After several years of starring in the TV series “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” celebrity chef/author Anthony Bourdain still says there is plenty to discover of cuisine around the world. For the show’s eighth season (which premieres April 9, 2012, at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time on Travel Channel), Bourdain traveled to 15 locations across six continents.
Among the highlights: Bordain plays with a venomous King Cobra snake in Penang; is cupped and drained of blood by a Finnish massage therapist; and hangs out with the rock band the Black Keys; and is pleasantly surprised by Mozambique. Here is what Bourdain had to say about “No Reservations” when he chatted with journalists in a recent telephone conference call.
What can you say about the Season 8 premiere episode of “No Reservations”?
First episode, Mozambique. And food was a hell of a lot better than I expected. In fact, the food was amazing. Was one of those shows that I sort of came out of feeling hopeful about the world. And I know that my crew are particularly jacked over the cinematography, which always makes me happy.
Have you ever entertained starting your own kind of podcast about “No Reservations” or kind of doing anything in that kind of nature?
I’m not opposed in principle. I really like the idea. Everyone I work with, we’re all really open to the idea of sort of any venue, any format, any platform that we can be creative and have a good time, we’re open to it. But, at the moment, anything we have to say on the subject of “No Reservations” we’re pretty much either putting into the show itself or tweeting about it while we’re making the set.
Has there ever been any time where you’re actually like scared for your life while you’ve been on “No Reservations”?
There have been some uncomfortable moments for sure. Certainly Beirut in 2006, Liberia there were some uncomfortable moments. When you’re filming in a place with expensive cameras, in a place where people are really, really hungry and a few dollars makes the difference between life and death for them and their family and there’s no infrastructure to speak of it — for very understandable reasons it can be tense.
Were there any particular moments during this season that kind of really stood out for you?
A lot of moments. You know, I just got back from Burgundy, and let me tell you, that did not suck. You got to drink a lot of good wine and eating spectacularly well in the ancestral homeland. That’s still fresh in memory. Haven’t been shot at or anything like that. There haven’t been any high security moments yet this season that I can think of. Though we did do ice racing in Finland. I guess that would fall into the physically foolhardy department.
You tried some oysters from a farm in Baja. How are you at shucking oysters, and are you more about the raw or the cooked?
I’m all about the raw. I believe that no chef on earth can improve [oysters]. You can do different and wonderful things to oysters, for sure. You can make them maybe more interesting, you can make them more creative. But I think a good oyster, the sauce that an oyster produces itself is impossible to improve on. So I’m all about the raw.
I’m a very good oyster shucker. I’ve done it professionally. I’ve worked as an oyster shucker at a raw bar. And, of course, I come from a long line of oyster fishermen in the southwest of France so I like to think it’s in my blood. I grew up eating oysters.
In the first episode in Croatia, you talked about there being revelations and showing scenes from war compared to how it looks now. Are there any similar revelations?
I was stunned by Baja. If you get down in a wine country near Ensenada, it really does look like Tuscany. And the microclimate there, the ingredients that are coming out of that uniquely cold water that comes down from Alaska, the stuff they’ve got and some of the cooks and the things that they’re doing in the absence of traditional American sex and gambling tourism. You know, the Americans stopped going. And the chefs there have started to do something really, really wonderful for Mexicans.
And the Baja cuisine that’s developing down there, some of the chefs, the creative things that chefs are doing. And just the vibe, particularly among young people in Tijuana and in Baja, it’s really, really interesting and encouraging. I think it’s a very exciting place to eat and a beautiful place. I’m really interested to see what the future holds, because there’s enormous, enormous potential. it was shocking to me. I said, “Gee, this is like Napa Valley down here.”
Paula Deen recently called your comments about her diabetes very, very cruel. What do you think about that?
I think she’s being disingenuous. She’s doing very good at playing the victim. You know, she’s brought up Jesus and traditional Southern food. And doesn’t have anything to do with that. You know, we’re talking about a $30 million corporation, a $30 million-a-year business that has made some business decisions that I find, frankly, unconscionable. That’s what this is about.
And I tweeted about them in a humorous way. If people want to make this into a war or anything personal, it’s silly. But let’s call it what it is. This is a big company who rolled out a new product — which is a diabetes drug — after selling donuts to children for years.
I thought it was in bad taste. I made some cracks about it. And I bought into the whirlwind. You know, this is not about diabetes. I feel bad for anyone who had diabetes. It’s an epidemic in this country. It’s something that people who sell donut burgers on TV might take into consideration.
