“Ready to eat well?” asks Anthony Bourdain.
The chef turned TV star is leading the way toward a pair of narrow seats at the New York outpost of a Michelin-rated Tokyo yakitori joint called Tori Shin, a tightly packed establishment that’s Bourdain’s kind of place: little-known, deeply authentic, and a bit unusual. “We might as well be in Tokyo,” he says. “They do everything right here.”
A meal out with Bourdain typically involves three things. There will be engaging conversation, possibly touching on such subjects as the essays of Michel de Montaigne, 1920s surrealist films, and mixed-martial-arts combat. There will be booze, although perhaps in more modest quantities than his reputation suggests. And there will be food–some strange, all carefully prepared, and a certain amount involving animal innards that seem better suited to ninth-grade biology class than the dinner table.
Bourdain, 58, is a foodie explorer who has spent years trekking around the planet while fearlessly tucking into all manner of exotic fare, from months-old rotten shark meat in Iceland to a still-beating cobra heart in Vietnam. “He’s the Indiana Jones of the food world,” says his close friend Eric Ripert, chef and co-owner of New York institution Le Bernardin. “He is the smart guy who knows food and is going to take us with him on an adventure.”
Bourdain’s hour-long CNN food and travel show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which kicked off its fourth season on September 28 (new episodes air Sundays at 9 p.m. EST), is unlike anything else on TV. Forget about four-star hotels or luxury spa treatments: Bourdain is on a mission to illuminate underappreciated and misunderstood cultures, whether it’s Myanmar or Detroit. He regularly takes viewers to the sorts of places–Libya, Gaza, Congo–that most Americans know only from grim headlines about political strife and body counts. Bourdain does all of this with vivid narrative reporting, stunning visuals, palpable empathy, and a relentlessly open mind. The show has so far been nominated for 11 Emmys and has won three (most recently for Best Informational Series or Special). This year it was also awarded a prestigious Peabody.
As with Bourdain’s previous programs, A Cook’s Tour and the long-running No Reservations, the premise is simple: he goes somewhere interesting and hangs out with the locals. “We show up and say, ‘What’s to eat? What makes you happy?'” Bourdain says. “You’re going to get very Technicolor, very deep, very complicated answers to those questions. I’m not a Middle East expert. I’m not an Africa expert. I’m not a foreign-policy wonk. But I see aspects of these countries that regular journalists don’t. If we have a role, it’s to put a face on people who you might not otherwise have seen or cared about.”
Parts Unknown is the flagship of Bourdain’s somewhat accidental empire. He also presides over two other current TV programs: the PBS docuseries The Mind of a Chef (which he both narrates and executive produces) and the Esquire Network travel show The Getaway. He’s a mentor on ABC’s reality competition The Taste (season 3 premieres in January), and he oversees an Ecco/HarperCollins imprint that has released four books since it kicked off in May 2013. He has written six food books of his own–including his 2000 memoir, Kitchen Confidential–and several crime novels. Recently, and much to his surprise, he’s even become a new face of CNN, which is currently being overhauled by former NBCUniversal president and CEO Jeff Zucker. His show could lead an industry-wide shift toward a more documentary-focused cable-news landscape.
For Bourdain, it has been a long evolution: from heroin-addicted chef to punk-rock-foodie author to global citizen on a mission to simply understand a bit about our world. It’s a testament to Bourdain’s work ethic and creative drive that after 14 years on television, he’s still pushing to get better, go deeper, seek out complexity, avoid the obvious and conventional. At a time when he could simply coast, Bourdain seems as energized as ever.
But right now, at Tori Shin, he’s mostly just hungry. Bourdain has ordered us a fairly large quantity of grilled whole chicken hearts, along with a feast of other meat pieces: liver, tail, skin, and more, all prepared with the obsessive care that marks Japanese cuisine at its best. Soon the first plate arrives: three juicy little hearts, plump and glistening and impaled on a thin wooden stick. Bourdain pops one in his mouth, then urges me to have a little heart too.
