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It’s been a long time since Anthony Bourdain was known as a chef. Ever since Kitchen Confidential, his behind-the-scenes memoir about working in the New York culinary scene, Bourdain has been more known as a writer, a traveler, a television star, and a go-to guy for smack about other TV food-show hosts he believes are doing the culinary world a disservice. After four non-fiction books, four novels, and seven seasons of breaking bread all over the planet on his Travel Channel show No Reservations, Bourdain’s fans know exactly what to expect from him: unvarnished opinions, lots of smoking and swearing, and tales of hard living that enhance his travels rather than detracting from them.
Bourdain’s new Travel Channel show, The Layover, which debuts on November 21, follows more of a traditional travel-show format than his previous shows; he goes to a city like Singapore or Montreal for less than 48 hours, and takes an intense tour of the best places to eat, drink, and stay, based on his and his crew’s previous experiences. The show has the signature Bourdain touches, which include his cleverly written, caustic narratives accompanying lavishly shot visuals. Last week, Bourdain sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about the cognitive dissonance he experiences shooting the show, how his travels have changed him, and whether he’s still feeling the blowback from his not-so-kind remarks about Paula Deen and others this past August.
The A.V. Club: The Layover is a more traditional travel-show format than No Reservations, with a faster pace. How did the idea come up to film your layovers?
Anthony Bourdain: A couple things. Over time, I’ve been to all of these places with my crew, and we’ve just amassed a lot of information. We’ve been to a lot of places both on-camera and off-, so we know a lot about these places. We’re pretty good at finding the right place to eat, even if it’s just for ourselves, when we’re not shooting scenes for No Reservations. So we have this vast pool of information and contacts in a lot of places. We started to talk about something fast and nasty that we could do between seasons of No Reservations, and then also, there was sort of an interesting technical challenge posed by the new Panavision lenses that we were able to borrow from Panavision, which basically allowed us to shoot through film-quality lenses with digital cameras. I don’t know that a lot of people have ever done this, certainly not vérité-style. But the challenge was “Can we use these incredibly expensive, amazing lenses while running backward at high speed through foreign cities in the heat?” The possibility that was held out to us was, if we use these lenses, we will be able to shoot with available light. So it seemed like a really interesting challenge to see whether we could do something that’s, on its surface, a pretty conventional format—could we do that in a subversive way that undermines the genre? Make it useful, stay true to ourselves, and technically pull it off?
AVC: You still wanted to have the same luxurious, well-thought-out look that No Reservations has?
AB: We’re a handcrafted outfit, and nothing’s coming out of our shop that doesn’t look good. The photography will be beautiful and the editing will be outstanding. That’s the way we do.
AVC: How do you construct the day? In the first episode, shot in Singapore, were you truly on your way to a No Reservations shoot somewhere else?
AB: I was on my way to another Layover shoot. I mean, these things, the way we work it is two crews leapfrogging each other. One crew flies out to Singapore, starts shooting B-roll, I fly in after a few hours or a day, and for 48 hours, they run me like a rented mule. Twelve hours, 15, 16 hours a day they run me. After two days, I fly off to the next city, like Hong Kong, where another crew is waiting for me. Then I fly from there with maybe a day or two back in New York, then off to Montreal, where the first crew from Singapore has now arrived and is set up and ready for me. For all intents and purposes, it was indeed a layover. Because I was only in these cities 48 hours, max.
AVC: You’re used to flying around, but this must have given you a especially acute sense of cognitive dissonance. Any good examples of that?
AB: Well when you’re shooting that fast end to end, you wake up in a hotel and you don’t know where you are. You’re dreaming of Singapore, you wake up in Hong Kong. Or you just lose track. [It’s] one of the reasons I’m staying in hotels that I know I’ve stayed in before, and they don’t look like other hotels. So when you wake up at the Chateau in L.A., you know where you are. It’s a lifesaving experience. I don’t get jet lag anymore. I’m really good at sleeping on planes. I mean, I smell jet fuel and I’m out; I’m asleep for takeoff.
AVC: Is that something you had to learn over the years from all your travel?
AB: Well I guess between Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, all the rest, I mean, it’s a lot of miles. I’ve spent a lot of time in the air. It’s not about learning it. Your body starts to naturally adapt, I think. My brain and body and nervous system, they see a plane ride, a long plane trip, as an opportunity to sleep with nothing coming in, nothing to do. I just go offline the minute I’m on the plane.