In terms of whether or not you had a particular approach with Season 8 in lining up the countries that you were visiting, what was in your mind in how you can make this different and make Season 8 of “No Reservations” stand out?
Honestly, the guiding principle of the show is where can I go that will be interesting to me, the places that I’m genuinely curious about, that I’m excited to go, where I either have something to say already or know nothing about but I’m intensely curious about? Where will be interesting for me and the people who I have embarked on this creative enterprise with? It’s about staying engaged and interested in discovering things and being forced to learn things myself. You know, I see those as essential to making interesting television.
If this is a job for me, if traveling around the world and being a guest of people all around the world, if it’s not interesting and fun to me, then I don’t see any reason why it would be interesting or fun to anybody else. So really that’s the only principle. Am I having fun? Am I finding this exciting and interesting? Is this still a creative enterprise? And I think we’ve very much managed to keep it one.
In the Mozambique episode, you show the realities of living in that country, as well as what we normally see from you — for example, the fantastic cuisine that they have. When you are creating a storyline like that and you are editing that kind of story, what are some of the conversations that go through your head?
I try to go with an open mind and we shoot a lot, whatever happens. We have certain destinations and foods. We have done research, the things we think we want to capture and we generally shoot a lot more. But any story, any voiceover, any narration, we put that together. I write that after. It’s almost the last thing. It’s part of the shaping of the edit of the show.
So we’ve already sort of in the best-case scenario the place reveals itself to us. And then I’m forced to think about what I’ve experienced and write from there. You can’t write a script and then go to a place and try to conform your experiences to your preconceptions. The best case scenario, I go in blind and come out maybe a tiny little bit smarter and I write about that.
In the Croatia episode, at the very beginning, pretty much like the first couple of minutes you’re just talking about how good the food is. Where have you had the best meal of your life?
Oh man, I’ve had so many great meals. If you’re just talking about sheer perfectionism, Japan is going to give you maybe the best ingredients and the most attention to detail. But for sheer pleasure it’s always eating noodles at a low (unintelligible) in Vietnam or mopping sauce with the crust of bread in Italy or just a simple thin slice of ham in Spain or some runny cheese in France. So much depends on who you’re eating with and what’s on the radio and what’s happening around you. I can’t separate out the context from what’s on the plate anymore.
What is it like to sit down with the local people, the people that don’t really care about TV or that you’re a celebrity? What’s it like to sit down with those generations of fishermen and butchers and farmers who make the food that you get to eat?
Those are the best times. The best times are the ones with people exactly like that, with absolutely no clue and couldn’t care in any case what we’re doing. The ones who don’t understand why the cameramen aren’t eating and it drives them crazy because all their instincts are to be good hosts and it drives them out of their minds that the camera people aren’t eating and drinking, which really has led to my cameramen eating and drinking a lot while they’re shooting just to keep the scene going — because a lot of people at a lot of cultures just don’t get that separation between subject and shooters. And in fact those are the best times. It’s much easier and more fun and more satisfying than going to a place where they expect you and they’re media-savvy and they’re looking forward to being on TV.
“No Reservations” is more about well-written storytelling; it’s got a solid angle. “The Layover” seems to be more service-y. Which format do you prefer doing? And are there some places that fit one better than the other?
My heart is with “No Reservations.” I do not have to suffer the burden of being informative or useful. You know, it’s a much harder show to make. “The Layover” is much harder because it tries to be useful, factual, these are experiences that other people can replicate.
I don’t think about that on “No Reservations.” “No Reservations” is a much more selfish and self-indulgent show. It’s a personal essay. I don’t really care whether you can jump out of a plane with a flying Elvis skydiving team or go up the Amazon. It’s me having a good and interesting time and making the best, most creative television I can from that experience. “The Layover,” it’s a lot more eating and drinking in a much shorter period of time and it’s useful, so it’s a much harder show to make.
You seem to have places in “No Reservations” that you have a nice time, you have some fun. And then some seem to be transformative, like you came out of there going, “Wow, my life is different now.” Is there a pretty even divide in this season?
I don’t know. There are definitely a few places where anyone who experiences them is going to come out changed. I think anytime you go to a place where they have very, very little and they’ve been through an incredibly different time and yet still manage to take joy in the simple act of cooking and eating and do that with real pride. That’s hard to come away from an experience like that. If you’re lucky enough to experience it, it’s hard to come out of that unchanged.