“What am I in for?” I ask uncertainly.
“Oh, it’s so good,” he says, taking a sip of his Sapporo. “My 7-year-old daughter loves it. You’ll love it.” He eats another and grins. “So good.” I lift a skewer and examine the little clusters of atria and ventricles. Whole poultry hearts are not, it’s safe to say, a regular part of my food routine, and despite Bourdain’s enthusiasm, I’m a little dubious. But when you eat with Bourdain, there is no other option: You’ll have what he’s having. I open my mouth and take a bite.
A week after our dinner, Bourdain is leaning back on a leather couch in a small editing room at the offices of Parts Unknown‘s production company, Zero Point Zero. It’s 10:30 a.m., and he is deep into one of his favorite activities: geeking out over movies. Director-editor Nick Brigden and producer Jared Andrukanis have joined him to discuss a rough cut of what will end up being season 4’s premiere episode, filmed in Shanghai. At the moment, however, the trio is immersed in a rambling discussion about film arcana that touches on such subjects as the martial-arts film Haywire and impressively specific moments from various David Lynch classics.
This sort of movie banter, it turns out, is central to the Parts Unknown creative process. Bourdain’s shows have grown more visually complex and cinematic over the years, using intricate editing and atmospheric slo-mo shots to add mystery and gravitas. Episodes are often directly inspired by Bourdain’s film passions. A season 2 trip into Tokyo’s nightlife underbelly–complete with segments on bondage and S&M–was informed by the work of Tokyo Fist director Shinya Tsukamoto, while the Shanghai episode currently unspooling on-screen tapped Hong Kong’s Wong Kar-wai as its key reference point. Bourdain usually picks the influences, but it’s up to the team to execute that vision. “Before we go out on a shoot, Tony will give us a homework assignment, which is about a dozen esoteric films,” says Brigden. “We become obsessed with those filmmakers. We live and breathe them.”
Bourdain is more than just Parts Unknown‘s host, head writer, and executive producer; he is its creative engine, picking locations, teasing out themes, obsessing over narrative structure, and guiding its overall artistic vision. At one point while watching a meditative, beautifully shot Shanghai montage, he’s distracted by some incongruously funky background music. “I wish there was no bass,” he says to Brigden and Andrukanis. “It shouldn’t be danceable. It should be wistful.” It’s a small detail in a short segment from a single show, but it’s easy to see how that one tweak will transform the mood of the scene–and maybe even the whole episode.
That quest for excellence is a big part of what’s kept Bourdain excited about making a show with the same basic format for the past 14 years. He can be intense, but he constantly pushes the crew to reach toward the new. “We literally sit down and try to figure out, ‘What’s the most fucked-up thing we can do?’ ” he says, taking a swig from his industrial-size cup of light-and-sweet deli coffee. “ ’What haven’t we done that we can try?’ ”
Another way Bourdain stays engaged is by constantly experimenting with technology. As equipment has improved over the years, the show has become more visually accomplished. In addition to high-end cameras like $16,000 Sony F3s with cinema-quality lenses and more modest equipment such as Canon 7Ds, the team now regularly uses GoPros, often in unexpected ways. In the Shanghai episode, they rigged up what they refer to as “shot cam,” a GoPro attached to a shot glass that captures, to dizzying effect, the liquor’s-eye view during a night of revelry. They have used bags of risotto for makeshift tracking shots (“risotto cam”) and turned a Hot Wheels track into a camera dolly. Bourdain is especially excited about the possibility of shooting an upcoming show entirely on iPhones.
Not all of these experiments pay off, and Bourdain is okay with that. The point is to resist the predictable, especially when it comes to TV’s ingrained conventions. “The only thing that makes me upset and, really, a dick is if something is fucking plodding and reasonable,” he says, spitting out that last word with palpable revulsion. “It starts with an establishing shot, I go someplace, I meet somebody, I sit down, I eat, and I come to a conclusion: That kind of conventional thinking really upsets me. I would much rather see some incomprehensible, over-the-top, fucked-up thing, because at least you’re trying to do something awesome.”
