The “Parts Unknown” Interview
with Kam Williams
(Reprinted from 2014)
Chef, author and world traveler Anthony Bourdain was an outspoken trailblazer with unique insights about food, culture and current events. In this 2014 interview, we spoke about his life, career and his Peabody and Emmy-winning TV-series, Parts Unknown.
Kam Williams: Hi Anthony, thanks for the interview. I love the show. I’m honored to have this opportunity to speak with you.
Anthony Bourdain: Oh no, my pleasure, Kam.
KW: Congratulations on the his Peabody and Emmys for Parts Unknown.
AB: Thank you. It feels good.
KW: I told my readers I’d be interviewing you. So, I’ll be mixing their questions for you in with my own. The first is from editor/Legist Patricia Turnier who is French Canadian. She says: You have French background and you’re fascinated with French cuisine. Do you speak the language?
AB: Yes, badly. But my French definitely improves the more I drink, as I worry less and less about absolutely perfect grammar. [Chuckles] I do speak and understand the language, just not particularly well.
KW: Patricia also asks: Did you spend any summers in France with your parents growing up?
AB: Just a few. Two or three. Three summers, I think.
KW: Patricia says: you are an excellent writer. What is the best advice you have for young writers about cultivating a unique writing style with a sophisticated voice like yours?
AB: Wow! That’s hard to say… I just don’t know… Be true to yourself. I write quickly with a sense of urgency. I don’t edit myself out of existence, meaning I’ll try to write 50 or 60 pages before I start rereading, revising and editing. That just helps with my confidence. I listen a lot to how people speak. I’ve read a great many good books in my life. I had some excellent English teachers. Surely, those things were helpful.
KW: Besides your books, the show is extremely well-written. Do you have a hand in that?
AB: I write the voiceover as part of the editing process, some of it beforehand. Working with the producer, we’ll sort of hash out the flow of each show, the sequence of events, and the general framework. And maybe there will be some writing as well that they can edit to. But much of it is done afterwards. It’s a long and interactive process that takes about 9 to12 weeks sometimes, per show. So, a lot of attention is paid. I’m very aware that we’re telling a story here, and that we want to tell it in the most compelling, honest and accurate way we can.
KW: I’m not surprised to hear that you wear several different hats on the show, since you strike me as one of these versatile, multi-talents like David Byrne.
AB: I wouldn’t want to compare myself to David Byrne whom I consider a genius, but what I think what we have in common is that he’s also a guy who is very interested in the world and who has a lot of passions beyond singing and playing guitar. Clearly, if you track his career, you see a great many collaborations with interesting artists, and his work reflects whatever’s turning him on that year. In that sense, what a great way to live, if you could always do things that interest you, and do them with people who interest you.
KW: Editor Lisa Loving says: This is tough because you have already been asked everything from your worst meal ever [unwashed warthog rectum] to the most disgusting food you ever ate [McDonald’s]. Would you mind comparing McDonald’s to some of the wildest dishes you’ve sampled on the show?
AB: I think it’s very hard to make an argument that a Chicken McNugget is either chicken or a nugget? If you’re eating unwholesome, street food in a country where they have to make do with whatever scraps are left to them, at least you know what it is, and generally have some sense of where it came from. Whereas a McNugget, to my way of thinking, is a Frankenfood whose name doesn’t necessarily reflect what it is. I’m still not sure what it is. Listen, Kam, when drunk, I will eat a McNugget. It’s not the worst tasting thing in the world, but it’s one of the things I’m least likely to eat, because I choose not to.
KW: Isn’t there beef in the Chicken McNugget’s bread crumbs?
AB: They use a beef flavor that they spray or somehow add. I think it’s in the French fries, as well. Manipulating flavor, salinity and sugar levels is an important part of convenience food, snack food and fast food.
KW: Lisa also asks: What does your daughter Ariane like to eat? Have you cooked together yet?
AB: We cook together all the time. And since her mom and grandparents are Italian, a little Italian gets snuck in. She eats like a European kid in the sense that she’s very daring. She eats raw oysters, chicken hearts and yakitori and other Japanese food. She’s very curious about food and isn’t afraid to try new things. She loves to cook with me, and I love cooking with her. When we do cook together, we generally make ratatouille and pastas. Simple things. She’s 7, so I have to monitor her knife work very carefully. But I just gave her her first chef’s knife.
KW: When you’re in the middle of nowhere, do you ever hesitate before eating something alien, fearing a negative reaction that might call for emergency medical attention that’s too far away?
