It’s not difficult to imagine a version of Anthony Bourdain that’s filled with dread at the prospect of eating another meal while multiple cameras hover over him as he takes each bite. Ever since his hit memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly dropped in 2000 and landed him a TV show in 2002, he’s been travelling the world, film crew in tow, eating and drinking for our entertainment. We haven’t gotten tired of it yet, and surprisingly, neither has he.
“As long as I’m interested, I’ll keep doing it,” he told me. “If it’s not interesting to me, there’s no reason I should inflict it on you. That would be a living hell like on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, where that poor bastard is standing there, feigning interest jamming food in his face saying ‘Oh, hey! A Denver omelette, that’s off the hook! What do you put in that?’ Inside he’s got to be like, ‘Kill me now, oh please.’”
How does he stave off such suicidal thoughts? While many of his fans flock to him for the eating, what keeps Bourdain sane isn’t the food. It’s movies. More and more on his shows you can see the influence of his favorite filmmakers. Studying the style of Terrence Malick, Federico Fellini, Francis Ford Coppola and more has pushed him to make something beyond mere food TV, but a cinematic experience for his audience. I met up with Bourdain at a screening of his Raw Craft web series he’s hosting in partnership with The Balvenie to ask him about creating episodes of Parts Unknown, how Barack Obama ended up on the show, what he thinks of the food world and how he’s come around on Guy Fieri.
How do you determine the amount of food you want to show in a given episode of Parts Unknown?
We tend to find out when we get there. A lot of times we have no clue. The London show we just did. It was going to be a happy horse shit food show. We arrived and all of London fell asleep thinking this Brexit thing is never going to happen and I woke up the next morning and the entire town was in a collective mental breakdown and this show took a complete change of direction. That happens a lot. We think we’re going to get one thing and it quickly becomes apparent it’s about something else.
Have you felt the urge to move away from food more?
No, but since I moved to CNN they made it clear that I was completely free to let my attention wander in any direction I wanted. I used to have food in every scene, even if the scene wasn’t necessarily about the food. Not always, but most of the time. We feel no such responsibility at CNN. If there’s something cool I want to go look at and there’s no food, then we let’s go do that. We learned on No Reservations if I’m eating near the Plain of Jars in Laos and there’s millions of tons of unexploded bombs still in the ground, and if the guy I’m eating with is missing an arm and a leg, I feel free to ask the obvious question: What happened? That opens a line of thought. I feel free to wander away from the table if something interesting comes up. But people reveal a lot of about themselves in their food choices and the access they have and the lack of access.
When President Obama appeared this season, how did you decide how fit him into the show?
Like any meal scene we do.
Just like any old guy.
Well, clearly not. I thought a typical Hanoian specialty would be right and appropriate for him and for me, and with some atmosphere in a place that is like the Hanoi I know and love. I’m passionate about Southeast Asia and it became quickly apparent he was very passionate. He’d never been to Vietnam but he spent a lot of time in Indonesia as a young man and was very nostalgic about that, and was very clearly happy about the venue, but it worked out very well. He’s a guy who’s very at ease walking through a pretty sketchy working class area of Hanoi the next day in the pouring rain. It was fascinating to hang out with him and talk to him. He made everyone feel very much at ease, the camera crew, everyone around, it’s only afterwards we all went, “Oh God. That didn’t really happen did it? No way.”
What made you do that particular location?
Because if the President of the United States is going to do my show we’re not going to interview him in a banquet room somewhere in a secure location and talk about what? South East Asia policy? That’s not me. Let’s go get some noodles. I know a place.
How did he get involved in the first place?
The White House reached out to us about a year ago and we of course had to keep it super, super, secret, so very few people knew. CNN didn’t know, the camera guys didn’t know until the day before. We picked a venue and I picked a venue and what we were going to do and it was very cool they went along with it. It’s not their usual thing, I can assure you.
Why do you think he wanted to be there?
I would not dream of speculating, because they never set us any guidance, they never gave us a list of no-no subjects. Not the network, not the White House. He just showed up and we just talked about stuff. He’s not running for office and he spoke like a guy who wasn’t running for office, he didn’t have to think about how will voters react to my answer, he spoke like a father and a citizen.
I don’t want to analyze food. I want to experience it in a completely emotional way.
Obama approached you, so that’s any easy scene to greenlight, but how do you plan for the other stories you want to tell on Parts Unknown?
A lot of that emanates from passions from a particular film or particular cinematographer. I watch a lot of films. I would say I’m a pretty serious film buff and always have been since I was a kid. So for instance, I watch one filmmaker’s movie, freak out over it, watch all of them and then I call up my partner and say, “Look where do we have to go to do that, to get that look, those color qualities, that kind of production design cheaply.”
The Darren Aronofsky shoot, I think he reached out, I think half-seriously—“I’m in between films, I’d love to accompany you guys.” And I said, “If you shoot, you can come, and where do you want to go,” and he picked Madagascar, and so anytime we can tell a story from somebody else’s perspective or through someone else’s eyes, that’s always valuable. I’m interested in it. I like the story telling process and I like not just story because story is great, and in some ways overrated because the story of the show is always similar all the time. It’s a point of view and atmospherics that make me happy about making these shows.