AVC: You’re a pretty tall guy; do you fly coach, business class, or first class?
AB: After my first couple hundred thousand miles, I got down on my knees and begged for business class. There are a lot of flights where, I say one-third of the flights that I take, there’s no such thing as business class. You fly in a flying bus or these little puddle-jumpers. But yeah, whenever possible, my God, yes. You’re flying 20 hours to Asia—I’m 6’4”, you’re absolutely right. If I can find my inner diva, I’m at the pointy end of the plane, and I’m in business.
AVC: Because these are cities you know, how is that fundamental difference between this show and No Reservations reflected?
AB: Well, you know, No Reservations’ focus changes all the time. They’re like mini-movies, and they’re often about what people aren’t eating. More often than not, they’re just about me trying to have a good time, or satisfy my curiosity about a place. Whether or not there’s a takeaway, whether anybody can actually recreate that experience if they choose to, was never a concern. They’re personal essays: “This is what I did when I went to that country.” It was never my intention to show people experiences that they could themselves enjoy. [The Layover] is an attempt to take a very traditional format and do something interesting with it. These are places, destinations, restaurants, hotels that, yeah, you could go to all of these places. You could do these things if you choose to, and secure in the knowledge, or disturbed by the knowledge, that these are places I either have been or would go to myself.
AVC: How do you think the show turns that travel format on its ear?
AB: Because I don’t really give a shit whether you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower. If you want to go to the Vatican, be my guest. Stand on line in the boring sun. I’m just telling you right up front, I would never in a million years do it. I’m happy to show you the giant Ferris wheel [in Singapore], but I sure as hell am not going up in it, and I think you’re an idiot if you do. I mean, there it is, it’s fine, feel free. But me, if I’m in Rome for only 48 hours, I would consider it a sin against God to not eat cacio e pepe, the most uniquely Roman of pastas, in some crummy little joint where Romans eat. I’d much rather do that than go to the Vatican. That’s Rome to me. So that point of view very much informs anything you see on the show.
AVC: Is it a point of view from someone who was a chef, someone who loves food?
AB: I don’t know. It’s my point of view. It’s the only point of view I know. It’s a guy who’s been traveling a long time, and there’s some things I choose to do, or some things that in my experience are fun, others not. I think that’s the takeaway; you know, there are plenty of good reasons to go see the Louvre. It just would not be something I’d do on my first day in Paris. Well, maybe, actually. I don’t know. But for better or worse, these are things I would do myself.
AVC: Before the age of the cable or public-TV travel show, how would you find that out-of-the-way place the locals go to, that would serve great food even if it was a dump, rather than going to the touristy places with English menus?
AB: You’d have to make friends, and you’d have to get to know somebody in the town. How do you do that? Drink. Drink recklessly. Make mistakes. Honestly, it’s the way we acquired this information on the show, through trial and error. This is the distilled wisdom of many wheels gone wrong, and many scenes gone wrong. But in fact, that little out-of-the-way place, that discovery is often the result of a happy mishap or an accident. You know, car breaks down, you get lost, you end up at some grotty little place that ends up being magical.
AVC: What’s a good example of that in your travels, even before the show?
AB: I often bring up the example of just riding along in the Caribbean, suddenly caught in a rainstorm, you know, you run for shelter in this terrible-looking barbecue shack with stray dogs wandering around, a bare light bulb, and some sinister-looking Rasta dude in a dirty T-shirt grilling chicken in a converted 55-gallon drum. You sit down, and suddenly your favorite song comes on the radio, and the chicken’s good, and the beer’s cold, and suddenly what was an inconvenience is a silly, very romantic experience.
AVC: Do you think your show’s appeal is because you have that wide range of tastes, from street food to out-of-the-way dumps to fine dining?
AB: I mean, I just think it’s a willingness… You know, I’d seen almost nothing of the world until I was 44, and at 44, before Kitchen Confidential, I was quite sure I never would see it. So I’m still very enthusiastic about traveling. I know how lucky I am to be able to see the places I go. I think it’s a willingness to try anything with a smile, and whoever’s offering, to smile back at them and give it a shot, and also a willingness to make mistakes. Things go wrong. What’s the worst that can happen? That’s okay. I learned a long time ago that trying to micromanage the perfect vacation is always a disaster. That leads to terrible times. If you get lost and you just end up eating just anywhere, you know, you see a bunch of Venetians sitting around smoking cigarettes, eating something unrecognizable in a dark alley somewhere, chances are it’s interesting.