AB: No, wholesome food is wholesome food anywhere. I may not like something but, generally speaking, if it’s a busy, street food stall serving mystery meat in India, they’re in the business of serving their neighbors. They’re not targeted toward a transient crowd of tourists that won’t be around tomorrow. They’re not in the business of poisoning their neighbors. I have eaten food that was clearly not fresh, that was dirty. I knew I was spinning the wheel of fortune there, but I did it because there was no polite way out. I saw it as the lesser of two evils, and I did pay a price. But it’s one I was willing to pay because turning your nose up at a genuine and sincere gesture of hospitality is no way to travel or to make friends around the world.
KW: Jeff Cohen says: I love that guy and his show. I want to know how I can get that job. Best job in the world!
AB: Hell if I know. I still don’t know how this happened to me. One minute I was dunking French fries, the next minute I had a TV show. I still haven’t figured it out. I guess not giving a crap is a very good business model.
KW: More seriously, Jeff asks: What fuels your passion to find out of the way places and cuisine, and how do you incorporate those experiences into your cooking?
AB: As far as the first part of the question, that’s just how I like to eat. Those are the places that make me happy, and they’re the most representative places, if you kinda want to get the flavor of what a place is really like and of who lives there. As to the second part of the question, it may come as a surprise to some that I do not incorporate those flavors that I discover or encounter around the world into my own cooking. I’m not so arrogant as to think that I can visit India for a week and then come back and cook Indian food. Just because I like sushi, doesn’t mean I can make sushi. I’ve come to well understand how many years just to get sushi rice correct. It’s a discipline that takes years and years and years. So, I leave that to the experts. When I cook, I generally stick with what I know, what I’m comfortable with, and what I feel I’ve paid my dues learning, and am good at.
KW: Jim Cryan has a question related to one of his favorite episodes of Parts Unknown: What’s the best street food to eat while watching cricket in India?
AB: Gee, I forget the name, but it was this very spicy, colorful, flavorful Rice Krispies-type dish.
KW: Cousin Leon Marquis asks: What’s the strangest food you ever ate, and where were you when you ate it?
AB: I think I’d refer back to Chicken McNugget or a Cinnabon.
KW: Attorney/Pastry Chef Bernadette Beekman was wondering whether you have a preference for any particular type of cuisine.
AB: If I were trapped in one city and had to eat one nation’s cuisine for the rest of my life, I would not mind eating Japanese. I adore Japanese food. I love it.
KW: Bernadette would also like to know whether you will do other love stories to cities in period style such as you did with Italy? Loved the black and white “La Dolce Vita” feeling!
AB: That was one of my proudest accomplishments, and one of my favorite shows. I don’t know whether we’d do it in black and white again, but yes, I hope to do another richly-textured, carefully-designed, cinematic ode to a city I love and to its food. Sure! That’s always what I like to do, and when I’m at my happiest.
KW: Pittsburgh native Robin Beckham says: Parts Unknown is one of my favorite shows. She asks: Do you ever plan to visit the Steel City?
AB: Very likely, yes.
KW: Robin goes on to say: Mr. Bourdain, through your show you call attention to the variety of food choices people are indulging in around the world. And on your journeys visiting various countries, you have a unique way of helping to break down religious, racial and ethnic barriers by presenting people in a light that forces an audience to think about other cultures in a positive manner (in a way they may never have in the past). When you return to the United States and witness the racial divide we have in Ferguson, what are some of your thoughts about what we need to do here in America to bring people together? What are the “Parts Unknown,” from your perspective, that can help to heal our country?
AB: Wow, that’s a big, big, big, big, big question, Robin. I wish I knew. We are, in many ways, a much more divided nation than we like to think or say we are. In some of the countries I’ve visited, like Malaysia and Singapore, people are mixed up, whether they like it or not. Here, it’s like a grid system, even in New York, where we like to think of ourselves as enlightened and multi-racial. It’s a complicated question that I certainly don’t feel qualified to answer. I could suggest that all that’s needed is for us to sit down and share a meal together, but I don’t know if that’s true. Certainly, to the extent that people can walk in each other’s shoes for a few hours, or even just for a few minutes, this can only be a good thing. Looking at Ferguson, Missouri from the outside, I would guess that the Police Department has a particular siege mentality, an “us vs. them” mentality, that’s not all that unusual in this world when you look at angry, disenfranchised, paranoid people. It’s a mentality that emerges in groups of people. It’s ugly and, frankly, I’m the last person in the world in terms of having a constructive clue as to what to do about it.
KW: But you have a natural ability to relate to people and to reduce the human experience to a collective one. Add in food, and you’re a natural ambassador.