In your Travel Channel bio, you’re listed as a cultural anthropologist first and then an author and then a chef. If you could talk a little bit about why you self-identify in that way and kind of how that identity has evolved over the span of your career?
Honestly, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I know I was a chef, that’s for sure. And I know I’ve written books, so I guess that makes me a writer. I’ve never fully settled into that. When I look in the mirror I don’t know that I ever fully identify with that term.
Cultural anthropologist, gee I’m flattered if somebody calls me that, but it’s not what I set out to do in my heart of hearts. It’s not how I see myself. I see myself as a lucky ex-cook with the best job in the world, who’s been fortunate enough to see a lot of the world. If that makes me an anthropologist, fine. Sure looks good on paper.
In terms of restaurant-dining culture in the U.S., is there any one blaring fault that you see after being exposed to so many food cultures around the world?
I don’t know. I think we can be forgiven for our lapses because we’re a young country. We haven’t been cooking for 6,000 years, like the Chinese. We don’t have a culture that’s old and it’s food-centric, that is un-conflicted about food as Italy or Spain or France. I think we’re getting there. I’m actually hopeful and optimistic about the way things are going in American dining culture.
I think we should be forgiven for our maybe the biggest obstacle to the development of dining in America was that post-war of wealth of our country, and we lost touch with our roots. But I think things are going pretty well. I’m hopeful.
Of the places you visited on Season 8 of “No Reservations,” which destination surprised you the most?
Baja was a real education to me. I had no idea, no expectation that it was going to be that beautiful, that the food would be that creative, that the ingredients would be that exciting, that they’re creating this Emersonian world down there. I didn’t know that Mexico had wine country. I was shocked by how delicious the food [is] — both the traditional food and the new sort of Baja Med cuisines. So that really threw me.
Mozambique was an education because they too have had such an awful century and beyond of civil war and colonial wars, incredible poverty. And I didn’t expect the food to be so good or the people to be so open-hearted and wonderful. Those were two places that really stood out in my mind. Those were both surprises.
And of the destinations from Season 8 of “No Reservations,” what do you think are a few that kind of had the complete package of food, drink, culture? Or from locations in the past that you visited?
I’ll tell you, Austin, Texas, is pretty exciting lately. They’ve really got it all. And the show we did there revolved very much around food and music, something that they have a lot of. Both great food and great music and both high and low, fine-dining restaurants, mid-range restaurants, and an incredible food-truck-and-barbeque scene that was really exciting.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?
Favorite restaurant in New York … You’d be hard-pressed to find a better restaurant than Le Bernardin. But I’m pretty happy to have a bagel with Nova Scotia and cream cheese at Russ and Daughters.
You actually just mentioned something about being un-conflicted about food, more so in other countries. There is a Calling All Carnivores contest in the New York Times where they’re looking for people to send in sort of their best argument about why eating meat is ethical. Can you comment on that and if you feel vegetarians have kind of had their place in the sun for too long and if this is a worthy argument to be having?
Listen, without getting too deeply into the subject I will say that most of the places I’ve been — particularly in the developing world — they’re already predominantly vegetarian and they’re not too damn happy about it. In fact, they’re very unhappy about it. They want meat. They want it a lot. They value it. They struggle for it. They fight for it. They destroy their own environments for what little they can get. It is an imperative in the lives of many, many people around the world.
And it’s also a great joy. It’s the beginning of what we call civilization, the beginning of cooperation was sitting around grilling an animal. I think we’re physically designed to eat some, and I think it’s rude to not eat them in a great number of circumstances. I’m pretty much on record on this issue.
Are you still involved with the HBO series “Treme”?
I am. The new season premiers I think in the early autumn, I think September . I did a lot of writing for this season. It’s going to be a very foodie season and, as always, working with the people I work with on the show, it’s one of the great joys of my life.
Are there any chefs in particular that you brought in to appear on the show?
Yes, and there will be many exciting food-related surprises.
In past interviews, you’ve talked about your admiration for Dogfish Head Brewery. What it is about them that you like so much?
They embarked on what most people would’ve said was a foolhardy venture. You know, the blind pursuit of excellence and weirdness and creativity. I relate to what they’re doing. I admire them for both the pure creativity, the seeming foolhardiness and how damn good their product is. I think their IPA [India Pale Ale] speaks for itself. The IPAs I’ve had there is my favorite. Some of their more creative stuff is lost on me. But I think their IPA is impeccable.
