The Anthony Bourdain Principle: How to Build Better Relationships With Strangers

Don't ever underestimate the power of a meal.

Don't ever underestimate the power of a meal.

When I was growing up, dinnertime was sacred. No matter if it was just me and my mom or if we had new friends over for dinner, we always made it a point to eat at the table each evening. I may not remember the food we ate, but I'll never forget the conversations we had.

That's because a meal is never just about the meal. Dining together is a tiny act that quickly becomes an expression of friendship, connection, and intimacy. As writer Victoria Pope notes, "Food is more than survival. With it we make friends, court lovers, and count our blessings."

The beauty of sharing a meal with strangers is that it immediately builds rapport and transcends language barriers and cultural differences. I call this "The Anthony Bourdain Principle."

Anthony Bourdain understood this better than anyone. The late renegade chef believed that breaking bread with strangers around the world had the power to unite us. He visited more than a hundred countries, and he spoke with the locals, tried to understand their culture, and offered us a new perspective on a country often mischaracterized by many.

One of the biggest lessons he learned is to embrace difference, delight in strangeness, and find joy in the weird.

"It’s something I will always at least aspire to — something that has allowed me to travel this world and eat all it has to offer without fear or prejudice. To experience joy, my father taught me, one has to leave oneself open to it," Bourdain wrote.

By embracing the different and delighting in the strange, people opened up to Bourdain in a way they would never open up to a news reporter.

(Read the Profile Dossier on Anthony Bourdain here.)

In her book Eating Together, Alice Julier argues that dining together can radically reduce our perceptions of inequality, and it allows us to view people of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than we would in other social situations. In other words, our differences are less pronounced at the dinner table.

One of my favorite dining memories is when Anthony and I went to a house in upstate New York with a few friends. After cooking together, we sat down at the dinner table, and Anthony asked his favorite — albeit controversial — question: "What is one belief you hold that you would be afraid to share in public?" Because it was only the six of us, we were able to express things (and hear how they sounded) while debating, arguing, and playing Devil's Advocate. It was a productive conversation because it was intimate. There wasn't the threat of mass judgement or public shaming. This question works well in showing you how people reason and how willing they are to change their opinion.

My personal favorite question to ask is, "What was the most formative event in your life that you believe shaped who you are today?" The reason I love asking it is because it reveals how a person sees themselves through the lens of a situation that left a significant impression on them. It brought out incredible stories among my group of friends — ones that I had never heard before.

I recently posed the following question on Twitter: "What is a good question to ask at the dinner table to guarantee a great conversation?" It elicited more than 200 thought-provoking responses including, "What's one moment from this year you least expected to find joy in?" and "Would you rather have a Princeton diploma without any Princeton education or a Princeton education without any diploma?”

In 2016, Bourdain gave us some of his own ideas about the questions that build intimacy with a complete stranger.

He filmed an episode profiling Masayoshi “Masa” Takayama, a man who was raised a “country boy” in the rural farming community of Nasushiobara, Japan. Takayama went on to become one of the most sought after sushi chefs in Los Angeles, and later, opened the eponymous Masa — "the most expensive (and easily one of the best) restaurants in the country."

In a post about the episode, Bourdain gave us the "cheat sheet" for how to better understand a person over a meal. He writes:

It’s always great when you can tell a story of a place through the eyes of an individual. It’s even better when that individual is an extraordinarily creative and talented artist with a unique way of looking at the world.

How did they get from “there” to “here”? What mysterious forces shaped them? What was it about the place and circumstances of their upbringing that helped push them, gave them the drive and the hunger to be different, to be bold, to insist on carving out their own path?

Although it might still be a while before we can travel the world and safely gather with strangers, one of the biggest lessons I've learned from Bourdain that I believe we can all put into practice today is this: Don't be a snob.

Remember, the dish you're eating is nowhere nearly as important as where you are sitting when you eat it and who you're eating it with.

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