Over the course of his award-winning Parts Unknown travel show on CNN, the chef and bestselling author, filmed episodes in nine African countries, immersing himself in local cuisine and culture while connecting with the poeple of Africa.
As he did wherever he went, Bourdain’s trips across Africa helped viewers connect with his local experiences in a way only he could by making it so relatable.
In a world where Africa has been subject of derogatory and stereotypical tropes for decades, Bourdain always managed to capture the essence of the places he visited, and their people, while being respectful of, and unpretentious about their realities.
His willingness to try foods unknown or unusual for most viewers (an adventurous streak for which he was best known) was part of the rich serving with each visit.
On his visit to South Africa, Bourdain was in Johannesburg to film an episode for his Emmy Award-winning travel and food show Parts Unknown.
The result is an amusing, hour-long episode which leaves one feeling a strange kind of pride as Bourdain battles with the idiosyncrasies of Johannesburg life.
At the time he shot the episode in 2013 ,Nelson Mandela’s ill health was dominating international headlines and Bourdain was keen to see whether the country was continuing to “make Mandela’s dream a reality”.
He discusses racism, democracy, xenophobia, the ruling ANC, born-frees and even hipsters with local rock band.
He also watches a game between soccer teams Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs at a tavern, savours a sheep’s head, shoots and eats an impala, takes a taxi ride in Soweto and samples food and drink at Braamfontein’s Neighbourgoods Market.
But if he was looking for food that is uniquely ours, à la sushi to Japan or fajitas to Texas/Mexico, he was left somewhat wanting.
He commented: “South Africa, depending on who I talk to, is a completely different construct. To some people, it is whoever comes to South Africa and brings good food along with them.”
“To other people it’s all the good stuff from Malaysia, East Indies, the Dutch, the English influence.”
“What in this table is originally African and does that even have any meaning?”
Johannesburg chef Andrea Burgener, who is featured on the episode, tried to explain that our food was a “mish-mash”, thanks to the many colonialists.
She said it was difficult to convey to Bourdain what our food was about.
“It was like trying to get a snapshot of something you can’t get a snapshot of,” she said.
“We tried to explain to him that, even in the apartheid days, black and white people ate pap and braaied meat. And our food is such a melting pot [that] it’s bloody impossible to give someone a clear picture.”
IN HIS OWN WORDS:BOURDAIN ON SOUTH AFRICA
“Smileys … fire-roasted sheep’s head … chopped into tasty bits and eaten with cold beers? Yes, of course, yes … just needs a little salt and pepper.”
•“You should probably know that the word ‘taxi’ in Soweto means something different to New York. Johannesburg has a system of hand signals indicating desired routes of travel.”
“Now there is a definite cachet to living in Soweto. A real pride of having been at the centre of things, when it was hard and dangerous to have an opinion. Look at the streets here and you see what that kind of pride does. It may not be a rich area, but it’s immaculate. Squared away; an emerging middle class coming up.”
•“The Boers, as they were known, came in the 1600s, and if nothing else can be said about them; they were a tough bunch of bastards.”
•“This is my ancestral homeland?” — on the Cradle of Humankind.
•“Meat on the plate, blood on my pants, life is good.”
•“I came to this country spectacularly ignorant; I will leave here spectacularly ignorant.”
•“I like it … I’m comfortable here [South Africa]. I like a country where people have a sense of humour.”
•“What did I know about South Africa before I came here? Exactly nothing, as it turns out. But I think based on what I’ve seen is that if they can get it right here, a country with a past like South Africa’s, if they can figure out how to make it work here for everybody, absorb all the people flooding in from Africa, continue to make Mandela’s dream a reality, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.”
Bourdain never ate alone and often chose locals as his dinner companions, peppering them with questions. Their answers helped him and viewers understand local culture better.
Tunji Andrews, a Lagos-based economist, was one of Bourdain’s meal dates last October when Parts Unknown paid a visit to Lagos.
Sitting outside a Lagos buka—street-side canteens for local food—Andrews and Bourdain discussed the entrepreneurial spirit of Lagos, Africa’s largest city, and home to 21 million people. As always though, Bourdain was equally interested in his meal—pounded yam and egusi,a popular local stew.—and preferred to enjoy it how the locals would, Andrews says. “While I was being proper using cutlery, he washed his hands and dug in Naija style.”
Bourdain took viewers around the world to places he went, showing people’s humanity in a original and compelling way. In his shows, Africa wasn’t a stereotype, a place defined by conflict and poverty. Instead, it was defined by something refreshingly simple: good people, and good food.
In remembrance of Bourdain and his indelible impact, check out some clips from his travels across the continent and the diaspora below.
On this trip, Bourdain explored Mozambique’s incredible seafood variety and rich culinary history.
After visiting the mainland, the food expert visited Zanzibar, and took in the island’s diverse flavors, and culinary traditions.
Upon visiting Africa’s largest metropolis last October, Bourdain described Lagos as “mad, bad, delicious, confusing, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“No island in the sun is paradise on earth, however it might look from the concrete blocks, glass cubicles, or wood boxes we may live in. And all the dancing and music and great food in the world can never hold together, by itself, what would keep us apart. What might look like a utopian stew of ethnicities and cultures living together under swaying palms is of course a far more complicated matter. But Trinidad has done better than most and in proud and unique style.”
Bourdaine on Ghana’s bustling Makola Market:
“You don’t master Makola market; you submit to the sensation and impulse.”
In this popular episode, the chef explored the harsh realities of the tourism industry in one of the Caribbean’s largest islands. One popular clip shows Bourdain hilariously devouring some succulent jerk chicken.
In this episode, Bourdain takes in the sounds, sites, and flavors of Ethiopia with famous Ethiopian chef Marcus Samuelsson. Bourdain tried his best to show an intimate side of a country that he felt was widely misunderstood in the global community.
In this short clip from his time spent in central Africa, Bourdain lived out one of his life-long dreams by traveling across the Congo River.
Bourdain always warned against the romanticizing of the Caribbean, instead urging people to recognize the humanity of people who live on its islands. Upon traveling to Cuba , he had this to say: “Havana’s beautiful—incredibly so. Probably—no, definitely—the most gorgeous city I’ve ever seen anywhere in the Caribbean or Latin America,” he wrote in a Travel Channel guide. “The people are lovely. The baseball, some of the best and most passionate fans in the world. It’s easy and understandable how visitors can get overenthusiastic about the place, gush about it and lose sight of the fact that their experience is very, very different than the average Cubans’.”
Bourdain’s death came just days after the suicide of another celebrity, designer Kate Spade.