Anthony Bourdain has a lightness to his voice. It's jovial, almost, which is unnerving. “This is the longest I've stayed still in one place for … wow, nine years,” says the typically acerbic chef and TV host. He's recently wrapped shooting his ninth and final season of No Reservations, and is on vacation with his wife and young daughter in Long Island. “This vacation, this is the only vacation of its kind I've ever had with my family.”
He's been cooking a lot in his beachside rental, he says, something he hasn't done since he left Les Halles about 10 years ago. His daughter's been making requests. “She's crazy for lobster,” he says, “and corn on the cob, she's just batshit for.”
Bourdain's life won't be this leisurely for long, though. Come October he'll start filming an as-yet-unnamed show for CNN that, thankfully for his longtime fans, will be similar in structure to No Reservations. But how will it be different? Where will he go? And will he still make time for Treme? These were among our questions for food TV's reigning hero, along with the status of his friendship, or lack thereof, with Alan Richman. Read the full interview after the jump.
Squid Ink: Did having a family and a young daughter play into your decision to end the run of the show?
Anthony Bourdain: Well, I was definitely looking to be away from home a little bit less, but I'll be making as many episodes of the new series for CNN as I was making for No Reservations. I won't be doing The Layover, though, that is for sure. Or an additional series of 10 episodes where I have to travel. I'll definitely be cutting that back.
SI: Ah, so The Layover is done?
AB: We have 10 more episodes to air, but we've finished all but one episode of that.
SI: What are you doing with your new CNN show that's new? What do you hope to make out of it?
AB: I think, most importantly, it's the same production partners, the same camera people, editors — the same band that I've been traveling with for my entire television career. I don't know any other way I'd want to make television, or anyone else I'd want to make television with, whether travel- or food-based. And whatever it is, it will be travel- and food-based, similar to what I've been doing with No Reservations, but on a slightly larger scale, I guess, in the sense that CNN is a worldwide news organization, they have a larger infrastructure and contacts on the ground, and experience on the ground in a lot of places we haven't been able to get to for one reason or another.
I'm interested in looking at places like the Congo, Myanmar, Libya; you know, post-conflict Syria would be wonderful, through the prism of what people eat every day. I think it's useful information to show how people live, how they eat, what makes them happy. I think the extent to which we identify those things in the world around us before we read about some disaster happening in the news … We put faces to the people we're reading about in the news rather than seeing them as abstract.
SI: Of course a lot of these aren't touristy places. Do you feel a sense of obligation to keep that going? Your show has always had a storytelling element that's obviously very important to what you do, and those of us who are fans of travel and fans of food don't get that many other places. It's either you or the Food Network, basically.
AB: I don't feel any obligation to make television any particular way. It's sort of counterintuitive. However other people were telling stories, I didn't want to do that. Whatever the conventional wisdom was on how to make food or travel television, I definitely didn't want to do that. Whatever worked for us last week, I didn't want to do that either.
The most important factor in making No Reservations has always been: How do I stay adrift, how does my crew stay interested, meaning the camera people and the editors, how do we challenge ourselves to tell the pretty conventional story arc in a different way? It's a very selfish, creative enterprise, but one that I'm proud of. If it inspires people to do anything like get a passport or eat something that they wouldn't have thought of before, great, but I don't see myself as an advocate or anything beyond a storyteller and an enthusiast.
SI: So it's not about dispelling fear in any way? Americans are largely pretty afraid of leaving the country.
AB: We have a notoriously low percentage of passport holders. I don't understand that at all. It's not my intention to drag Americans out of their shell. Like I said, I'm not an advocate. But I hear from people a lot that they hadn't thought of going to Vietnam until they saw a show, and that they were really happy they did. And that makes me really happy. As cranky as I can be about some things, I'm also very enthusiastic about others, and I do feel a certain satisfaction if I've managed to convince somebody … every time I hear that somebody went to a place that I love, yeah, of course I'm satisfied.
SI: I went to Baja because of you, actually. I think that's a lot of what the show has always done for people. I guess it is less about dispelling fear and more about realizing it's OK to do things out of your comfort zone. Do you even have a comfort zone left at this point?
AB: Yeah. Good plumbing is increasingly important to me. If I know I'm going to be sleeping on the ground in a longhouse … it's good to know that there's a good hotel with decent plumbing somewhere in the itinerary in the future.
