If I could turn into another person it would be Anthony Bourdain. Why? He’s got the life I envy. The television essayist travels the world to exotic locations for CNN Doc series “Parts Unknown,” which is now into Season Five. Using local foodies as guides to each new country, Bourdain eats yummy mouth-watering cuisine as he grills the locals on their culture and often drinks to excess, while his team of four–two producers and two cameramen–shoot reportage, on the street in Shanghai, Madagascar and Myanmar, inside restaurants and kitchens in India, Thailand and Spain, on rural farms in Colombia and Paraguay, under water off the coast of Sicily, in S & M parlors in Tokyo. They are often inspired by movies they’ve seen, from “Apocalypse Now” to “In the Mood for Love.”
It’s not all fun and games. Fans of the show will remember the infamous Sicily episode, when Bourdain was in despair when his Mediterranean guide to local marine life was surreptitiously dropping a cache of dead fish into the water for the cameras. See his comment on this and more in the video below.
I sat down with the creator/star of the Peabody and Emmy-winning show at a meet-and-greet with his chef pal Roy Choi at Pot, his Koreatown restaurant. CNN Doc senior VP for development and acquisitions Vinnie Malhotra was introducing Season 4 with a gorgeously shot “Shanghai” episode inspired by Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love”– as well as a new CNN program “Street Food” from Choi, the star of Season 1’s L.A. show, which focused on Koreatown and the 1992 uprising.
Bourdain set out to cover L.A. in a new way by basically trying to exclude white people and anything Hollywood. Tastemaker Choi, who brings Bourdain and his “Chef” collaborator Jon Favreau onto his show, shot eight episodes that were released by CNN Digital all at once last fall on multiple platforms.
Of course “Parts Unknown”‘s famed New York chef, author and TV food and travel raconteur is white, but few people in this world are as open, curious, adventurous and eager to understand world culture as Bourdain. Malhotra figured out that Bourdain was restless at the Travel Channel (“No Reservations”) and wooed him to come to CNN, promising him support and entree to some of the seemingly impossible places that Bourdain has longed to breach.
CNN gives Bourdain “support, unconditional love and faith, that’s huge,” he told me, “meaning all they ever said from the beginning –‘we want you to keep doing what you’re doing only in more places and as well as you possibly can, to help you to do all the things you haven’t been able to do so far, go to places no other network would or could allow you to go’– they have done.”
And CNN did not blink on Tokyo. “When we hand them really difficult material, the hard stuff, they backed our play,” Bourdain said. “There was not much [back and forth]. After we shot the show we were all traumatized. No one has ever asked us to cut anything we didn’t expect ourselves, like excessive profanity. They’ve backed us up when we’ve gone and done very dangerous shows, they have assets in places in places like Congo and Libya, research and experience they share with us, briefings with journalists who work there. Unlike anywhere else I’ve worked, everything they’ve said, they’ve done.”
“Parts Unknown” “requires no effort on our part,” Malhotra told me. “Bourdain and his Zero Point Zero team drive themselves each season to outdo themselves.” Season Four went to Iran, Africa, Vietnam, The Bronx and Bourdain’s home turf, Western Massachusetts, for an episode focused on the rise of heroin–something he himself once abused. CNN has given the television essayist and personality free rein to explore countries where few dare to tread, from Libya after the fall of Gaddafi to the heart of darkness, The Congo. That episode hit me hard, as my late mother taught English there back in the 60s when Kinshasa was still known as Leopoldville, after the infamous Belgian King Leopold.
“Like a lot of shows we do, fixer selection is everything,” Bourdain explained of the Congo episode. “We were lucky enough to get a really great fixer, an American guy living there trying to make a film about the militias whose local contacts and drivers kept us alive, they know when to play the ‘do know do you know who I am’ card or when to play the obsequious ‘I’m so sorry card.’ We had to play those cards every day, twice a day. We were extorted, threatened with imprisonment. It was a difficult, dodgy show, and produced a great insecurity.”
Food was not the focus of that episode. “It was an unreasonable expectation to think we’d get a lot of food in Congo, it’s dangerous to cook food in Congo, to have anything worth stealing,” he said. “It was heartbreakingly beautiful and wistful. What a history there! It was a story I wanted to tell for very long time. Most people have no clue what Leopold and the Belgians did there, and we should know. It was at the crossroads of so many important moments in history, and such a tragedy. It’s the best maybe example of, if we can get Congo right, anything is possible. And as long as we can’t get one of the richest nations on Earth (as far as resources) to function, then what can we reasonably expect to do?”
