America’s favorite culinary bad boy talks about the scariest place he’s ever been, the last thing he’d ever eat and how a man who once hated celebrity chefs became the most famous one of all
Author Justin Goldman Illustration Philip Burke
About the only thing Anthony Bourdain won’t bite is his tongue. That’s something he’s proven to an international audience many times in the 15 years since the publication of his best-selling memoir, Kitchen Confidential. The book, which details everything you ever wanted to know—and maybe didn’t want to know—about what happens in restaurant kitchens, turned a broke, uninsured, 44-year-old culinary industry lifer into a multimedia star.
Bourdain has since written five other books (not counting cookbooks and forays into fiction and graphic novels) and starred in several TV shows, including nine seasons on Travel Channel’s Emmy Award–winning hit “No Reservations” and five seasons on CNN’s Emmy- and Peabody Award–winning “Parts Unknown.” He’s become beloved by viewers and readers for his acerbic style—he drinks and swears and has started feuds with everyone from Alice Waters to Paula Deen—and his willingness to eat just about anything.
With “Parts Unknown” his work has taken a serious turn, as he’s documented visits to places including Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Libya. But that doesn’t mean he’s lost his sense of fun. Bourdain talked to Hemispheres from his New York City apartment as he prepared to set out on a 10-city speaking tour this month, a tour that he promises will be “funny and filthy.” As always, he had lots of opinions to share, on matters ranging from why travel writers may not be good for the world to how he became what he calls “a performing seal” to what dinner conversation with Keith Richards would be like.
Hemispheres: I have to start with a confession: I’m a big fan of yours, and I once ran into you in a men’s room at LaGuardia. I wanted to say hello, but I was like, Um, no, not here.
Anthony Bourdain: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s awkward. The only time I ever met a Beatle, I was standing next to Paul McCartney [at a urinal], and it was like, what do you do? Can you shake hands? No, probably not.
Hemispheres: Well, it’s nice to meet you under more appropriate circumstances. But given your fun-loving reputation, I’m disappointed we’re not splitting a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle during this interview.
Bourdain: Look, I just walked my 8-year-old daughter to school with her little backpack and school sweater. Packed her lunch box, and I’m going to the gym later. So that’s at odds with the idea of me sitting around with a bottle of Pappy at 9 in the morning, chugging from the neck. That ain’t me. Not these days.
Hemispheres: Parenting aside, you certainly keep busy with your books and television shows. And this month you’re embarking on a 10-city speaking tour. Why add the tour to an already packed schedule?
Bourdain: I don’t know. It’s terrifying. It’s fun. You interact with fans directly during the Q&A. You really see who’s watching and what they’re thinking. And that’s exciting, to walk out on stage in front of a couple of thousand people with just a couple of bullet-point notes scrawled on a piece of paper. You really never know how it’s gonna go, and it’s an adrenaline rush. It’s exhausting. It’s a lot like stand-up in that sense—if you’re on the stage for an hour and a half, there better be plenty of laughs.
Hemispheres: Do you have a focus for these talks?
Bourdain: No. I want it to be funny. And filthy. It’s going to be particularly filthy. There’s no “I really want to sink my teeth into the GMO issue.” That ain’t me. [Laughs.]
Hemispheres: And of course your CNN show, “Parts Unknown,” just wrapped up its fifth season. I’ve always liked the show, and as you’ve gone on it feels as if it’s become more and more cinematic. For example, this season you edited the Korea episode to run backward.
Bourdain: We’d been looking for an opportunity to do a backward show for a long time, and it became clear while we were shooting that this might be it. Since it’s such a drinking culture, and the content we were filming was so much about a long, very Korean-style drinking and karaoke and eating bender, we thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to go backward and have me become more sober as the show progresses?”
Hemispheres: It’s nice to have the freedom to make a stylistic choice like that.