That attitude inspires a lot of loyalty. “He is fun, funny, smart, sardonic, and a pain in the fucking ass sometimes,” says Lydia Tenaglia, who cofounded Zero Point Zero with her husband, Chris Collins. “But it’s a very collaborative process. He is challenging in all the best ways. He can outtalk, outwit, outhumor anybody who’s trying to argue with him, and sometimes that gets your ire up. But ultimately you take that ire and channel it into the show.” Which is the whole point: Bourdain is determined to keep pressing ahead. “It’s not Tony trying to put his scent all over the tree just for the sake of putting it all over the tree,” says Collins. “It’s, ‘No, no, no, we did this two years ago. We cannot execute in this way again.’ ”
Bourdain isn’t just pushing technical boundaries; he’s also challenging the definition of what reality-based television can be, both in terms of visual artistry and subject matter. Over the years, the locations have grown more topical, and now the show is as focused on cultural nuances as unusual food. It’s a shift that intensified with a No Reservations episode filmed during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Bourdain and his crew found themselves trapped in Beirut during the fighting, an experience they turned into a vivid war-zone travelogue that went beyond the usual food footage, incorporating behind-the-scenes segments with the crew hiding out in a hotel and subsequently escaping the besieged city. “The Beirut show was clearly some kind of point of departure,” Bourdain says. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to be Dan Rather now.’ It was, ‘I went to eat and a whole bunch of stuff happened and we found ourselves completely out of our comfort zone as far as subject matter.’ But we tried to keep the focus on the human element. It changed all of our outlooks on the show. It inspired us to go tell slightly more complicated stories.”
In recent seasons, Parts Unknown has explored global hot spots such as Libya, Congo, and, perhaps most notably, Gaza and the West Bank–a season 2 episode that offered many Americans their first intimate look at Palestinian life. “By the end of this hour, I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent, and worse,” Bourdain says at the beginning of the episode. “So here goes nothing.” Bourdain is modest about that show’s accomplishments, but for anyone who’s seen it, the recent Gaza conflict most likely feels dramatically more tangible.
Next, Bourdain wants to venture into such other unfamiliar locales as Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. “Who wouldn’t want to go to Yemen?” he says. “It’s one of the most beautiful, ancient, fantastic places on earth. Okay, there’s very dodgy shit going on right now. You’ve got to be careful and figure out a smart way to go to Yemen, but–it’s where coffee came from!”
One of season 4’s episodes focuses on Iran. Bourdain was astonished by how off-base his assumptions turned out to be and how warmly he and his crew were greeted, even when they weren’t filming. “I like when my view of a place is complicated by things that I actually see,” he says. “I love having my teeth kicked in by a different perspective.” At one point during our meal at Tori Shin, Bourdain rolled up his shirtsleeve to show me a tattoo that includes some Greek writing. “It basically says, ‘I am certain of nothing,’ ” he told me. “It’s from the ancient Greek skeptics. If I believe anything, it’s that. It is my joy and my privilege to travel around the world being wrong about shit.”
In the kitsch-prone world of celebrity chefs, Bourdain sticks out as an earnest, uncompromising voice and relentless advocate for authenticity, occupying a strange position as both an antiestablishment bomb thrower (he is known for ripping into Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, and other famous chefs) and, at this point, an entrenched member of the culinary in-crowd.
“It’s a terrible accusation to say that you’re part of the foodie establishment, but I guess it’s true,” he says. “You try to be dignified about it. Because so much of what the foodie establishment is doing is so fucking wretched.”
Bourdain’s unfiltered personality is a big part of his appeal. “He stands for ‘no bullshit,’ ” says Ripert. “People trust him and his opinions, because even if he’s wrong, he’s true to himself. That is his brand.” Not surprisingly, Bourdain bristles at the idea that he’s essentially the CEO of Tony Inc. “I don’t have any merchandise,” he argues, referring to the sort of product deals that have enriched food-world celebrities such as Lagasse. “Do you see any pots and pans? If I wanted an empire, I’d have said yes to the knives, cookware, food, restaurants in Vegas, Tony’s Airport Restaurant, endorsements of liquor, beer, cars. When I have a bad meal at Wolfgang Puck’s, I’m pissed at Wolfgang. I don’t want people pissed at me.”
