He’s salty, he’s funny, he’s honest, he’s polarizing. Whatever you want to call Anthony Bourdain, he has found a true and rabid fan-base who can’t get enough of his witty, on-point and, often, poignant travel show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN.
He is as stymied as anyone by his journey from disgruntled, addicted chef to unexpected-celebrity author to celebrated travel show host. And he’s even more surprised how following his gut — and sometimes, yeah, his whims — leads to unexpected and wonderfully random things, like the recent Madagascar trip with Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky and returning to his favorite countries. But he’s happy to run with it as Yahoo Food talks to him about Season 5 of Parts Unknown, how fatherhood has tamed him and the promise that his upcoming Bourdain Market will be a “riotous, democratic, spicy, delicious, multicultural thing.”
Do you ever have a moment where you can’t believe what you do?
Every day. I do get to go wherever I want to go with whomever I want whenever I want.”
What’s your plan heading into an episode of Parts Unknown? What do you want viewers to think?
“We’re looking to do something different. We’re looking for people to turn on the TV this week and say, ‘What is this?’ This is nothing like last week’s episode.”
You’ve said you’re a big movie buff. Does that play into how you shoot the episodes?
“We’re all film nerds and a lot of times I’ll watch a Wong Kar Wai film and ask where do I have to go to make a film like that? And what’s weird is that a lot of A-list film directors are calling us up and saying we want to come play with you guys. We just went to Madagascar with Darren Aronofsky. We both like to make beautiful things.”
Bourdain travels to Punjab in Northern India. (Photo: CNN)
So far in season 5 of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, you went to Beirut again. What is it about Beirut?
“It’s everything wonderful and great and awesome in the world and all the evils in the world all in one amazing place. It’s a microcosm for the world. We live in this beautiful planet. Beirut is such a beautiful city. Why can’t we make it work? I have no hope or expectation that it ever will. One of the things that’s amazing about it is that it exists at all given the seemingly intractable problems. It’s a country with a lot of heart. It’s worth noting that they have let in over a million Syrian refugees. I don’t know how many Palestinians and they have paid a terrible price for that kind of generosity. Incredible food. Incredible people. Very resilient. The joke is that it’s a land of contrasts. It’s a magical place. Every one of my crew fell in love right away. It was life-changing thing to be there in 2006 [he was filming No Reservations for the Travel Channel when the 2006 Lebanon war broke out]. I started to think that just doing a show where I shoved food in my face and drank too much wasn’t that interesting any more.”
Is there a country that you want to go to that you haven’t been able to?
“We’re going to Cuba again this year. It took us a long time. This time we’re going in legally. Things are really changing. We’re going at a good time. Yemen, I’d like to go to Yemen. They’ll let us in but it’s too dangerous. The people who advise us are saying it’s just a bad idea. It’s beyond the threshold of where they can assure our safety. My threshold of risk may be one thing but I don’t ever have to go home and say to one of my camera man’s wives and say, ‘I’m sorry my urgent need to shoot here might have part of what happened here.’ Northern Afghanistan — if it can be done responsibly. Kashmir. Syria. We’re waiting, hoping for things to change. Oman.”
Now that you’re a father, how much of it plays into how much you’re willing to risk?
“A lot. It’s a major factor. I’m not going to go full Geraldo. I’m never going to do a show where people go, ‘Oh look he’s so brave to do something so stupid.’ Uh-uh. I’m going because I think there’s a good, and I think there’s a way to do it responsibly and safely.”
Bourdain travels the streets of Myanmar. (Photo: CNN)
How has fatherhood changed you?
“I’m not drinking the way I did. I’m largely on a diet where I try to avoid carbs. I’m a father of a beautiful little girl. I feel an obligation to live through the teen phase.”
Your next big venture is Bourdain Market [at press time, said to open in early 2016 in a 100,000-square-foot space at New York’s Pier 57]. Why did you want to do it?
“Because I could. No… It was one of those things somebody called and said, ‘Would you like to curate this? You can decide who’s in and who’s not in. Both equally important in such a big space. I can curate from all over the world, all the people whose food I love from Singapore, Mexico, Borneo. As a proud New Yorker, I like the idea of bringing them in. It’s a cool thing that many cities in the world enjoy as a birth-right and we don’t. This kind of riotous, democratic, spicy, delicious, multicultural thing.”
Do you ever feel the tug to back to the kitchen?
“Never. I have to be delusional, a megalomaniac, and egotistically far beyond what I already am to think that at 58 years old I am any good at it. I don’t flatter myself. It’s a young person’s game. It’s not about…. Listen, I love cooking for my family and for company, but to have to cook the same thing, the same way, just as good, on time, as the same time as everybody else… I can’t do that. I’m not physically and mentally capable to do that anymore.”
Are there elements you miss?
“I loved the camaraderie and the sense of immediate gratification that you either did a really great job or a bad job. You knew. There was no gray area. There was no ‘Did they like my book, was it any good?’ There’s no line. There’s no bull-shitting. It’s an absolute thing than all the other stuff I do. But it doesn’t matter what I think about those days. The kind of cooking, the kind of kitchens I worked in, I couldn’t keep it up.”
When you were in the kitchen, were you dreaming of what you’re doing now?
“No. I had zero hope or expectations of what I’m doing now. I had given up those childish things years ago. When I wrote Kitchen Confidential I was absolutely certain that no one would read it. And I was comfortable with it. Those were the kinds of dreams I had as a teenager.”
Are you a better cook or writer?
“I’m a better writer.”