To many Filipinos, the loss of Anthony Bourdain last week came as a heavy blow, because for many of us, especially those of us who are rooting for our cuisine to get the recognition it deserves, Tony is almost a hero. He helped introduce Filipino food to the world, and what endeared him to us was the honorable and responsible way in which he made that introduction.
In a 2009 episode of ”No Reservations” filmed in the Philippines, Tony, known for his appetite for pork, praised the country’s iconic dish, lechon ― a slow-roasted whole hog skewered on a bamboo spit, beloved for its skin crisped to perfection ― as the “best pig ever.” He also tried a dish called kilawing kambing, which is chopped, singed and boiled goat skin marinated in vinegar and spices. He loved it, but thought it deserved a better introduction than the one Filipino chef Claude Tayag had given it: “a gelatinous and rubbery skin dish.” Tony called out Claude and said, “Pick up a new name.”
That moment spoke volumes: Tony cared about how food is represented. No matter how unsavory a dish may sound, he wasn’t the type to be grossed out. Nor was he the kind to look down on it. He understood what food meant to the people who made and ate it, and he was careful to treat the food ― and, by extension, Filipinos ― with respect.
“He understood what food meant to the people who made and ate it, and he was careful to treat the food ― and, by extension, Filipinos ― with respect.”
Tony knew that food wasn’t just for cooking and eating: It was for understanding. In that same episode, he asked poignant questions with no simple answers, like “who are Filipinos?” He asked why, given the number of Filipinos in the U.S., Filipino food didn’t have a higher profile in America. “Filipinos are so damn nice!” he said, in his sharp, surly-yet-sexy kind of way. It sounded to me more like a criticism than a compliment, and it left a trail of food for thought. Yes, come to think of it, why do we Filipinos go out of our way to be so nice? Tony would keep following that trail: It would serve as the underlying theme of the filming of his next show in the Philippines, six years later.
The second time he filmed in the Philippines, it was for CNN’s ”Parts Unknown.” During that episode, he spoke about ― and devoured with gusto ― the street food called sisig, which he called the gateway dish to Philippine cuisine. While food was at the forefront, he later explained that the episode was an attempt to answer the question of “why so many Filipinos are so damn caring. Why they care so much ― for each other ― for strangers.” He featured the story of a woman named Nanay Aurora, who left her kids behind in the Philippines to raise other people’s kids in the U.S., so she could financially support dozens of people back home. It was tragic and amazing at the same time, yet not an uncommon narrative in the Philippines, where remittances from overseas workers account for 10 percent of the gross domestic product, or $30 billion.
In a 2017 interview, Tony lauded Filipino food as America’s next big thing. He believed that American taste buds were finally ready for the bold flavors, and the sour notes, that characterize some Filipino dishes. Naturally, this news was welcomed by compatriots in the Philippines and abroad with great excitement. Despite Filipinos being the second-largest Asian group in the U.S., our cuisine has stood for too long on the sidelines. Tony’s prediction gave us hope that the time for Filipino food had truly, finally, arrived.
“He believed that American taste buds were finally ready for the bold flavors, and the sour notes, that characterize some Filipino dishes.”
His announcement was not merely a source of cultural pride. It was a boon for Filipinos who wanted to promote their culture through food. I edited The New Filipino Kitchen, a collection of personal stories and recipes, and a labor of love by people of the Filipino diaspora. In pitching the book to publishers, the media and food influencers, I quoted Tony. His endorsement was essential evidence that there is and will be interest in Filipino food beyond Filipino communities. In a homogeneous and white-authors-dominated cookbook industry, it made a difference. It helped minority chefs, home cooks and writers build a mainstream platform. And, though he was instrumental in our cuisine’s rising global popularity, he never claimed credit, and he never gave the impression that he had “discovered” it.
Nor did he pretend to know more than he did about Filipino food and Filipino people. After the 2015 filming of the “Parts Unknown” episode, he called the trip an “intimate” Philippine experience, and he was exposed to the cuisine and culture through his daughter’s Filipino nanny, who has become part of his extended family. Still, he humbly acknowledged that his knowledge of Filipino culture was “limited in the extreme.” That admission earned him more respect and credibility in Filipino communities. For all his fame and influence, he didn’t take advantage of the cultures he tasted.
At the 2017 World Street Food Congress in Manila, Tony said food is a reflection of who we are, where we come from and what we love. In other words, it’s the people who are steeped in a culture who should champion their own cuisine and be the authorities of their own cultural and culinary narratives ― not an outsider. And he helped people like me to do that. Tony understood what food means to the Filipino people, both in the Philippines and in the diaspora. I hope he also understood what he meant to us.
Jacqueline Chio-Lauri is the editor of The New Filipino Kitchen.