Anthony Bourdain, the bad boy of New York restaurants and intrepid travel, talks to Kirsten Matthew about life on the road, mellowing with age and his new TV series.

The grown-up's guide to long-haul travel, a la Anthony Bourdain, goes something like this: check your luggage to avoid scrabbling for overhead-locker space; dress for security - wearing no belt and shoes that are easy to kick off and push through an x-ray machine; wear a "scrunchy" jacket that can double as a pillow; pack an iPad loaded with television shows and movies to watch; and never, ever, succumb to the temptations of aeroplane food.

"No one ever felt better after a plane meal," says Bourdain. "I eat before I get on the plane and I arrive hungry." The American chef knows of what he speaks. For a decade and a half, he's been on our screens and on the road, travelling the world in search of good food, great stories and off-the-beaten-track adventures.

"I'm pretty good at it after 15 years," admits the 59-year-old, on the phone from his home in New York City. "I've got very good at going to sleep on planes - I smell jet fuel, I fall asleep." Bourdain, who's home for a few days with his wife and daughter before departing for the Philippines to film yet another show, sounds tired, a little jaded, but au fait with the dog-and-pony series that is promoting a TV show. That series is Parts Unknown, a CNN production that premieres on Food TV next week. It's part history lesson, part travelogue, part filmic food porn. Often, the food's the garnish to the real meat of the programme - the people Bourdain encounters in places as diverse as Myanmar, the Congo, Morocco, Copenhagen and Mississippi.

Variety.com, in a 2013 review, described Parts Unknown as "playing like the kind of dish the host himself seems to appreciate: Many different ingredients, and compared to most travel fare, unexpected bite". The show is beautifully shot; the stories Bourdain, who claims to dislike being on TV but loves the process of making television, and his production team discover are often genuinely fascinating. Perhaps that's why the programme won the Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Series or Special in 2013 and 2014. And why, in 2014, Bourdain won a Peabody Award (which rewards public service in television) for Parts Unknown.

Advertisement

The chef thinks the show's success comes down to his contrarian beliefs that TV shouldn't be formulaic or made to appeal to the masses.

"It's not like the other shows because I try very hard to never think about what people might like," he says in his laid-back New Jersey drawl. "I try hard not to care. I make it about things that interest me in a way that interests me. I'd rather every episode is different than the one before. I don't want to do the same thing and make everybody happy - that's the road to madness."

Avoiding making everybody happy is something Bourdain is accustomed to - and something anyone who has read his books or seen his other shows understands. The Culinary Institute of America-trained chef became well known with the 2000 publication of his first book, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly. The memoir, which was spawned by an article he wrote for The New Yorker titled "Don't Eat Before Reading This", was a hard-hitting, self-aware analysis of a life spent working too hard and long in sweaty subterranean kitchens. Bourdain detailed life outside of cooking too, admitting to drinking too much, taking too many drugs (including heroin), and failing at meaningful adult relationships. And, he excoriated his fellow chefs and restaurateurs for their tough, careless, sometimes unethical and often jaw-droppingly
unhygienic behaviour in commercial kitchens.

In the book, Bourdain described himself as "spoiled, miserable, narcissistic, self-destructive and thoughtless". In an interview in The Guardian in 2013, he went further, saying that as a young man he was "too lazy, undisciplined and stoned to apply myself to anything in particular. Back then I was a miserable, self-destructive lout." With Kitchen Confidential, however, life changed. Bourdain describes it, in the first episode of Parts Unknown, as "the book that changed my life from broke ass utility grade chef to whatever it is today". It led to an offer to host his own Food Network series, A Cook's Tour (which premiered in the US in 2002), while holding down a job as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, a Manhattan bistro and steakhouse.

Many other television appearances followed. And more books (often companions to his small-screen series), including A Cook's Tour, The Nasty Bits, his Les Halles Cookbook, No Reservations: Around The World On An Empty Stomach and Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine To The World Of Food And The People Who Cook. He's written non-food books too, including Gone Bamboo and Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical.

Bourdain says 'It helps when you eat with people, for sure. When you’re polite and willing to eat anything, then people say rather surprising things.'
Bourdain says 'It helps when you eat with people, for sure. When you’re polite and willing to eat anything, then people say rather surprising things.'

He's a great writer because he writes just like he talks - with a turn of phrase that is cynical, clear-eyed, irreverent and more than just a little bit rock 'n' roll. A case in point; when talking on Parts Unknown about gorging on a frito pie (a white-trash dish made in a plastic bag of corn chips by adding mince and cheese), he opines, "I managed to reach a depth of self-loathing that usually takes a night of drinking to achieve." Bourdain's a terrific interviewer, too. It's how he extracts the personal, political and cultural stories from the characters he meets on his show.