Bourdain: We have a lot more freedom with CNN to wander away from any particular format. We can pretty much narrow our focus as much as we want, or widen it. There doesn’t have to be food in the show, so we can go places where there’s no expectation of food, or even reproducible travel experiences. I don’t think anyone’s going to the Congo anytime soon for vacation. And you’re not gonna get a club sandwich at your hotel, that’s for sure.
Hemispheres: That change in focus dates back to the episode of “No Reservations” you filmed in Beirut as the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict broke out, right?
Bourdain: I think that was a big shift. We realized very quickly and painfully that the world is a bigger place, and that [sometimes] it’s inappropriate to make a straight food show, or even travel show. I’m not saying we got all serious and started to think of ourselves as journalists, but we did see that in very real terms we could get away with not having a happy ending in the show. That we could get away with me really talking about how I felt about things. We were afforded a lot of liberty with that show because it was a news story. And we held on to that liberty. We just continued to widen the focus. We try to keep moving. Even if we fail, we just want to keep doing work that’s interesting, to us first and hopefully to the audience. And we want to keep changing and pushing ourselves as far as the kinds of stories we’re telling, where we’re telling them, the style in which we tell them. That’s really important to me and the people I make the show with. And, fortunately, CNN has been extraordinarily supportive of that intention.
Hemispheres: What’s the scariest situation you’ve been in?
Bourdain: Congo, as far as day after day of feeling very uncertain about how things are going to turn out, and whether you’re going to make it through the day. That was easily the most difficult show. We were threatened and extorted, threatened with arrest twice a day, every day we were there. And you’re very far from anything resembling electric power, a flush toilet or someone who’s going to come and help you if the local constabulary decide that today’s the day that they want all your stuff. They can pretty much do whatever they want. And if not them, there are plenty of militias out there. It was a very difficult shoot that I’m really proud of. Fortunately, we had really great fixers on the ground who got us through some really dodgy situations.
Hemispheres: Doesn’t it blow your mind that the people who live there deal with that every day?
Bourdain: Oh my god. I mean, it’s a country where, in many parts of Congo, it’s dangerous to own anything or to make anything or to grow anything. If you have anything worth taking, you’re exposing yourself to harm. It’s just an awful, awful situation for millions of people in a country that’s one of the richest in resources in the world. And it has been visited with all of the terrible afflictions that a country could experience.
Hemispheres: You visit a lot of places that many of us don’t really have a chance to. Is it part of your job to dispel notions that Americans may have about those parts of the world?
Bourdain: That’s not my intention. That’s a byproduct of what I do that I’m very happy about. If people come away from the show with a different perspective on Gaza, the West Bank, Tehran, Myanmar—places about which they had certain preconceptions and now at least they start to think that there might be another perspective, or be encouraged to go there or to read more about a place—that’s great. That makes me feel very happy. But I don’t have that kind of agenda. My agenda is only to go to a place, to experience it as best I can and then to tell the story of my experience in a way that is creative, interesting and true to my point of view. That’s it. I am not an advocate. I am not an educator. I am not an activist.
Hemispheres: That’s a very measured approach.
Bourdain: I don’t know what the best approach to take is. I don’t know that travel writers are necessarily always good for the world. There are some places I go to that are so beautiful and unspoiled, I want to turn to the camera and say, “Don’t come here, because you’ll ruin it.” It’s a destructive process, showing this perfect little neighborhood pub in an unspoiled area of a country that not a lot of people are going to, and you put it on TV because you’re genuinely enthusiastic about it, and you go back and there’s a lot of tourists in ugly shorts and sandals.
Hemispheres: A friend of mine in San Francisco says he’s mad at you because you went to Swan Oyster Depot, and the lines are twice as long now.
Bourdain: We’re aware of that. And there have been a few places that I’ve deliberately not given the name or the address. I basically say, “I’m not gonna tell you the name of this place, because you’ll screw it up.” A restaurant in Rome years ago that I just fell in love with, I said, “I’m not gonna tell you the name of it because too many people will come.” People who really wanted could easily have put it together, and did, so at least it separates out the casual [tourist].
