If you’re like us, you’re more than envious of Anthony Bourdain’s life of exploring fascinating cultures and people of the world while tracking down the most delicious, authentic food on Earth—and getting paid to do it. But the jealousy doesn’t prevent groupie-like devotion to his Emmy-winning TV show No Reservations, now in its seventh season on the Travel Channel (Mondays at 9 p.m. EST). The fact that his strong, sometimes eviscerating opinions do not always flatter his fellow celebrity chefs—as expressed, in part, in his latest memoir Medium Raw (a sequel to Kitchen Confidential)—just makes us trust his travel advice even more. Bourdain is really telling it straight. And he has the travel chops to sift the extraordinary stories and places from the merely great.
We tapped Bourdain for some world-wander culinary wisdom and insights from the current season of No Reservations, his most adventurous yet, featuring Cuba, Iraq, the Brazilian Amazon, the American Southwest, and even one of the last sittings at Spain’s El Bulli, once the best restaurant in the world. Of course, there were some surprises too, such as thoughts on the importance of being a good guest, swapping Viagra for rhino horns in traditional Chinese medicine, and the idea that eating yourself to death is fine, just don’t use stuffed-crust pizza and other fast food to do it. If all goes according to plan, Bourdain will dine in Libya this year. In next week’s episode he’ll dive into California’s Mojave Desert with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme. —Mary Anne Potts
Did you have breakfast this morning?
Anthony Bourdain: Ah, no. I never eat breakfast. Maybe coffee, but that’s it.
What are some adventurous things you’ve done to score something good to eat?
A.B.: I don’t know that that’s been my prime motivation. I travel for travel’s sake at this point. I do it in a food-centric way, but I’m not going to go into a war zone just for food, you know? But I have gone into war zones.
I did go into the Amazonian region of Brazil. They have prehistoric river fish that weigh in at around 600 pounds, which you don’t see anywhere else. And foods that cannot be exported or even found in other parts of Brazil. This region was described to me by Ferran Adria [chef of El Bulli] as the last frontier of food. So that’s where people do extraordinary things to get food.
Do you find food more satisfying when you see where it comes from?
A.B.: It’s really exciting to see food in context, where it comes from. I was just on the Amalfi Coast. To see a chef dive into the water himself, in a wetsuit, and come up with a sea urchin, crack it open, and scoop it out for you, right there, is thrilling. It’s also envy-inspiring to see people who live in a place where amazing ingredients are just a few feet away.
How did you pick the destinations for the current season of No Reservations?
A.B.: This season we were deliberately looking for something outside of the usual comfort zone. With the exception of the El Bulli show, which we filmed because the place closed its restaurant forever in July, so we wanted to capture that bit of history, for sure. But we were really looking to go to places that were a little less comfortable, a little more off the beaten path—certainly the Kurdish areas in Iraq and Turkey, the Amazon, Cuba, and Haiti. These were a little more difficult to shoot and a little more complicated histories to tackle. They forced us to think of new ways to tell the story.
At this point in your career you could sit back and coast on your successes. Why do you seek the more difficult, hard-to-access stories?
A.B.: We want to change the game, as much as possible. I’m just not interested in doing whatever we did last year, even if what we did last year was good and well received. I don’t want to do that year after year. We are hoping to shoot in Libya over the next couple months. We are working very closely with some interesting guides who can handle our security in some of the hotter zones. We know some really interesting people, and they are really good with restaurant tips in Kabul and Yemen. They have made it possible to shoot in places that we would not have been able to a couple years ago.
You clearly seek out places where the political scene is tumultuous.
A.B.: It started as a food show with a very predictable arc. And I think we have all changed over the years. And the content has changed as well. It’s always going to be a food-centric show. But we are pushing ourselves more every year.
Considering both culinary quality and culture, what’s your favorite travel destination?
A.B.: You have an impeccable argument if you said that Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo are food capitals. They have a maximum amount of great stuff to eat in the smallest areas. Those would be very hard arguments to go against. I am really passionate about San Sebastián, Catalonia, in Spain. But for sheer variety and for ingredients and culture, those Asian cities are all really interesting places.
After more than a decade of intense travel, what place has the most unusual food, as compared to Western cuisine?
A.B.: The easy answer is China. The joke is that they cook everything, and if you look hard enough in China, you’ll find that to be true. They are also some of the best cooks in the world. I love the masochistic aspect of eating seething, real Sichuan food in Sichuan Province.
Some advice: Let’s say you arrive in an unfamiliar town. How do you find the best meal?
A.B.: It helps to be a chef. There is an international chef mafia that helps. We use the Internet a lot; we look to local bloggers. We spend a lot of time looking for local bloggers who have been documenting street food or indigenous specialties around the city or town for a while. There’s always somebody and they are often very, very good.
So you would say do your research, don’t just arrive and hope for the best.
A.B.: I think you should do research first, as much as one can. And there’s a lot of material out there. Find that one blogger who has been eating in Saigon or Hong Kong for the last year or two or three years, taking pictures, and writing about his or her noodle or dumpling experience. That is a rich vein to tap into.
You’ve eaten some outrageous things by Western standards, such as a raw seal eyeball with the Inuit and cobra with a still-beating heart in Vietnam. What’s the most outrageous thing you have eaten?