AVC: The big line of locals is always a big indicator.
AB: Locals and nobody else, no outsiders. I mean, if they don’t speak your language, there’s nobody like you, and it seems to be popular with the locals, you’re already on pretty solid ground, even if you don’t recognize the food. It’s gonna be good. You know, you’re getting something real. You’re getting something unique to that area. Isn’t that what travel’s all about? To see how other people live, where they live?
AVC: How do you see and talk about food and culture differently than Andrew Zimmern, or even Man V. Food, or some of the other Travel Channel shows?
AB: Well I don’t know about the other guys, but I know Andrew pretty well. I know Andrew’s a guy like me who had a lot of problems with drugs earlier, and who feels very fortunate to be seeing the places and doing the things he’s doing. So I think we are grateful. We like it. We’re grateful when people around the world, who have no particular reason to be nice to us, are again and again nice to us. Again and again, we form relationships with people based entirely on our willingness to accept the food they’re offering with a smile. That’s life-changing. That changes your worldview, when you see the kind of connections you can make with people around the world, even in places you wouldn’t have imagined you could have, just based on a willingness to accept an offering of food, even if it doesn’t look particularly good.
AVC: What was your first example of that?
AB: Vietnam. At a Vietnamese rice farmer’s home way up in the delta, you know, I had to take one of those narrow boats basically up an irrigation-ditch canal with a bunch of former VC to a rice farmer’s home. He killed a duck and cooked it in clay, not particularly well, but all the neighbors came from miles around, curious to see what was going on. He got me and my crew really drunk on homemade rice whiskey, and he was happy to see us, and made sure we had a good time. The neighbors came, and people were singing, and the kids were playing with us. I mean, it was just this amazing, amazing experience in a country I never thought I’d see, under a bare light bulb, sitting on the floor with a bunch of former Vietcong singing war songs to me and patting me on the back, and making sure I had a good time. The world tilted for me at that point.
AVC: So when you’re walking around at home in New York, how do you feel different now than you did 10, 12 years ago, before you started this job?
AB: I mean, I’m less likely to go to a fine-dining restaurant if I can avoid it, unless it’s something really extraordinary, or there’s a personal connection. I’d rather eat sitting on a low plastic stool most times. A bowl of noodles, or some cheap wine and a bowl of pasta, is just fine by me. But [it’s] alienating, in a slight way. You know, you don’t come back from that the same, when you’ve seen how people live around the world, and how hard they work, and how hard they struggle to put food on the table, and how much they can do with so little. I came back from Cambodia and found myself sitting, I think for an interview, waiting for an interviewer in the lobby of the Royalton Hotel, and they were playing lounge music, Portishead in the background, and there were girls in little black dresses, and waiters in uniforms, and I just couldn’t relate to it. It was suddenly much more alien to me than the place [from which] I’d just come. A lot of these [travel] experiences are, even when I film them and write about them, kind of unsharable. You know? Some things that happen on the road, some things you see, some sunsets, they’re just for you, you know?
AVC: You mean something that’s just very deeply personal?
AB: You realize after you travel enough that there’s some things that, no matter how good you are at making television, no matter how good your cameras are, how well it’s edited, there’s no way the lenses could have captured the moment, and there’s no way you will ever be able to write about it and do it justice. You just gotta let it go and realize “Well, it happened. I saw it. That was pretty goddamned cool.”
AVC: You don’t even think that you could put that into words, knowing that you have these books out, and you write scripts for your shows, and you write volumes and volumes of words?
AB: There are some things that just, you know, you realize as it’s happening, “This one is just…” Actually, it’s the best moments, where the cameras are off and it’s just the crew. You know, clamber up a dune, smoke some hash, and look out over the Sahara. You know, you can’t… It’s a relief actually in some ways when you realize, “I won’t be writing about this.”
AVC: Do you think at this point in your career, when people come to you for interviews, they’re geared up to ask you about different chefs so they can get the canned Tony Bourdain quote?
AB: Sure. Yeah, I mean, you know, I’m guilty of being an easy quote-o-mat. If you poke me with a stick, chances are I’ll give you an honest answer. I’m constitutionally unable to do the diplomatic thing. I’d like to, but stuff I’m excited about, I’ll tell ya. Stuff that pisses me off, I’ll tell you that, too. And stuff that’s just screamingly obvious, that nobody else is saying, I mean, I have a hard time laying off.