Who have been some of your biggest influences on how you make the show?
There are constant Apocalypse Now references. Every time we’re on a river we can’t help it. When we filmed in Scotland, we were thinking very much of Under the Skin with Scarlet Johansson, which I thought was very magnificent looking and we loved that shooting style. Friends of Eddie Coyle by Peter Yates. In the black-and-white Rome show, we were thinking a lot about Antonioni and early Fellini. We just did another Rome show that airs this coming season, totally anamorphic and widescreen letterbox, which we’ve never been able to use with real monster cameras and klieg lights. It’s got an incredible cinematic look to it, kind of influenced by The Conformist. Whatever strikes us fancy and the way the show works, I’m very close to my directors of photography, we’re all friends, we’ve worked together for years. It’s a show if we’re sitting around in a hotel and bar drinking after a long day shoot we challenge each other and say to each other “What’s the most fucked up thing you’d like to try. I’m open to it.” As long as the show looks completely different than it did last week, that’s the goal.
Are there influences you haven’t been able to incorporate yet?
We all sit around watching [Emmanuel] Lubezki’s work on Birdman and we’ve ripped him off already. For the Noma show in Denmark, we used a lot of Tree of Life camera movements. We all saw the Revenant and Birdman and we all looked at each other and said, “Dude, I don’t think we can do that!”
So we’re not going to get a bear rape scene?
That we can do [laughs].
What did you see in Lubezki’s work that looks unattainable?
The camera movements and the long tracking shots are so beautiful. But with that Noma show, when we were using Lubezki and Terrence Malick for inspiration you can see it. There will be no two-shots in this entire show, we’re not going to criss-cross the cameras, we are going to move between people. All sorts of Malick stuff. At all times cameras will be suspended from E-Z Rigs so you can do a lot of super-low angle, so we shot it and designed the shots and lit from the beginning in such a way as to achieve this look. There’s a lot of planning involved if you want to go out and rip off Terrence Malick. That’s the sort of stuff that keeps us going and makes us happy. It makes it look different than anything we’ve done before and it makes us look different than anyone else’s show. I want to feel like I’m doing something strange and awesome.
So many people out there are trying to make their version of your show, is this love of cinema what keeps you ahead of the knock-offs?
Listen, we stay moving. We change shooting styles and equipment always. We keep trying to find new fucked up ways to shoot food scenes and cameras to do it with, and new ways to juice the footage or ignore the food entirely. That’s a challenge. At its worst, writing about and shooting food is like porn. It’s the same wide shot, medium shot, close-up, pop shot. But if you break that and you look to undermine the genre at every opportunity, it’s the kind of challenge that can be interesting. You notice on our shows, you never ever hear me say, “I enjoy the slightly minerally quality of this mouthful with its hints of jasmine and saffron.” I don’t do that anymore. I say “Oh, that’s really good.” You’ve seen what goes into it. What’s much more interesting is who’s doing it and why and where you are and understanding the society around it. I don’t really have to tell you that it’s super-meaty or quasi-meaty, or if it’s salty or peppery. I don’t want to do it, therefore why would you want to hear it.
Sometimes food people can be up their own asses.
As someone who likes to eat, and like every chef I know, the last thing we want to do when we’re eating for pleasure is use the analytical or critical or professional parts of our brain. I don’t want to analyze food. I want to experience it in a completely emotional way. I want it to remind me of a happy moment or just be there and be happy with a good bowl of pasta and a hunk of bread. I don’t want to sit there and be thinking about “Oh, actually, I don’t believe they put sugar in this sauce.” That takes you out of the moment. That’s no way to live. It’s like sex, in the middle you don’t say “hang on, I need to write some notes.” You don’t want to be taken out of the moment.
Have we reached peak food? Is there too much food media and food TV out there?
That’s not a concern for me. If I get tired of it, I’ll stop showing it. As long as I’m interested, I’ll keep doing it. It’s kind of all about me in that regard. If it’s not interesting to me, there’s no reason I should inflict it on you. That would be a living hell like on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, where that poor bastard is standing there, feigning interest jamming food in his face saying “Oh, hey! A Denver omelette, that’s off the hook! What do you put in that?” Inside he’s got to be like, “kill me now, oh please.” Then he’s back on it. “Chili! Wow! How do you make that?!?! No way! Bacon!” Holy fuck, they don’t pay that guy enough. I’ve come around on Fieri [laughs].
You’ve come around on Fieri?
Yeah, in the sense, Jesus, that is one hard working man. Imagine, one chili dog after another over the course of what, like 10 years and you’re just standing there saying, “Here’s chef Jimmy with his secret blend of spices!” Meanwhile, he knows it’s just fucking chili powder!
I’ve come around on him too, because he’s helped so many restaurateurs with his show.
There ain’t no doubt about the fact that the Fieri Effect is good for the businesses he covers. That’s undeniable. You’d be a liar to say otherwise. All I’m saying is that has got to be tough on him. It has got to be tough.
Watch Bourdain’s series Raw Craft:
Jeremy Repanich is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter @raceforetheprize