AB: It’s not my intention. I’m out there looking to tell stories about other cultures, places I go, and things I see. That’s all, really. I’m not trying to explain other cultures, or to give a fair and balanced account of a country, or the top ten things you need to know. I’m not trying to spread world peace and understanding. I’m not an advocate or and activist or an educator or a journalist. I’m out there trying to tell stories the best I can. I come back and make television shows that give as honest a sense of what I felt like when I was there. If that enables the audience to empathize with people they felt hostile towards or never thought about before, that is good and I feel happy about that. But that is not my mission in life. My mission in life is tell an entertaining, well-made, well-crafted story that is true to myself. I am proud and pleased when viewers report afterwards feeling some kinship with people they never imagined empathizing with before. I’m not Bono. I’m not on a mission.
KW: You’re doing something that resonates with the audience to come to CNN and become the network’s highest rated show almost immediately.
AB: I see Parts Unknown as an adjunct to the news in the sense that when you see something terrible or something good that transpires in Libya or Palestine or Iran or Congo or Southeast Asia, you know who we’re talking about, if you’ve watched this show. You’ve sat down with a family from the West Bank or Gaza. You’ve seen the daily routine of a Vietnamese rice farmer. You have some sense of whom we’re talking about in Congo, the next time a statistic pops up. We put a human face on places faraway from where we live. I think it’s useful. It may not be news, but it’s useful.
KW: Do you think you’re helping to obliterate the “Ugly American” stereotype by being so sensitive to and appreciative of other cultures?
AB: I think many, if not most, of the people I’ve met in countries where you’d not expect them to be friendly, make a definite distinction between our government and us. They are extraordinarily friendly and welcoming just about everywhere, and are often cynical about their own leaders and government. So, the idea that they could disagree with many things about our government and yet still find it in their hearts to invite us to their table and to enjoy sharing their culture with us is not an unusual impulse, at all, in my experience. People everywhere have been very, very good to me, whether I’m with or without cameras.
KW: Robin asks: Do you have any updates on a possible show in North Korea?
AB: The state control is so tight there that there’s no way we could have anything resembling an organic or real experience. They really keep you inside a sort of North Korean Disneyland, and there would be no way, at all, of seeing how ordinary North Koreans live, and that, of course, is what we would want to show.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
AB: Playing with plastic army men on the beach with my brother at around 3.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
AB: I see a face full of lines, and every one of them has been earned.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
AB: I love making Neapolitan style ragu of neck bones, oxtail and tough cuts of meat, and slowly cooking down with a tomato sauce into a ragu.
KW: The Sanaa Lathan question: What excites you?
AB: A bowl of spicy noodles, a beautiful beach, anything involving my daughter, a fat unread book, any number of film directors coming out with a new film, and seeing stuff that few others have seen. And Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I’ve been doing lot of that lately, and it’s deeply satisfying.
KW: Sangeetha Subramanian says: I have really enjoyed and learned so much watching Parts Unknown. What advice do you have for vegetarians who want to travel to countries where it’s a bit harder to find meals with no seafood and no meat?
AB: I’m sort of unsympathetic. I just think it’s bad manners.
KW: Robin asks: What do you share with your daughter about your experience connecting with human beings who welcome you into their very different worlds?
AB: She watches my show, and I try to bring the family along to one family-friendly location a year. She’s only 7, but she’s traveled pretty widely. I think it’s important for a kid, especially a privileged kid like my daughter, to see that not everybody in the world lives like her.
KW: How does she react to seeing daddy on TV?
AB: She doesn’t take it seriously. In my house, neither my wife nor my daughter are impressed that I’m on television, and they remind me of that frequently.
KW: If you could have a chance to speak with a deceased loved one for a minute who would it be and what would you say?
AB: Well, my dad. When my father passed, I was still an unsuccessful cook with a drug problem. I was in my mid-thirties, standing behind an oyster bar, cracking clams for a living when he died. So, he never saw me complete a book or achieve anything of note. I would have liked to have shared this with him.
KW: The Anthony Anderson question: If you could have a superpower, which one would you choose?
AB: I’d like to play bass like Bootsy Collins. I’m serious. That would be my dream. Or I’d play with James Brown’s Famous Flames or with Parliament or Funkadelic.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
AB: Show up on time and do the best job you can.
KW: The Tavis Smiley question: How do you want to be remembered?
AB: I don’t care.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Anthony, this has been tremendous. All the best with the family, the new season and all your travels.
AB: Thank you, Kam. It’s been fun. I really enjoyed it. So long.