Parts Known and Unknown: What Storytellers Can Learn from Anthony Bourdain
Admittedly, I am no foodie. I never watch the food channel and can be seen occasionally driving through a White Castle’s drive through. However, as a former journalist, marketer, entrepreneur and storyteller, I can wholeheartedly say we lost a treasure recently when Anthony Bourdain took his own life. And there are lessons to be learned far beyond food from this self-described “cranky, miserable bastard” who was a gifted chef, storyteller and Peabody award winner for CNN’s “Parts Unknown”. In a time when the clashing banter of pundits is mistaken for journalism, and the art of storytelling is often limited by 140 characters and pithy soundbites, Bourdain was a throwback who took time to listen and reflect, then tell. He used the universality of food as a common gateway to explore the differences of peoples and cultures, and craft their stories in his own unique way, which has been described as the junction of pathos and satire.
He confessed that his approach was simple:”We ask very simple questions,” Bourdain said. “What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions, we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”
It was amazing to watch how asking these simple questions allowed Bourdain to show us more depth of reporting than most classically trained journalists. His craftsmanship was on full display in the “Parts Unknown” segment about the Congo. Inspired by the first novel I ever read, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Bourdain journeyed along the Congo river and local dinner tables to weave a detailed story of “a country ravaged and a people slaughtered in search of ivory and rubber, an omnipresent colonial power that vanished, and the rebel forces left to kill for an inch of power in its wake”.
The final scene of the segment ends at Yangambi Research Library, where staff maintain a daily ritual to preserve an old, dusty Belgium colonial library – a relic of a legacy that gave such civilized artifacts but at such a high human price. This was just one example of how Bourdain used very simple questions to reflect on the most complicated human conditions.
For the storytellers among us, whether we are building brands or writing novels – may we remember Bourdain’s simple formula for storycraft: Find the common thread, ask the basic questions, and listen intently. No matter how digital our world gets there will always be a market for a story well told.
Thanks Tony, may your own journey into the Heart of Darkness bring you some light at the end of the river.
Anthony Bourdain’s Theory on the Foodie Revolution, Smithsonian, July 2014