Bourdain has spent decades earning that deeply embedded sense of integrity. He grew up in a cosmopolitan household in northern New Jersey: His mother was an editor at The New York Times, and his father, a merchandising executive in the classical division of Columbia Records, enjoyed introducing him to heady entertainment such as Dr. Strangelove–a jolt for the elementary schooler. By the time Bourdain was in junior high, he was already fascinated by danger and darkness. “I was a child of the ’60s who became a teenager too late to really enjoy the worldwide revolution, flower power, harmony, peace, and love,” he says. “It was clear none of that was ever going to happen and it was all a hideous, bloated joke. I was an angry teenager. I admired outlaws, the black hats, from a very early age. I wanted to be bad. I identified with bad people.” He started smoking pot when he was 13 and got into LSD a couple of years later, and in high school he discovered cocaine.
Bourdain attended Vassar for a couple of years in the early ’70s, a period he does not look back on fondly. In Kitchen Confidential, he describes himself during that time as “a spoiled, miserable, narcissistic, self-destructive and thoughtless young lout, badly in need of a good ass-kicking.” After dropping out of college, he spent some time on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, where he got a job washing dishes in a restaurant where a friend worked. Soon he moved up to cooking, and something clicked. He decided to get serious about the trade, and in 1975, he attended the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, he dove into the world of New York restaurants, scoring a series of gigs at various eateries. But the jobs always seemed to fall apart for one reason or another, and Bourdain had by then moved on to more serious drugs. “Heroin was really inevitable,” he says. “Most of the people I admired were junkies. Because it was the worst thing you could do, I eagerly went after it.”
At first he managed to keep his addiction hidden, but eventually, Bourdain started to unravel. “You become pathetic,” he says. “You betray your employers, your coworkers, your loved ones, your family. There’s a lot of guilt and shame and self-loathing. As a chef, I just spent more and more of my time out of the kitchen, supposedly looking for lobsters but in fact on the street looking to score. I got to the point where I just couldn’t stand the sight of my face in the mirror. I hated being desperate and needy. And my ego, thankfully, didn’t allow me to stay that way.” He kicked heroin in the mid-’80s but was still doing cocaine, a habit that escalated into a full-blown crack addiction. The higher-end restaurant positions dried up, and Bourdain found himself taking soul-killing jobs cranking out omelets for indifferent brunchers. “On crack you become psychotic,” he says of that dark period. “I just really, really bottomed out. You’re crawling around on the floor looking at paint chips and hoping that they might be a chip of crack that dropped and, ‘Oh, hell, I’ll smoke it anyway just to see.’ You reach a point where you’ve had enough.”
In 1998, in his early forties and finally off of hard drugs, Bourdain scored a job as the executive chef of a modest Manhattan brasserie called Les Halles. Though the work suited him and the restaurant was a success, he had no health insurance and zero savings, and he struggled to pay the rent. He also owed the IRS more than $10,000 in back taxes. Still, for the first time in years he was pretty happy.
One day, just for the hell of it, Bourdain decided to write an article about the rough-and-tumble kitchen demimonde that he had come to know so intimately. The combination of literate-tough-guy prose and restaurant-business revelations proved irresistible, and The New Yorker ran the piece in April 1999. Soon Bourdain had a contract to write a memoir. When Kitchen Confidential came out the next year, it was a minor sensation, with its now-famous proclamations about the horrors of weekend brunch and why you should never, ever order fish on Mondays. His life changed instantly.
