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The Bourdain School of Insight


INFLUENCER: Barkley's Chris Cardetti shares what he learned as a strategist from Anthony Bourdain in light of his passing

The Bourdain School of Insight

The eulogies have poured in from the food and culture circles about Anthony Bourdain. The storyteller. The cultural icon. The chef turned documentarian. But for any of us in the business of searching for insight and understanding, there is still so much to learn from this giant. Give him six beers and a low, plastic stool and Anthony could draw out deep truths from any dining partner around the world. 

The Anthony Bourdain school of insight-gathering goes like this:

1. He asked simple questions...but with a twist.

Bourdain was brilliant, but didn't try to prove that with his questions. "The questions that reporters ask make people tighten up," he said. "If you sit down with people and just say, 'Hey what makes you happy? What do you like to eat?' They'll tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food."

But he always had a way of twisting simple questions to make them go deeper. 

Instead of "What do you eat?" he would ask, "What did your mother cook you?" 

Instead of "What was it like growing up?" he would ask, "What were you doing when [insert historical moment] happened? 

Instead of "This tastes amazing. What is this?" He would ask, "Who cooked this?" which would turn into an entire backstory of a region, a country, a culture.

2. He had a voice and vision...but was always flexible.

Bourdain never wanted to approach two episodes of Parts Unknown alike. He approached every episode like an hour-long movie, and sometimes the plots were unexpected. He’d start out with an agenda, but always stay flexible when on the ground. He'd go in to make a political-oriented episode and end up with a heartwarming family story. He'd go in to make a food-centric show and he'd come out with a comedy. 

He teaches us to have that voice. Find it. Cultivate it. It's your style, the way you craft a narrative, the way you deliver it. He was not a 'celebrity chef.' He was the humble asshole, the bad-boy brainiac, the well-read college dropout who’d battled addiction. In his words, "I'm not humble, but I'm constantly humbled everywhere I go." This one-of-a-kind voice was even apparent in his very first article in the New Yorker that spawned his blockbuster debut, Kitchen Confidential. 


3. He suspended judgement.

Bourdain had a tattoo of a symbol that meant "Suspend Judgement.” He has a great riff on this in a podcast with Marc Maron, where he talks about eating with people who he fundamentally disagrees with. 

Bourdain famously skewered cultural trends (see Pumpkin Spice) and personalities (see Guy Fieri), but whenever he travelled, his number one rule was to take people for who they were. He didn’t debate political issues. He asked people about their lives, which would usually reveal a source of pain, a feeling of being left out, a fear that made them think the way they do.

He talks about "Finding the cracks," or the vulnerability that all people have. He did this not to nail them on a topic, but to understand the person. Finding the cracks is a great mantra for us. He may have wanted to say, "Go unfuck yourself and read a book," but instead, he kept asking about their life and they’d get to the heart of the issue.


4. He studied the extremes.

He purposely went off the path to talk and profile the common person, the extremely remote, the extremely sensitive places. Not to be provocative, although that was part of his persona, but to demonstrate that no matter how distant or different they seem, when you get around a table, most people are the same. This is a well-worn topic with design thinking, studying the extreme, but all too often in market research we study the broad demographic, the light user, the lapsed user. We should be in the business of talking to the extremes, too. We need to seek out most passionate people, for and against our brands or in the category. Some of our deepest insights can come when talking to the outliers.


5. He wasted nothing – food or words.

Anthony Bourdain famously tried anything because "if you reject the food, you reject the people." If you didn’t eat their food, they would never trust you enough with their story. He would take in everything and never waste a moment, much like food and being a chef. When he spoke and wrote, he threw away no details. He wouldn’t say, “Some chefs just aren’t that good.” Rather, he would say, "A dish made by a cynical chef will always taste like shit....To be in food, you have to be a romantic."

Wherever he went, his ways to gather insight started with making himself vulnerable. In doing so, he invited the people he was with to be more vulnerable, thereby giving us a more empathetic view on this world. This is what made him great. 

Chris Cardetti, VP, Group Strategy Director at Barkley

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Barkley, Wed, 27 Jun 2018 15:00:31 GMT