A.B.: There’s really nothing more outrageous or appalling than what we do in America. I mean, really. Some of the stuff … the KFC Double Down, the Cinnabun, the deep-fried macaroni and cheese. We are really the only people who enthusiastically celebrate how quickly we are killing ourselves. You know, I’m not getting fat fast enough; I need stuffed-crust pizza.
But there’s some American food that’s worth eating? What about the American Southwest episode coming up?
A.B.: Oh yes, there’s lots of great food in America. But the fast food is about as destructive and evil as it gets. It celebrates a mentality of sloth, convenience, and a cheerful embrace of food we know is hurting us. I’m all for killing yourself with food—if it’s actually delicious. But it’s not. We are lowering our standards, in general. There’s nothing wrong with a curly fry or meat on a stick or macaroni and cheese. I just prefer for it to be good, and I like to give my money to a locally owned and operated small business than some massive corporation. That’s a personal preference.
Is there anywhere you want to go but haven’t gotten access to?
A.B.: We haven’t been into Congo. We’ve been trying to do a trip going up the Congo River, but there have been safety and security concerns that have prevented it. And Iran I would very much like to do, but the government is so unpleasant. I don’t want to be going there now. Burma, I’d love to go to Myanmar, but again, the government is a problem.
What was it like to be shooting in Beirut in 2006 when the Israel-Lebanon conflict started?
The resulting show won an Emmy.
A.B.: We didn’t even know we were shooting a show. We were just snapping off footage, documenting it for ourselves. We put it together afterwards with the very limited footage that we had. I don’t think any of us or the crew had any idea what we were doing. We never saw ourselves as journalists or combat correspondents. We just shot what we saw, just because we were sitting around, largely confined to a secure location, and there was not much else to do. It turned out to be one of our proudest accomplishments, but that’s not what we were thinking at the time.
You write best-selling books and Emmy-winning TV show scripts. At this point do you think of yourself more as a writer/journalist or a chef?
A.B.: I don’t know. I’m a former chef-essayist, perhaps. I don’t claim to have the sort of impartiality that presumably a journalist has. I have too many personal likes and dislikes. I prefer essayist.
Kitchen Confidential, published in 2000, tracks your life before the celebrity chef and food TV culture we know today, that you helped create, even existed. Do you watch any of the shows?
A.B.: I try to keep up with Top Chef. I watch Avec Eric, my friend Eric Ripert’s show. Not much else. A lot of it is ridiculously freakish and deliberately sub-mental.
Do you think there are people who are your imitators out there?
A.B.: So few Americans have passports. The more chefs who travel and the more they celebrate traveling and eating…the more the merrier. As long as they are not out there sneering at the locals and laughing at their weird food and behaving like boobs, then I’m all for it. Anyone with an open heart and an open mind and who shows Americans and other people any kind of culture elsewhere around the world…I think that’s a good thing. Really, unless you are going to be an asshole about it. But some clown chef traveling around the world mocking the locals who are trying to please him or her…obviously I have a less charitable view of that.
Overfishing, sustainable harvesting, bushmeat. How much do these kinds of issues influence your decisions?
A.B.: First I’m a good guest. If I’m the guest of someone very poor or in a tribal area of Africa, and they are feeding me something that is, in fact, something that’s ordinary for them but it’s cruel or destructive to the environment or animal population, I will probably eat it in that case, but then avoid it from that point on. I think being a gracious guest is the most important thing. But I do change my behaviors depending on what I hear about…I try to avoid sword fish and I don’t eat shark fin soup, if I can at all avoid it. I go out of my way to avoid those things. But these are things I think about and talk about when possible. There are a lot of moral decisions that poor people are not free to make, let’s put it that way.
Why do you chose not to eat shark fin soup?
A.B.: Shark fin soup is a bad example because it is a luxury anywhere. That’s rich people food. I choose not to eat it. But bushmeat…basically in areas of Africa, they will completely depopulate the jungle killing everything in sight because they don’t have any choice. That’s all they are going to get. And they can hardly be faulted.
We are so far removed from the problems of people who do not eat friend mac and cheese….
A.B.: But when you move past food to say, the argument against traditional Chinese medicines…rhino horn and tiger paw…that’s an easier one to make because so much of them are related to male impotency. I think if we just started giving out free viagra across of Asia we make a huge dent in the problem.
If you were a college kid today with the curiosity and rebellious tendencies you wrote about in Kitchen Confidential, do you think you would have chosen the same path that you did?
A.B.: If I were in college today…I have no idea what that would be like. But I can say, knowing what I know now, all of the mistakes that I’ve made, if I had the opportunity to live my life over again, I would do exactly the same things. It all worked out pretty well.
You are now a dad and no longer a chain smoker. Have you lost some of your edge over the years?
A.B.: Definitely. Being a guest with so many people around the world who were so generous and wonderful is life changing. And there’s nothing more life changing than being a father.
What’s your next frontier?
A.B.: Libya. We are seeing history being made—and rarely is it so clear who the bad guy is. Benghazi is a beautiful Italian city full of hopeful young people fighting Gaddafi. The whole world is changing, in big ways. The whole balance is changing before our eyes. I want to see history being made in this wonderful, exciting place.
Photograph courtesy Travel Channel