Bourdain stopped cooking at Les Halles in 2001, and he’s never worked professionally in a kitchen again (although he’s still credited as the restaurant’s “chef-at-large”). He is married to his second wife, Ottavia, a food-world veteran (they were introduced by Ripert) who is now a competitive mixed-martial-arts fighter. Having a daughter has forced him to make some adjustments in his shooting schedule. “I can’t be away that long, because I come back and my daughter is different,” he says. “I’m trying to be a good dad, given the weirdness of my situation. Nothing makes me happier than watching cartoons with my daughter. The second she was born, the Ramones T-shirts, vestigial leather jackets, that shit was in the garbage. It’s gone. It’s undignified at my age.”
But all of those years of noise and sweat and exhaustion–those long nights navigating open flames and scalding pans and uncountable, endless portions of steak frites–have left marks, both physical and otherwise. “Everything important I needed to know I learned as a dishwasher,” he says. “In an uncertain universe, some things are still for certain: Dirty plates, if you put them on a plastic rack and push them into the machine and press the button, will come out clean–every time. If you work hard at your job and do it well, even if it’s a shit job, there is some kind of satisfaction in that, whether you’re stacking plates, chopping vegetables, or just setting out a plate of food. There’s this magnificent moment before a plate goes out to the dining room, for instance, when you know, and it’s just for you. You think, Hmm, that’s a pretty good fucking plate. And then it’s gone.”
CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker’s office, on the fifth floor of the Time Warner Center in New York, is an unexpectedly modest rectangle adjacent to the airy newsroom, with only a bank of TV screens mounted on one wall suggesting that this man runs the world’s most recognizable TV-news operation. When Zucker took over CNN in January 2013, nobody knew how he was planning to remake the network–including Bourdain, whose show was in production but hadn’t yet aired. Zucker might have killed it right then, but instead he gave it a prime Sunday-night time slot and a major marketing push. “Tony is an incredibly strong storyteller–he tells stories through food and travel and a little alcohol mixed in,” says Zucker. “Really, that’s what CNN should be about. I learned as much about Israel and the Palestinians from Tony’s hour on Jerusalem as I did from any reporting that I’ve seen.”
Parts Unknown ranks among CNN’s best-rated programs. Over its season 3 run, it averaged a strong-for-cable-news 402,000 viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic, according to the Nielsen Company, making it the most-watched show across all of cable news in that age group during the period it aired. Parts Unknown is at the center of Zucker’s plan for remaking the network, which involves cultivating high-profile original content. When Zucker started, CNN had no original series. By next year, Zucker says, it will have 12 or 13 on the air, including the fugitive-finding hit docuseries The Hunt With John Walsh, which premiered in July with the highest 25-to-54 ratings for a debut program in CNN history, and shows helmed by Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe and Lisa Ling, former cohost of The View. “All of the news networks are finding that the genre is suffering from viewer erosion to the Internet and mobile,” says Derek Baine, a media analyst at SNL Kagan. “I think you’re going to see a lot of the news networks migrating more toward destination shows.”
Those kinds of distinct, freestanding programs offer several advantages over regular news and news-commentary programming, which face increased competition from online news sources. For one thing, viewers seek them out rather than tuning in haphazardly. They’re hour-long narratives, so people tend to watch the whole thing rather than dropping in randomly for a few minutes at a time. They’re also more reliable; viewership doesn’t fluctuate due to relative interest in the news of the moment. And they aren’t perishable, unlike programs that discuss current events. A show like Parts Unknown holds up indefinitely, so CNN can profit off of reruns days or weeks or even years after it first airs, making it considerably more valuable than something that’s instantly out of date. Collaborating with CNN has worked equally well for Bourdain, who hasn’t always had the smoothest relationship with the television business.
After Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain pitched a book in which he would travel the world on a quest for the perfect meal. His publisher liked the idea, and surprisingly, Food Network–which Bourdain had never been shy about bashing–wanted to document his travels. The book and show, both titled A Cook’s Tour, arrived in 2001. Over the course of two seasons, Bourdain visited cities such as Hanoi and Oaxaca, bringing along Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins as camera operators and creative partners. But the executives who had championed A Cook’s Tour eventually left, and Bourdain says the network started pushing for episodes on middle-of-the-road American fare, like barbecue.