There was talk about a book deal with you and Marilyn Hagerty. Is that going to happen?
I will be publishing her. One of the more interesting things about Marilyn Hagerty is that she’s been writing a food column and reviews of local restaurants in Grand Forks and area for 30 years. So as we saw a little bit of her whole blow up on the Internet. What we have here is a sincere, straightforward reportage on restaurants in a part of America that a lot of people who write about food and blog about food and post on message boards about food, like me, don’t really see and don’t really talk about.
And so her life’s work is a history of American dining. You know, which restaurants that she reviewed are still around? What happened to them? What were they serving 45 years ago?
I thought her attitude, her reviews I read are really refreshing and heartfelt and I like the way she handled herself very much during all of that scrutiny. I think she made all of us snarky bastards from the coast, she made us look small and bad. And I admire her for that and I think there’s a book there and I believe very much there’s a book there. I know there’s a book there and I’m honored to be publishing it.
Did you send her a basket from Russ and Daughters?
No, but I got her a reservation at Le Bernardin.
It seems like you’re very positive about all the places you go and you seem to be able to find great food wherever you go and great people. What’s the worst place you ever went where it was a real struggle to find anything nice to say?
There are places that finding a great meal in rural Liberia is going to be hard, but I didn’t have unreasonable expectations. You know, Uzbekistan wasn’t a wonderland of delicious food everywhere. But I don’t know. I’m more often surprised by good food in a place than disappointed.
You know, we shot in Finland this year. And I didn’t expect to be eating too well there. I actually ate very well there. This celebrity chef phenomenon, this foodie craze has been good for places, even places that didn’t have particularly interesting food maybe 10 to 15 years ago. So no place has really just really disappointed me that I can think of. Any place that wasn’t so great, chances are I wasn’t going there with the idea that it was going to be foodie wonderland.
What would you have to say to home cooks who are struggling with trying to manage a budget and time constraints?
If you look at what we need to know and we should understand or keep in mind is that most of the great dishes of French gastronomy, these were originally developed by poor, hard-working people — often, farmers who had no time to cook, crummy to a few not particularly good ingredients to work with. You know, no time to cook it. They developed a whole cuisine around stuff that could be slow cooked over eight or nine hours in a pot involving not particularly good ingredients.
Most of Chinese cuisine is built around that. The world, as I see it in my travels again and again and again very poor people from very poor, very messed-up, often recently war-torn countries people living close to or below the poverty line with very little to work with again and again and again have been generous to me, have put food that’s humble but delicious and prideful in front of me.
So it irritates me, particularly when people say that somehow that paying more for cheap, nasty, processed food is something which the working poor are just automatically delegated. If the history of the world has taught us anything, that it is possible to make good food without a lot of money and without a lot of time to do it in.
I think it’s worth doing. I think it’s “I don’t want to look down my nose at people who just can’t for various reasons.” There are plenty of compelling reasons for a two-job family with kids in daycare to go to McDonalds I understand that as a father.
But to say that’s just too much trouble or that’s too fancy ignores the whole history of gastronomy. Almost all of these techniques were developed by hardworking people with very little to work with that were trying to solve problems of a tough old chicken and no time to cook it in. That’s the history of cooking.
And I think those of us who can make it less intimidating to home cooks are hopefully doing a service. And those who are telling us that, “Well it’s okay to just go to the supermarket and pay extra for a precut apple,” I don’t think they’re doing a particular service.
How did you work through that and make it through what you wrote about in “Kitchen Confidential”? It’s a very intense experience.
There are a lot of hard jobs in this world. Cooking professionally is a very, very hard, high pressure job. But it’s hardly the only high-pressure job. People go down into mines every day and break their backs digging ore out of the ground. Production-wise, cutting meat at food processors people wake up every day and go take care of other people’s children and then go home and take care of their own families. On the spectrum of difficulty — particularly having traveled the world and seen what’s involved and being a rice farmer — I had it pretty good.
How does it feel like to you when you have all these people fawning all over you, and people asking for your autograph? What are your feelings towards being a celebrity now that you’ve kind of been a celebrity for so long?
Listen, no doubt about it, it’s a very strange, weird place to be. It makes things like going to there are things I can’t do anymore.