AVC: When something happens like the reaction to your quotes about Paula Deen, do you just say “Fuck it, that’s the way it is”?
AB: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, listen, being misquoted is one thing. But you know, what are you going to do? You’re going to complain about it was taken out of context? It’s too late. The toothpaste’s out of the tube. Fuck it. I said it. Doesn’t matter how it was intended, or the context, or anything else. It came out of my mouth, it’s out there. In this case, I was away on vacation, and I expected… it just kept coming and coming and coming. To get shat on by the New York Times op-ed page and Fox News in the same news cycle—man! That’s scary. It was really the only time where I’ve genuinely been frightened by the blowback from something I’ve said. The substance of what I said, I meant. What am I going to say? Is anyone saying [Deen-style] food is good for you, or good for America? My travels around the world have only reinforced that. Don’t tell me that there’s anything blue-collar about deep-fried butter, or that this kind of food is the lot of the working poor. The working poor make delicious food everywhere in the world. There ain’t nothing funny or ironic or cute or anything else about it. You know? Fuck it.
AVC: It seems like walking through a local market and showing that the food is high-quality, fresh, and healthy would convince people that you can eat that way without spending a ton of money.
AB: You know, I just—to be called an elitist by the Times, I felt was a little inappropriate, given what I spend most of my life advocating for, at least celebrating and eating. I want to say, after the Paula Deen incident, the only person who publicly stuck their head out over the barricades and spoke up for me and backed me up was Andrew Zimmern. Everybody else was like, “I’m leaving this field of fire for a while.”
AVC: If an interviewer starts by asking, “Hey, what do you think of Rachael Ray now, or Paula Deen, or Emeril?” do you take a step back at this point, and just say “Oh no, not again?”
AB: I don’t want to be like Henny Youngman at this point. At this point, it’s perilously close to shtick. I was asked a direct question, and it was a reasonable question, though one I’ve been asked before, and I put my foot straight into it. But I mean, if you ask me about Rachael Ray, I’m quietly groaning, because I’ve been over that for years. She’s actually been really cool to me. She sent me a fruit basket. She’s shown nothing but good humor, after years of [my] making fun of her. People still bring stuff up, though I haven’t said anything about her in quite some time, just because I don’t have the heart for it. I’ve got nothing against her. I lay off because I appreciate it, honestly; I just don’t have the heart to beat up on her. Frankly, you know, it’s just not on my radar screen at all. I don’t feel it, so why should I say it for purposes of comedy?
You know, I think that the Paula Deen question was fresh off of a viewing of the Krispy Kreme burger sandwich. [Laughs.] It was right there on the tip of my tongue. It was the same with Sandra Lee. I don’t care; let them do their thing. They’re not pissing me off this week, and haven’t for a long time. It’s just not something I’m thinking about. You know, the Paula Deen thing, that’s fresh in memory. Frankly, I was pissed off at the [Frank] Bruni piece [in The New York Times]. I didn’t appreciate the… you know, [Deen’s] ground game was good, let’s put it that way. She positioned herself as the people’s champion, and I think, you know, worked that very well. [Her quote that] you can buy a $58 steak at Les Halles, you know, that’s a $58 steak for two people. I believe the steak at her restaurant’s 30 bucks for one.
AVC: That Krispy Kreme burger thing gives me chest pains just looking at it.
AB: Honestly, I have no ill will toward her personally. I respect anybody who’s had a trajectory like hers. But I don’t like the brand. If her shtick is food that’s going to rush you along your way to diabetes, then it’s not a brand I particularly like. I am the last person in the world to be advocating for any kind of healthy eating or lifestyle. The only distinction between us, actually, is that my show comes with a parental advisory and hers doesn’t.
AVC: You appeared a couple years ago on Yo Gabba Gabba. Are you going to appear on any more of your daughter’s favorite shows anytime soon?
AB: Well, I mean, I’d love to. I don’t know how they could work me into Phineas And Ferb, but boy, that would be cool. I mean, I watch that show even when my daughter leaves the room. It’s like, she’ll have left and be playing in the other room, and my wife’s there, you know, “Tony, there’s a phone call for you,” and I’m like “No, no, no, wait a minute. Just hold on one minute. I’m waiting to see if Ferb’s machine works.”