But I'm a big believer in winging it. I'm a big believer that you're never going to find perfect city travel experience or the perfect meal without a constant willingness to experience a bad one. Letting the happy accident happen is what a lot of vacation itineraries miss, I think, and I'm always trying to push people to allow those things to happen rather than stick to some rigid itinerary.
Paris and Rome are perfect examples of that. People go to Paris and Rome with these very detailed itineraries of “must-see” destinations. That's just no way to enjoy a great city like Paris — waiting on line for three hours to get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. That's a misery. You're not going to be falling in love or accidentally finding a great little bistro by standing on line at the Eiffel Tower.
SI: So for this final season of No Reservations, was it more difficult making the list of places to go, knowing it was your last?
AB: Not really. For the most part I really didn't know. Many of these were shows I've wanted to do for a while. There were some last-minute substitutions. I'm really happy that Brooklyn is going to be the last show because, no irony intended here, it's uncharted territory for me. I was shamefully ignorant of that part of my own town, and I felt a real obligation to plunge in there.
But Emilia-Romagna and Burgundy had been on the wish list for a while. The Rio show is something — I did want to get in there because it's built around my wife [fighting in] a Brazilian jujutsu match there, in the home of the sport. We basically dragged her down there and had her trainers make a match for her with absolutely no idea how it was going to turn out. In fact, she was stacked against a white belt with nine months' experience and she was stacked up against a blue belt with significantly more experience. We shot it with the understanding of everyone involved that, however it turned out, it turned out.
We tried to do an Israel show that didn't work out. We weren't able to get permits in time, so that's going to have to be on the wish list for the future.
We've been trying to get into Libya since Gaddafi started to have real concerns about his future. Even from that point, we were hearing from friends and contacts we've met through securing companies over the years who were telling us, look, it's awesome here. You should come in, it'll be great, we'll eat well, we'll have a great time, we'll meet some really cool people, and you'll be here at an important point in history. But even in the months and year after, we somehow haven't been able to do that. Congo is another show I've wanted to do for a long time.
So yeah, I'm hopeful about the future. But we'll also be doing self-indulgent, food-driven shows in Los Angeles and Rome, in all likelihood. It won't all be serious, weepy and news-driven.
SI: Are you also still involved with Treme?
AB: Yes! Their new season starts in, I think, late September and, of all the stuff I'm doing, that's the one I'm really most excited to see air. I haven't seen the new episodes. I did a lot of writing for it this season, this year. There's a lot of food and a lot of chef-driven action in the story this season. I haven't seen this stuff, and like any other fan of the show, I can't wait to see it.
SI: I have to ask, how in the world did you convince Alan Richman to come on the show and get a drink thrown in his face?
AB: I didn't. We haven't spoken. Well, let's call it what it was: It's fair to say we were arch enemies.
SI: You do have a whole chapter in one of your books about him being a douchebag, so …
AB: I wrote the part assuming it would be an Alan Richman-like character, and I even wrote a review of post-Katrina New Orleans very much like his review, but not his review, obviously.
Well, in the story meeting, David Simon said, “Well, why don't we call Alan Richman and have him do it?”
I said, “I don't think that's going to happen,” but I guess when David Simon calls, it's pretty amazing.
To [Richman's] credit, I think it was a very cool thing for him to do. I think he felt maybe a little uncomfortable. I can't speak for him, but I'm pretty sure I've heard from mutual friends that he felt he owed New Orleans at least that. I thought it was very ballsy and showed remarkable good humor of him to appear in a show knowing that your arch-enemy is writing for you. He handled it with very good humor.
SI: So finally, though it's a cliche, people always say they want to “see the world” before they die, and you've done that. Can you die happy?
AB: [Pause.] Yeah. I mean, if I were hit by the proverbial ice cream truck, sucked up in the wheel well and dragged down the street, as I lay there bleeding out, I wouldn't have a lot of regrets about things I missed. I've ridden an elephant, I've jumped out of a plane, I've seen the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, I've been to Vietnam, I've seen a lot of things. But as is so often the case with someone who's successfully gotten away with robbing a bank, I'd like to keep doing this as long as I can get away with it.
No Reservations — The Final Tour premieres on Monday, Sept. 3, at 9 p.m. on Travel Channel.
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