Seeing Miami Through Anthony Bourdain's Eyes

“Miami sneaks up on you. Or do we change and find ourselves sneaking up, washing up, ending up in Miami? It’s the kind of place you say, ‘That could never be me.’ And then it is.”

That was how Anthony Bourdain saw Miami.

Much like Tony, I’m not exactly sure how I ended up here. For many years, I kept one toe in the Sunshine State, returning to Miami almost as if on cue. I never really understood the place but was always intrigued by what lay below the surface. There are few cities with as many ostensibly unrelated stories, neighborhoods, and people as Miami. And sometimes it takes a misfit raconteur like Bourdain to weave these seemingly unrelated details into a cohesive tapestry, the textures of which have continued to lure skeptics like me into returning to the Magic City and even calling it home.

When Bourdain came to Miami for his CNN show, Parts Unknown, he challenged the synonymity of the city as a pseudo-Latin America with a nonstop party atmosphere and introduced the world to the real stories of the real people who live here. Three months after his untimely passing, and as Parts Unknown's final season returns to the airwaves this Sunday, it’s only fitting that we reflect on the way his show affected those of us who invited him into our homes weekly. And in doing so, we must revisit the way our city has changed over the past three years and how its unique personality and culture endure.

B&M Market, at the northern edge of Little Haiti, serves Jamaican, Guyanese, and Trinidadian staples. It’s the kind of establishment that transports you to another world the moment you set foot inside — and a prominent feature in the Miami episode of Parts Unknown.

“After he came, business increased by 40 to 50 percent,” Sheir Ali, owner of B&M, says as he points proudly to a photograph taped to the thermoplastic window at the checkout counter. The picture shows Bourdain smiling broadly alongside three generations of the Ali family. “And still to this day," Ali adds, "it’s just as busy.” After 30 years in the neighborhood, the modest Caribbean shop is flourishing, due in no small part to the publicity from the show. When I mention Bourdain's passing, Ali becomes visibly upset. “He was a really good guy.”

“Before, [patrons] were 100 percent Caribbean; they’ve since moved away. Now it’s only like 10 percent local Caribbean people. The rest are tourists,” adds Nafeesa Ali, co-owner and resident chef. “We’ve had people from Russia, Berlin, China, Colombia, even India... Whenever the show airs, we get more people. As long as they come to Miami, this is their stop.”

The surrounding neighborhood is slowly changing. NE Second Avenue has been closed for nearly two years for repaving, which has affected traffic to the shop, and buildings in the area are being renovated to make room for new businesses. But B&M is still going strong, with no plans to close its doors — at least not until the owners retire.

Just eight miles southeast is the former site of Oolite, chef Kris Wessel's Miami Beach health-food concept where Bourdain shared an unlikely meal with Iggy Pop. The restaurant has since closed. Not even the show’s popularity could generate enough foot traffic to pay the rent in South Beach. And what about Mac’s Club Deuce, the popular dive bar that's so nostalgic it stands in complete contrast to the modern buildings on its South Beach block? It’s still holding on, though owner Mac Klein has since passed away at the ripe old age of 101.
It’s easy to mistake Parts Unknown for a TV show about food because of the host’s vocation, but the food is almost an afterthought. This is a show about culture. In it, food is just a vehicle for breaking down barriers and driving people with differences on a path toward a broader understanding. That's how Bourdain learned about the real Miami, the one that some people seem to either forget about or don’t want to know about. Take, for example, Liberty City: Bourdain introduced the neighborhood to a mass audience, albeit briefly, two years before Moonlight humanized for the world the realities of growing up in Miami's projects. He even talked to Uncle Luke — you don’t get any more Miami than that.

Artists, foodies, restaurateurs, service workers — Bourdain connected us in a way that very few people have ever achieved. History will look back on him as the Shakespeare of the culinary world, a storyteller whose flaws gave him a distinct understanding and appreciation of the human condition. Miamians will reflect on him as a cultural translator, showing the rest of the world who we really are: a mélange of flavors, cultures, and personalities not often reflected in the caricatures of excess that tourists flock here to find.

He gave people the courage to travel, he was an unabashed example of what it looks like to face your demons, and he challenged us to look inward. And for one final season, he takes us on a journey to discover the familiar and unfamiliar alike. But only one episode — a trip to Kenya with W. Kamau Bell of CNN’s United Shades of America — will include Bourdain’s poignant narration, the touch that set his program apart from other travel shows.

“Is Miami America? Is it a state? Is it the South? I love Miami for the same reason I love the places I love the most around the world: It’s the mix here, this big, messy, dysfunctional hell broth of people from all over the world that make it so awesome and make it a place I want to keep coming back to," he explained in Parts Unknown.

"Also, the food’s good.”

The final season of Parts Unknown airs on CNN at 9 p.m. Sunday, September 23.
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Vianessa Castaños is a scriptwriter and producer who moonlights as a travel and culture journalist. She also runs Hustle Juice, an online resource for location-independent professionals and travel junkies.

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