Cafeterias Unknown: Who was Anthony Bourdain?

“Eat and drink with people without fear and prejudice...they open up to you in ways that somebody visiting who is driven by a story may not get."

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Anthony Bourdain, chef, traveler, and storyteller; spent nearly 20 years sharing meals with people from around the world as part of his television series, A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, and Parts Unknown. Before becoming a television personality, Bourdain held the position of Chef at a number of NYC restaurants, including Supper Club, One Fifth Avenue, and Sullivans. Most notably, he was the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan for many years.

Between 2002 and 2018, Bourdain visited nearly 90 countries and filmed over 200 episodes about food culture around the world. While he spent much of his twenties and thirties stirring up trouble in professional kitchens around NYC, his television series often took a more serious tone. Bourdain used this platform to convey a sense of disappointment in modern food culture and maintained the opinion that food should be eaten thoughtfully and with others. According to the Washington Post, he once said in an interview with VPR,

“If you sit down with people and just say, ‘Hey, what makes you happy? What’s your life like? What do you like to eat?’ More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food.”

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Our Farm to School team took that notion and ran with it—school cafeteria style. We may not have gotten quite as far as Bourdain. In fact, we didn’t get much further than Bellows Falls. But, we did decide that visiting school cafeterias to eat lunch with local students was going to be an important component of our programming moving forward. We wanted to know what their lives are like and what they like to eat. We wanted to confirm that the stigma around school meals really is changing. And, we’ve heard plenty of extraordinary things.

What Bourdain said was true; food is an incredible conduit for good conversation. While we may have strayed from this tradition a bit in recent years, sharing a meal with others in such an important and nourishing practice. Kids at school do it every day. They pile into the lunchroom with friends and catch up over sandwiches and cartons of milk. They are a jumble of lunchboxes, colorful trays, and winter jackets—and man, do they have a good time!

Anthony Bourdain was all about stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. For many of us adults, school lunch doesn’t quite fit inside that zone. It’s unfamiliar and in many cases, marred by our own primary school experiences. So, we jumped into that zone! We joined students, teachers, and food service professionals in the school food experience. We heard from students that they crave familiar, comforting, and fresh foods; as well as meals that allow for student choice. Food service professionals spoke about their commitment to serving nourishing meal and reducing food waste. And educators are keen to see school meal programs continue to evolve.

As school meal programs are a vital resource for many families, Food Connects is committed to supporting food service professionals in creating programs that they are proud of. Food plays an essential role in community building and we encourage you to learn more about your school meal program. Barack Obama once shared a meal with Anthony Bourdain. He recalls, “This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.”