Bourdain now has a term for such corporate meddling: being asked to “eat a shit sandwich.” It’s one of the few meals he flat-out refuses to consume. “Given a choice between eating the sandwich and not having a television career, I would happily not have a television career,” he says. “Most people eat the sandwich.” He quit, taking the show to Travel Channel.
Renamed No Reservations, it ran for eight seasons and scored 12 Emmy nominations (including two wins, both for cinematography). But eventually, Bourdain started to feel that familiar pressure to dumb things down. “They were basically saying, ‘Let’s appeal to the masses,’ ” says Tenaglia. “ ’Let’s not go too deeply into the darker, more complex geopolitical social stories.’ ” Bourdain wasn’t happy, but with his contract about to expire and other options looking scarce, he was leaning toward renewing.
Then his agent got a phone call from CNN, which was exploring the idea of broadening beyond news and politics. “I thought [Bourdain’s work] was very much in the vein of what CNN stood for,” says the network’s former managing editor, Mark Whitaker, a longtime Bourdain fan. “Because, in a sense, Tony Bourdain is like a foreign correspondent: He uncovers stories and takes you places that you haven’t seen before.”
Bourdain never expected to end up on a serious news network. “They called out of the blue, and our response was, really?” he says with a laugh. “We had a great discussion. They said, ‘We want you to do what you want to do and be as smart as you can. Any place that you haven’t been able to go, we’d like to help. Congo? No problem.’ ” Bourdain was impressed, especially if CNN could facilitate shooting in the kinds of logistically difficult areas that he was itching to visit.
CNN has remained true to that initial pitch, Bourdain says, letting him map his own creative itinerary and providing assistance wherever possible. “They’ve been unfailingly cool,” he says. “They’ve backed me up. I’ve never had an uncomfortable conversation with anyone at CNN.”
Chicken hearts, it turns out, are fantastic–like regular chicken, but gamier, more intense, chickenier. The rest of the meal at Tori Shin is similarly exciting, a typically Bourdainian affair that involves an endless procession of poultry bits along with pork belly, quail eggs, and sea urchin.
For all of the evening’s excess, there’s surprisingly little alcohol consumed; just a couple of beers each over the course of some two hours. Maybe it’s because Bourdain has to get up in the morning to practice Brazilian jujitsu with his wife and daughter, as he tends to do lately, but he generally seems a bit more low-key than I expected. “When I’m home, I’m home,” he says. “I don’t have much of a social life. I’m very much trying to transition into my golden Andy Rooney years.”
Of course, Andy Rooney probably never got a parasitic infection after chowing down on unwashed warthog anus in Namibia, and while Bourdain might be mellowing, he’s hardly slowing down. In addition to his TV shows, he’s working on a follow-up to his 2012 graphic novel, Get Jiro! He’ll also publish more books via his imprint, including a memoir by Michael Ruffino, who composes the music for Parts Unknown and used to play bass in the outrageous Massachusetts rock group the Unband (“It’s the best rock-and-roll memoir ever, basically,” claims Bourdain). He has two documentary films in the works, one related to food, the other not, neither of which he’s ready to discuss, and he’s also ramping up plans for a large Manhattan food hall, which will be based on the Singapore-style multivendor “hawker centers” that are familiar to fans of his work.
The one thing these projects all have in common? Bourdain enjoys them. “I’m not looking to rule the world,” he says. “I’m not looking to create a permanent brand. It’s a quality-of-life issue with me. Am I having fun? Am I surrounded by people I like? Are we proud of what we’re doing? Do we have anything to regret when we look in the mirror tomorrow? Those things are huge to me.”
A waitress stops by to see if we want anything else. “I think we’re good,” Bourdain says. “Thank you. It was delicious.” He pauses, looks at me, glances at his plate and then at the chef grilling skewers behind the counter. “Actually, you know what? Two more hearts for me.”