ABOVE PHOTO: TV personality, writer, and entrepreneur Anthony Bourdain talks at a SXSW event in Austin, Texas in 2016. (Photo: Shutterstock)
By Terry Tang
Anthony Bourdain’s culinary passions went far beyond the cuisine he put on a plate. He also was committed to the immigrant workers who toil in his and other kitchens throughout the restaurant industry.
Bourdain, who died last Friday in France in an apparent suicide at age 61, was an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and a fierce defender of Hispanic workers.
The chef, global traveler and author, whose popularity grew with his CNN series “Parts Unknown,” often was the first to tip his hat to his employees from Central America or Mexico. He promoted his Mexican-born sous chef, the late Carlos Llaguno Garcia, to run two of his New York restaurants and complained loudly about the United States’ “ridiculously hypocritical attitudes” toward immigration.
“Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are stealing American jobs,” Bourdain said in 2014. “But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had one American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position or even a job as prep cook.”
During the 2016 presidential campaign season, Bourdain slammed Trump’s promises to deport immigrants in the U.S. illegally and build a wall along the Mexican border.
“If Mr. Trump deports 11 million people or whatever he’s talking about right now, every restaurant in America would shut down,” Bourdain said in an interview with SiriusXM radio.
Trump has said the wall is needed to keep immigrants and drugs out of the U.S. and his policies are designed to keep the country safe.
Julian Medina, the owner of eight Mexican restaurants in New York, said he and Bourdain crossed paths a few times at industry events.
“The Latino community was very important to him because in the kitchens of New York there are many Latinos,” Medina said. “He supported that because he always worked beside a Latino and put Carlos in charge of his kitchen.”
Saul Montiel, executive chef at the Mexican restaurant Cantina Roof Top in Manhattan, said Garcia, who died of cancer in 2015, always spoke highly of Bourdain. For an episode of Bourdain’s Travel Channel show, “No Reservations,” Garcia gave Bourdain a tour of his hometown, Puebla. Bourdain claimed all the best cooks in his New York restaurants came from there.
Montiel, who started in the business washing dishes 15 years ago, said Bourdain was “one of the few chefs that valued the work of the Latinos in the kitchen.”
“There are many chefs,” he said, “that never recognize the hard work of the Hispanics.”
Mel Mecinas, an executive chef in Scottsdale, Arizona, who was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, remembers when Bourdain featured his home state on “Parts Unknown.” He liked that Bourdain went to smaller villages and wasn’t afraid to sit on the floor and eat, sampling traditional dishes such as tamales with mole negro sauce wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks.
“When he goes somewhere, he always finds the place where he can find the root of the culture,” Mecinas said. “I was so impressed about how down-to-earth he is and his sense of humor.”
Occasionally, Bourdain’s penchant to spotlight minorities attracted a backlash. Last year, a blogger accused him of banning White chefs from getting exposure on a “Parts Unknown” episode on Houston’s culinary scene. Bourdain responded on Twitter, calling it “shameful, dishonest race-baiting clickbait.”
Latinos weren’t the only minority group that embraced Bourdain. Jason Wang, CEO of Xi’an Famous Foods in New York, planned to donate profits at all its locations on Friday to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
In a Facebook post, Wang said Bourdain’s impact on his family’s Chinese street food business was immeasurable. In 2007, Bourdain endorsed the Wangs’ basement food stall, which served lamb noodle soup with hand-ripped noodles on “No Reservations.”
The bump in business was swift. Wang and his father gradually went from that stall to six eateries. In 2015, Wang had the chance to relay his gratitude in person.
“I looked at him in the eyes and said, ‘this is something we will always be thankful for Tony,’” Wang wrote. “And he simply replied, ‘I’m just calling out good food like it is, that’s all.’”