Hemispheres: Aside from the travel narratives, you also worked on a reality show, “The Taste.” Reality TV seems to be the kind of thing that you’d snark about. Why’d you do it?
Bourdain: It was fun. And it was easy—let’s not discount that. Actually, the thing that got me, to be perfectly honest, was I could do the whole thing in a month, and they’d put me up at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, which is, like, my favorite hotel in the world. It’s very special, warm and dysfunctional in the best possible way. So that was really what convinced me. And spending time with people I really like: Nigella [Lawson] and Ludo [Lefebvre] and Marcus [Samuelsson]. I’ve been flying to faraway lands for almost 14 years now. So the idea of a month of relative stability, commuting to work from a nice hotel, hanging out after work with friends, eating Korean barbecue, in a city that I’m really interested in—it’s a very “not me” experience, and that made it fun.
Hemispheres: This brings up an interesting dissonance in your existence. You’ve called out celebrity chefs in the past, and yet you’ve certainly benefited from that cultural phenomenon.
Bourdain: Yeah, I long ago became part of the problem.
Hemispheres: How do you square that?
Bourdain: Age and corruption. When I wrote Kitchen Confidential, looking at Emeril from where I was at the time—standing there in a kitchen at age 44, broke, no
insurance—he was from Mars. I couldn’t imagine a chef who was so lovable and could be so friendly and happy and evangelical. And of course I hated it. It seemed manufactured and so far away from the realities of what I was doing. Of course, I’ve come to know Emeril and have come to know a lot of chefs who do that for a living. Some of them are completely bogus and bad for the world, and others, like Emeril—I mean, Emeril put in his time. If you chain Emeril to a stove, he can actually cook. He was a real chef with real credentials. And the minute you agree to do television, you become something of a performing seal, and it becomes a little more difficult to point the finger at your fellow juggler and look down on them. So you become complicit in this strange and terrible phenomenon, and it would be hypocritical to not temper my views.
Hemispheres: Emeril appeared in an episode of HBO’s “Treme” that you helped write, and I thought he came off great in it.
Bourdain: It’s one of the proudest moments of my career, that scene that I wrote for him, and the culmination of something I’ve really wanted to do for a long time, which was to see Emeril use the f-word on television. Which is how Emeril talks in real life. He likes working. He’s a regular guy. He’s happy in the kitchen, and he’s happy among other chefs, and I came to know that long before I was able to get him on “Treme.” It had been a long-simmering ambition on my part to let people see something like the real Emeril on TV. And not only was I very grateful that he did the scene, I think he killed it.
Hemispheres: I’ve seen you ask this of a lot of chefs, and it’s one of my favorite questions: What would your last meal be?
Bourdain: I’d be eating Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo. I’d just be eating whatever [Jiro Ono] wants to feed me.
Hemispheres: You seem really drawn to Tokyo.
Bourdain: If you grab any 10 chefs from whatever level, from Spain, France, all over the world, and then tell them, “You’ve got to spend the rest of your life eating all your meals in one city,” they’re all gonna say Tokyo. There’s a level of perfectionism, a reverence for technique, a density and variety—an unknowable. It’s such a steep learning curve that no matter how often you eat and how deeply you try to penetrate and how well you may or may not learn the language, you’ll never know [anything]. It’s great.
Hemispheres: OK, now say you’re hosting a dinner for four. Who are your three guests, dead or alive?
Bourdain: Orson Welles, Ava Gardner and Keith Richards.
Hemispheres: Wow. What do you think that conversation would be about?
Bourdain: I’ll tell you, it’d be a pretty interesting discussion. I mean, Keith Richards is a military historian. So maybe British naval history and film.
Hemispheres managing editor Justin Goldman’s last meal would be a burrito mojado al pastor from San Francisco’s Taqueria Cancún. He’d wash it down with a bottle of Pappy.