, roast