As Bourdain maintains an intense travel schedule–“it’s insane”–constantly going back out on the road, he is providing a valuable chronicle of many dysfunctional societies at a moment in time that we may never see again. CNN helped him, finally, to get into Iran for Season 4.
“People will be confused by the Iran show,” he said. “It is very surprising. We were received very warmly there by everyone. In few countries in the world has my crew, just by virtue of being American, been made to feel so welcome by total strangers on the street, even without cameras. They were overjoyed to see us, eager to tell us how great their country was, to bring us into their homes, and give us an image of their life that extended beyond what we see on the news.”
On every trip Bourdain leaves home with the same tightly knit unit of people he has been working with for over a decade. (A slightly larger group of camera people and producers rotate in, one at a time, as each has the option of standing down for a show or two–except Bourdain.) “We’re all close, we all love films, and before we ever decide for sure on a location, we talk about movies we love and what to use as a jumping off point,” he said. “Is there a film style or sound or editing we should apply to a particular episode? We want each to stand alone, to have its own atmosphere and sound and world we live in, independent of other episodes. We try very hard to shake things up. Ideally if you like this show you’ll tune in next week, and whatever you see you’ll be wondering if you’re on the right show!”
While a place like India is a relatively easy rich environment to shoot, Bourdain prides himself on the tough assignments like The Bronx, Western Massachusetts or LA. “It’s more gratifying when you’re able to find a way to shoot in LA that no one else has done. We worked hard to find a new angle. That’s what we are always trying to do.”
One great thing about the show is Bourdain’s bonding with various chefs and pals like Choi, but he is aware that he needs to find more women to talk about their cultures on camera. While there are key women behind the scenes, running Zero Point Zero and producing on the road, “I’m conscious that we need more women on the show,” he said. “We’re always asking, ‘is there a woman who can speak to this?’ We make a concerted effort. If I’m not buddying around with women more, it’s a failure.”
The Shanghai episode starts with his customary narration: “Even with the modern China rising out of the ground around you, the same thing is for sale, the good old stuff, the China I first fell in love with. Walk down the street, look in any direction, and there’s something to eat. You may not know what is is immediately. But it’s good. It all starts on the street.” As he shows you open air food, from stuffed oysters grilled over charcoal to snake that tastes like chicken, your mouth waters.
Often after a day’s shooting Bourdain will start writing the show in the hotel. “Sometimes I know what it’s going to be about, sometimes I do some writing before we go,” he said, “rarely. More often after a few days on location I’ll start throwing thoughts together, maybe structure rambling observations to give to the producer. They’ll do initial edits along the lines of what I’ve written, a scratch narration written by the editor: ‘Street A is filled with the following fish for sale.'” When I get that at least I know what’s happening on camera, to remember when I look at the rough, I have something to work off and can go in any direction, as a place-holding narrative. I’ll be making editing notes as I’m writing. So every show is different, just like riffing with a band.”
What’s great about film and video tools like editing and music, said Bourdain, “is that unlike writing a story, you can grab someone by the neck and make them feel the way you felt. With the right editing, camera angles, music and cutaways, it’s a very manipulative process.”
The Paraguay episode is inspired by “The Limey” by Steven Soderbergh, which keeps cutting back to Terence Stamp on a plane. The Thailand episode was influenced by Matt Dillon’s 90s movie “City of Ghosts.” They added their own “deadbeat American to write and sing a song in Thai in the background, a creepy detail that didn’t happen,” said Bourdain. “But it’s exactly the sort of little detail that happens all time in Thailand, with some old drunk American guy in a dirty suit who came to Thailand on vacation who stayed for the girls and is singing karaoke by himself at some dive bar.”
It was back on the third episode of “Cook’s Tour” that his camera crew and future Zero Point Zero partners realized they could have fun with film references and learn the language of moviemaking. “I didn’t know how to talk to camera,” he said. “I was in a crummy hotel in Vietnam laying on a bed with the ceiling fan going–thrumpthrump, ‘duh.’ So we move the camera up there, and we did the opening scene from ‘Apocalypse Now.’ We all realized that this TV shoot can be fun and creative and we can tell stories in a more effective way and have fun doing it, and make one network after another uncomfortable, and make stuff we can be proud of. From that you can see us starting to riff on films and mess around and push things, that’s what we’ve done since: how to do something different to make people interested.”