The celebrity chef is highly-regarded in the West Bank and Gaza Strip for showing the “human” side of the conflict with Israel
The death of celebrity chef, writer, and television personality Anthony Bourdain has set off a flood of tributes. Bourdain, 61, took his own life on Friday in Kaysersberg, a small village in the Alsace region of France celebrated for its wine and gastronomic delights.
Bourdain got his celebrity start in 1999 by submitting an unsolicited article to The New Yorker, titled, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” He wrote candidly about his two-decades-long experience as a New York City chef, depicting with glaring honesty the grit, unsavory food practices, drugs and borderline criminality that characterized the restaurant industry. This was before cooking became a fashionable career choice thanks to other individuals such as Gordon Ramsay and James Oliver.
The New Yorker piece boosted Bourdain’s profile and led to a major book deal. His Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000) continued many themes broached in the article and led to further opportunities, this time on television.
In 2005, No Reservations began airing on the Travel Channel and concluded in 2012. The following year, Bourdain paired up with CNN to launch Parts Unknown, which became a hit. Episodes saw Bourdain—known for his bad-boy image and frankness—travel around the world exploring food cultures in remote locales. In an interview, he called his culinary approach a “communion with a foreign culture so unmitigated that it feels practically intravenous.”
In 2013, Parts Unknown dedicated an episode to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Conscientious of the fact that he was wading into prickly territory, Bourdain began the program with a disclaimer: “By the end of this hour, I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, a fascist, CIA agent, and worse.
“It’s easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world, and there’s no hope—none—of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off.”
Born in New York City to a Jewish mother and Catholic father, Bourdain was an avowed atheist, yet that did not stop him from celebrating his Jewish roots with a trip to the Western Wall in Jerusalem where he prayed wearing a skullcap.
While much has been made of Bourdain’s Jewish background, many on the other side of the conflict greatly appreciated his coverage of Palestinian cuisine and culture. After the show aired, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, an American advocacy group, awarded him the Voices of Courage and Conscience award for his work.
In his acceptance speech, Bourdain said he was “enormously grateful for the response from Palestinians, in particular, for doing what seemed to me an ordinary thing, something we do all the time: show regular people doing everyday things—cooking, enjoying meals, playing with their children, talking about their lives, hopes and dreams.
“The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity. People are not statistics. That is all we attempted to show: a small—pathetically small step—toward understanding.”
Peter Nasir, the owner and general manager of Azure, a restaurant in Ramallah, told The Media Line that Bourdain was well-received among Palestinians because welcoming guests with open-arms is part and parcel of the culture. “Watching Bourdain’s episode in the West Bank and Gaza, you can see he was moved by the hospitality he received. He came with an open mind. What we Palestinians love about him is that he knows the best way to reach a person’s soul: it’s through food.”
Nasir explained that by highlighting both narratives of the conflict, Bourdain was able to convey the human side of “two good peoples ultimately caught up in a bad situation.” He recalled a scene where Bourdain tries maklouba (a Palestinian rice dish with chicken) and fire-roasted watermelon in Gaza.
Palestinians, he added, vividly remember these images because the celebrity chef “showed who the Palestinians are without involving politics. He basically interacted with the people without passing judgement. And his quote about the world taking away Palestinian humanity reflects how we feel.”
Joudie Kalla is the author of Palestine on a Plate (2016) and a forthcoming book, Baladi: Recipes from Palestine. She told The Media Line that Bourdain’s episode “showed real people from both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, human beings, living in extreme and unnatural ways, with the former under military occupation.
“Most journalists and news media outlets,” Kalla continued, “show one side and Palestinian people are seen depressed, murderous, and vengeful, but they don’t know why some of them are like that. We Palestinians, as a people, need to have our own voice,” she concluded, “rather than someone on the other side of the wall who hasn’t experienced or walked in our footsteps tell our story.”