Since my mid-teens, I’ve loved nothing more than to lose myself in the beautiful chaos of London’s Chinatown. This vibrant enclave in the heart of the West End provides a temporary escape from the humdrum realities of city life, as well as an opportunity to eat my way through the full colourful spectrum of Chinese cuisine, one delicious morsel at a time. You won’t find gloopy wanton soup and electric-pink sauces here, but the sort of fayre one might expect to eat in the street markets of Hong Kong, which is to say, the good stuff.
I invariably start my culinary tour, which has been a monthly ritual since the age of 18, with a BBQ pork bun and a pearl tea. At the pagoda at the bottom of Gerard Street, I sit with my bun in one hand, pearl tea in the other, and watch the throngs of tourists and Chinese expats go by. While families lug around shopping bags loaded with Chinese kitchen essentials, groups of students, many of whom new arrivals from the Mainland, make their way to restaurants where they sit around a bubbling cauldron and shoot the breeze over mouth-searing Sichuan hot pot. In the restaurant fronts, tough-looking chefs in soy-spattered aprons carve roasted meats using sinister-looking cleavers with terrifying speed and precision. I could sit at Gerard Street and absorb the smells, sights and sounds for literally hours. The atmosphere here is heady and chock full of sensory delights.
By the age of 15, Bourdain’s television series ‘A Cook’s Tour’ had left an indelible impression on me and, like many fellow food obsessives, I had embraced his enlightened hedonism with an almost radical fervour. Thanks to Bourdain, London had transformed in my mind from a city in which I merely lived and worked into one in which there were infinite possibilities for gastronomic adventure. Animated by my new-found zeal for exploration, I’d pick a different ethnic cuisine each weekend and traverse the sprawling capital in search of it. This included an hour-long Tube journey to the unremarkable suburb of New Malden, home to London’s 10,000 or so Koreans to eat bulgogi and bibimbap and a half revolution around the London Orbital to Hounslow, on the city’s Western extremity, to try the UK’s best Punjabi-style thali. In my more intrepid moments, I even ate at a Somali community kitchen, listening to tragic stories of life in war-torn Mogadishu and, on one occasion, I had the honour of being invited to a Bengali home in Bethnal Green by a Brick Lane shopkeeper whose wife lovingly prepared for us a Sylheti fish curry feast.
Eventually in my early twenties I was to go one step further by cutting loose and winging it abroad, embarking on a quest of the apex of world gastronomy and hoping, like Bourdain, to have a few epiphanies along the way. In 2015, I risked everything, threw my life into a suitcase and headed for China, the place that had fueled my imagination about as a youngster. On the plane, I dreamed about the hutong, Beijing’s old neighbourhoods, where I was told all the good stuff was to be found. Upon arrival, I quickly settled in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, where I paid my way working as a teacher, and assimilated into the expat community, forming lasting bonds with fellow travelers from all corners of the globe, many of whom were also influenced by Bourdain’s work and, more to the point, his love for authentic and unpretentious food. On day three, a long-time expat, chef and travel blogger from Montreal, whose prized possession was a signed copy of Bourdain’s magnum opus, ‘Kitchen Confidential’, took me down an uninviting series of backstreets in the hutong to ‘Li Qun,’ arguably the best Peking duck joint in the world. After enjoying a symphony of juicy meat and crispy, molasses-lacquered skin, we fortified ourselves with baijiu, a Chinese moonshine similar to lighter fluid, and raised a toast to Anthony whose photo, which was taken during an episode of his ‘No Reservations’ show, was displayed prominently on the tiled wall of this decades-old institution. In that moment, I felt a close connection with this man and, through a shared love of his work, I was finally meeting people with whom I shared a Bourdainian ethos. From being a fairly isolated and apprehensive young man in London, I’d staked out my place in the world as a daredevil traveler willing to try anything, and I was hungry for more.
A few months after my arrival, I had become part of a clique of Beijing expats with a maniacal passion for food. Together, we’d regularly scour the city’s markets and backstreets in search of degustatory pleasure, whether from roadside vendors or high-end gourmet restaurants. Wherever the good stuff could be found, we ferreted it out. After exhausting the capital, we boarded a sleeper train to Hong Kong, perhaps the most food-centric destination on the planet where we planned to follow the Bourdain trail, eating in the same restaurants and dai pai dong featured in ‘No Reservations’. In a spectacularly good beef noodle joint in downtown Tsim Sha Tsui was a framed photo of Bourdain, looking rather handsome and posing with a slightly bashful smile. The owner was effusive in praise, describing him as honest, kind and devoid of affectation. A profane Buddha, Bourdain spoke eloquently not only of food but moreover of people, in such a way that celebrated both our differences and our commonalities. His macho rock-and-roll image belied a deeply thoughtful and sensitive individual to whom thousands like me around the world paid homage through our travels. After eating ourselves to ruin during the trail, we went to a local 7-11, bought a bottle of maotai (a slightly smoother version of the paint thinner we’d had in Beijing) and ended our 48-hour escapade in a park overlooking Hong Kong harbour. Again, we toasted to Bourdain, the man who’d brought us all together, staring across the habour at the city’s beautiful neon skyline. It was a transcendent experience.
A few years later, when the news arrived that he’d committed suicide, I, like many others, was shattered. A man whose witty prose and sparkling humanity had inspired me and so many others to get out into the world, had succumbed to his own private despair. I always sensed from his writing that he had a latent depressive streak, but assumed he had the strength to overcome it. I was wrong. It’s now been about 5 months since his passing and, truth be told, I haven’t quite gotten over it. Speculating as to the reasons why he might have done it seems like a futile guessing game however. After all, none of us was privy to his innermost thoughts and feelings.
Though he may no longer be with us in person, his philosophy remains and lives on in the spirit of those who it inspired. Bourdain taught us better than anyone that food lies at the intersection of people and culture, and brings us to the table both literally and figuratively. More importantly, he showed us how exciting and humbling the world is -— a place full of essentially good people making the best of whatever ingredients they have to hand.