A man who has never been afraid of speaking his mind, chef, author and TV show host Anthony Bourdain talks to us as he launches yet another brilliant season of the cultural food show, Parts Unknown.
His life has been well documented, a former drug abuser (Kitchen Confidential), a chef for twenty years and now a bon vivant of sorts. Bourdain bridges cultural divides effortlessly and in his words really doesn’t “give a shit” about being considered a celebrity. We jumped on the phone to quiz Bourdain about his life these days as a full-time travel journalist.
I love the work that you do. It’s refreshing and honest, opinionated but at the same time very down to earth. It’s great to have people like you making this kind of content, especially at a time when I think authenticity is lacking on the whole.
It seems like a simple thing, just speaking in your own voice on television. I don’t understand why more people don’t do it. I also think I benefit very much from not really giving a shit. For most people on television, their greatest fear is that they won’t be on television anymore, and that fear drives what they do and how they do it. I’m out there pleasing myself and having fun and trying to stay interested myself. I see that as my first obligation. If I’m not interested and I’m not having fun, I don’t see any reason for anyone else to enjoy the show. So I just try very hard to have fun, to challenge myself, to explore things that interest me, and if an audience chooses to come along on the ride then that makes me happy.
It’s interesting that you talk about not giving a shit because you do care in a different way. It’s the not caring about the ratings but the really caring about the humanity side of it that connects with people.
I have a heart. I’m a dad. And I know what hard work is. So I guess those things resonate with me. I see the sort of things that you inevitably see when you travel in the developing world and it’s relatable to me. Being broke and standing in a hot kitchen for 12 hours a day is not that distant a memory. I’m also grateful because until I was about 45 the idea that I’d be doing what I do now would have been a ridiculous fantasy.
You’ve travelled the world and met so many different people, you’re clearly very curious in the way that you engage in different cultures. Is there a universal truth that you’re looking for?
I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a need to look for a central truth, but there’s a tattoo on my arm in ancient Greek that translates roughly to I am certain of nothing. So if I believe in any central truth it’s that. Healthy scepticism and doubt, the knowledge that I could be absolutely wrong, that’s sort of a constant.
Have you learnt anything new about yourself from your experiences travelling the world?
I’ve learnt that most people in the world are pretty nice and are doing the best they can. I was not always so optimistic about basic human nature. I also believe very much that the more you travel the more humble you should be, in the sense that you see really awful things happen to good people all the time. You see people remorselessly ground under the wheel again and again, and I think you understand that it could easily happen to you or anyone you love. And maybe I hug my daughter a little tighter when I go home because of what I’ve seen.
What I really love about your show Parts Unknown is that it takes a geopolitical look at the places just as much as it explores the gastronomy.
The show has evolved over the years but the basic entry point was always, an ex-cook goes to places and asks people very simple questions; what do you like to eat? What makes you happy? I eat with people, and what has happened over the years because of that simple willingness to sit down and eat with people, is that they have told me extraordinary things. They open up their lives to me in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. Things started to happen around the meal. If I was sitting there in the mountains of Laos and my host is missing two limbs, it seemed worth asking what happened. It’s not just dinner. There’s nothing more political than food.
Why do people eat the way they eat? Who is eating and who is not eating? What can’t we say at the dinner table and why not? I eat in a lot of places and I have to think about what the situation might be for the people that I have dinner with. That’s a factor I always have to weigh. I think about the fact that when you make a television show in a place, it changes that place. We’re given the freedom to look around the room, not just stare at the place. But it’s not a benign thing to push yourself into a home with cameras. So that’s something we wrestle with and sometimes even address directly.
Is there an element of worrying that you’re being condescending? Or an over awareness of the fact that you’re there as a tourist and that you can soon go back to your comfortable home in New York?
Yeah, there’s a real dissonance. You spend two weeks in Cambodia and then suddenly find yourself one short flight later in the lobby of a hotel where women in little black dresses and high heels are sipping pink drinks out of martini glasses. You feel like you’ve just landed on another planet and no place feels like home. I’m very aware of that and it’s something I’m grateful for but wary of as well.
What has been the best meal for you in this latest season and did you have any brushes with death?
The food in Senegal was pretty delicious and the sisig in Manilla is outrageously tasty, sisig is basically sizzling pig with egg cracked over the top, perfect drinking food. In terms of brushes with death, well, there were a few hairy moment but I rather not go into it.
This is season 7 of Parts Unknown for you now. Is it getting any easier?
Well we’re always challenging ourselves to not repeat what we did last week. You asked, how do you go to another country and talk to people in very different situations and then come back? One of the ways in which the show is changing is that I’m starting to get away from the closing monologue. That idea of coming back and trying to sum up an entire culture in a comfortable conclusion. More and more I’m letting other people that I’ve encountered get the last word. They always have something more intelligent to say and they’re far more qualified to say it. So to answer your question, it’s just as much fun as it always was, but it’s more challenging because we’ve made a lot of shows and we’re always looking to be different and maybe even stranger than we were before.
It’s funny you say that because I actually love the closing monologue. You’re right, it’s very succinct and I’m sure doesn’t cover anything of the culture, but it’s impossible to capture everything about a culture even in an hour.
I don’t like comfortable conclusions. Life’s not like that. I’d rather leave people hanging even with a lingering doubt or a feeling of being unsettled. I think one of my favourite endings was our Israel Palestine show where we had a local guy deliver the last line. I asked him, “is that a fence or a wall?” He made a great comment and then it was – bam. Cut to titles. I felt much happier with that complete lack of resolution. It was much closer to the reality than any idiotic summing up from me could have been. In the original cut of the show one of the editors had put in, “flowers blooming on a hillside” as a last shot and I was like, “no fucking way are we ending this show with flowers blooming on a hillside.”
Season 7 of Parts Unknown is is airing every week now on CNN. Keep up to date with his progress here.