There’s a photo you’ve probably seen of Barack Obama and Anthony Bourdain hunched over a small table in Hanoi. Their sleeves are rolled up, their top buttons unbuttoned. The floor is speckled with dirt and a rusty fan blows air from a corner. Obama, a few months into his final year in office, is orating, and Bourdain is listening, really listening – he holds eye contact with the president and lets his shoulders relax.
All that separates the leader of the free world and the celebrity chef-turned-writer-turned-TV-host is a spread of local Vietnamese cuisine and some chopsticks and two open bottles of local beer (no glasses required). Their fellow diners are trying to act natural, but a woman at Obama’s eight o’clock struggles to contain her excitement. And of course, the significance wasn’t lost on the restaurant, Bun Cha Huong: the metal-topped table on the second floor is now encased in glass.
Bourdain tweeted the now-famous photo on May 23rd, 2016, four months before the accompanying episode of his Emmy-winning travel show Parts Unknown aired on CNN. Bourdain’s caption is almost a perfect haiku: Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. Obama and Bourdain appear to be the only Westerners in the frame, but they blend in effortlessly. Both individually and as a unit in this fleeting moment, they are ambassadors of an America that feels so far gone. How did a country this stable pull a Jekyll-and-Hyde in just two years?
Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer. pic.twitter.com/KgC3VIEPQr
— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) May 23, 2016
Bourdain’s death by suicide at the age of 61 feels like we’ve lost one of our nation’s best representatives. His globetrotting uniform was a pair of jeans, an earth-tone shirt and Clarks desert boots. He perpetually looked the part of that mythic American who is simultaneously hungry to know the world but comfortable in his own skin no matter where he finds himself. Like Obama, Bourdain displayed a rare ability to make those in his presence feel good about themselves. Like Obama, Bourdain saw things and met people and had conversations that the vast majority of the earth’s population will never get to experience.
Of all the quintessentially “American” values that we brag about, this level of intense curiosity is at the top. And despite whatever his alpha-male stardom, baritone voice and unapologetic New York accent may have suggested, Bourdain’s core appeal was his natural embrace of populist culture. He had deep knowledge of French cooking but unabashedly endorsed Mexican taco trucks, airport Shake Shack and five-and-diime Frito pie.
In his landmark 1999 New Yorker essay, which served as the catalyst for his bestselling book Kitchen Confidential and launched the public phase of his career, Bourdain mused over the majesty of pork: “Most chefs believe that supermarket chickens in this country are slimy and tasteless compared with European varieties. Pork, on the other hand, is cool. Farmers stopped feeding garbage to pigs decades ago, and even if you eat pork rare you’re more likely to win the Lotto than to contract trichinosis.”
In Hanoi, Obama asked Bourdain how to properly prepare and eat Bun cha, the pork-based dish they were about to share. “I will walk you through it,” Bourdain said, without a hint of judgment or mockery. Both men deftly used black chopsticks from a red plastic cup.
As Bourdain and Obama proved in their televised meal, being a proud American doesn’t have to mean you’re a close-minded nativist. It has nothing to do with tariffs or anthems. Bourdain liked to shoot guns and swear and drink beer. He was not afraid of The Other. In recounting the event, Bourdain told Anderson Cooper, “I’ve never seen a guy enjoy a cold beer and a low plastic stool more than President Obama, by the way.”