The only think I can complain about: I worked for a living for 30 years standing next to a deep fryer. So if my life is a little weird and strange and people say silly things to me now and again I can handle that because I’m paying my rent on time, whereas I didn’t for the first 30 years of my working life. It doesn’t suck for sure. You know, if I have any regrets about it it’s that I guess I can’t go to my old man bar Irish bar and drink by myself and listen to sad songs on the jukebox when I want to without it being an interactive experience.
But beyond that, it’s weird, but I just never took it that seriously. I guess it really helped that I was 44 years old when everything changed for me. I was pretty set in my ways I wasn’t about to start talking about myself in the third person or buying a Jaguar or looking to marry a supermodel. I knew it wasn’t going to make me happy by then … By the time things happened to me, I was just constitutionally unable to change. I guess I’d like to be better at it. But this is who I am. F*ck it.
Where is your absolute favorite place to get drunk and why?
I don’t know, an Irish pub is a beautiful thing. To have a properly poured pint of Guinness in Belfast or Cork, that’s pretty hard to beat. Late afternoon — yes, the Irish, they do pubs right.
Is there an underrated destination that you recently discovered?
Ensenada, Tijuana, Croatia, I had a pretty good idea that the food would be decent. I had no idea how good it was. Let’s see, where else? Mozambique had much better food than I thought. You know, underrated places to go to eat and just to see a country, Colombia is criminally underrated — much safer, much more interesting and really a party destination. I would totally advise anyone to go there. And Austin, Texas.
By what standard do you choose the local guys who show you around?
If I haven’t reached out to them through the Chef Mafia (meaning, they’re not already a friend of a friend or somebody we worked with in the past), chances are there’s someone we’ve auditioned carefully over time. Maybe they’re a food blogger or somebody who writes about food or is involved in the local food scene.
And the things that we need to establish early on are: Do they know their subject — meaning, do they really know the food scene? Do they know the environment? Are they native to that area? Do they know what’s going on? Do they have good and interesting friends?
Second most important thing: Do they know what show they’re working for — meaning, do they understand that we’re not looking for the best? That we’re not looking for the Top 10? That we’re not looking for a fair and balanced overview of everything you need to know about a place. Do they understand the show and what we’re looking for? That we want what makes them and their fellow natives happy at 1 o’clock in the morning when they’ve had too many beers
And also really important: Do they have a sense of humor? And so those are things that we’re really, really looking for.
Do you ever foresee yourself doing a follow-up episode on Iceland?
Probably not. No. Definitely a follow-up episode of Greece though. I just felt in Greece we did not do anywhere near a good enough job. That’s an example of a place I’d like to revisit because I don’t think we did right the first time and I feel obliged to do it right a second time. Off the top of my head, Greece, the most obvious and the most glaring example of a place we really kind of missed the boat.
You’ve been to Los Angeles for “The Layover.” Are there any plans to explore the dark underbelly of the San Fernando Valley or any other places in and around L.A. County? Or even coming up into Santa Barbara or Ventura County?
Don’t know yet. Certainly it’s possible. I love any excuse to come out to that part of the world. So if we could find a story or an angle or something like that I’d sure be into it. Yes.
So why do you think you kind of missed the boat when going to Greece? Was it kind of like a preconception of the country and the food you had beforehand? What went wrong?
We only showed Crete, a little bit of Crete and Zakynthos. We didn’t hit the mainland at all. I didn’t have a lot of fun doing the show, like the process itself wasn’t enjoyable. So that was already a big clue to me that you can’t have a good time and eat really, really well all the time in Greece. Something’s clearly wrong. And I just felt that the show was snarkier than I’d like. And often I see a snarky show as an emission of failure. And I just think Greece deserves better.
How is it to travel around the world like you do? Could you really ask for a better job?
Short answer: no. I’m well aware of the fact that I have the best job in the world. There’s no question about it. Me and my crew have, we know we’re lucky. And I have the freedom to decide where we’re going, what we’re going to do when we go there and how we’re going to tell the story. I’m well aware of how fortunate I am.
What has been most fulfilling for you in eight seasons of “No Reservations”? Is it the people, food, landscape, stories?
The answer is “all of the above.” You can’t enjoy one without the other. It’s really all of a part. Good food with good people with a good landscape around you, those are all parts of the same experience.
Will we see you again in Argentina?
I hope so. I do love it there.
For mor info: “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” website
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