"I've met a lot of very, very different people with a lot of different world views and religions," he explains of his knack for connecting with people on the road. "It helps when you eat with people, for sure. When you're polite and willing to eat anything, then people say rather surprising things.

"I show up and ask simple things," Bourdain said recently, in a radio podcast. "But they're the questions that people are seldom asked ... and what's on your plate is an indication of your history and character. What people are eating and what they're not eating tells you a lot about them. Give people the opportunity to talk about their food ... In talking about food and culture, people reveal a lot about themselves. A culture reveals a lot about itself."

With books and celebrity has come success, something Bourdain says he wouldn't have been able to cope with when he was young, selfish and out of control: "To be able to handle success without killing yourself is a function of getting older. If I'd been successful in my 20s, that would have killed me. It would have led to destructive behaviour."

That success - and a relentless filming schedule that means he spends only 8-12 days in each new destination - has afforded him the chance to visit the most far-flung, exotic and sometimes politically precarious places in the world.

"There are places that I've never been before that I wouldn't have been able to go to without the show and then there are places that I'm returning to from previous series. China, I could keep going back to because it's so vast and diverse; I could be there for years and years. Pakistan is a place I haven't been and am excited about. Afghanistan - the Kashmir - I would love to get into." But it's Japan, which he lovingly profiled in Kitchen Confidential, that Bourdain's still "most thrilled and intrigued and excited by. Most chefs would agree. China is always exciting, and Italy and Spain, but Japan takes perfection to a whole new level. I've been numerous times and made numerous episodes but its food culture is a deep, richly textured subject that I'm pretty sure I'll still die relatively ignorant of."

Time spent in other cultures has changed the way Bourdain thinks. "It's always evolving but I think on balance I'm probably more nuanced. The world's become a more complicated place - in a lot of ways more hopeful, in others, less hopeful. On balance, I'm more optimistic about the world since I started travelling and I'm more tolerant than I was before. And I'm more inclined to see moral grey areas than before.

"It's also that I'm now a father of an 8-year-old [with his second wife, Ottavia Busia]. That changes everything, as it should. I'm not the star of the movie any more - that's my daughter. Every decision has to be seen through that; being alive, present, a good example, everything.

"This kinder, gentler Bourdain is outspoken about community, politics and advocacy. He has recently been in the US papers, thanks to his denouncement of presidential candidate and celebrity property developer, Donald Trump. Trump has been candid about his dislike of illegal immigrants and of his plan to erect a giant wall to stop South American immigrants coming over the border. Bourdain, who should know, asserts that such workers - cheap, illegal grafters prepared to do hard, menial work - are what's keeping America's restaurants in business.

"If Mr Trump deports 11 million people or whatever he's talking about right now, every restaurant in America would shut down," Bourdain said in a radio interview. "Serious minds can honestly disagree over what we want to do in the future as far as how tightly we want to control our borders and how many people we want to let in ... But for the people who've been living here, and who are so much part of our lives, and who have done nothing but do their best to achieve the American dream ... there should be an easy path to legality."

Success has enabled Bourdain to visit the most far-flung, exotic and sometimes politically precarious places in the world.
Success has enabled Bourdain to visit the most far-flung, exotic and sometimes politically precarious places in the world.

When Bourdain is home in Manhattan these days, he feasts on the dishes he misses when he's abroad - Shake Shack cheeseburgers and decent Korean barbecue, and works on his upcoming book, a cookbook inspired by his family.

"It's a big and very strange book," he says. "Mine is an unusual family. People will be surprised with it as it's completely unlike any other cookbook." He's said in the past that he'd "be perfectly happy to just call it a day and f*** off to the nearest hammock and a frosty boat drink with an umbrella in it". But when pushed, the ex-bad boy of cooking admits that's not actually true.

"I definitely have those days, there's no doubt about it, when I'd like to do that," he says. "But I'm also aware that I have the best job in the world. I have freedom to make the shows I want - more, maybe than anyone in the history of TV. I work with close friends. I go where I want and how I want.

"And I'm still curious about things and have things to do. When that changes, I'll f*** off to somewhere in the tropics - Vietnam, the Caribbean, Southern Italy. None of those places would be terrible."

Parts Unknown premieres on Food TV on January 21 at 8.30pm.