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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Anthony Bourdain


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week we're continuing our holiday series of interviews of staff picks from the decade. We start today with Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain spent years in the restaurant business, eventually becoming the chef in what he describes as a working-class brasserie in New York. Then he discovered he had a gift for writing and storytelling. He wrote a bestselling book, "Kitchen Confidential," then a dozen other books. And he became a TV star through his shows on the Food Network and the Travel Channel and his CNN show "Parts Unknown," which took viewers to places all over the world, exploring local cultures, cooking and offering his own unique commentary on what we see. He died by suicide in June 2018. FRESH AIR's Dave Davies spoke with Anthony Bourdain in October 2016.


DAVE DAVIES: Well, Anthony Bourdain, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your big breakthrough came with the book "Kitchen Confidential" - huge bestseller, started with an article you wrote. Tell us that story.

ANTHONY BOURDAIN: Well, I wrote a piece intending it for a free paper called the New York Press that they give out in little boxes on the corner. You know, they offered me a hundred dollars. You know, I figured their standards were low enough that they would take it. And my intention was to entertain a few other people in the restaurant business in the New York area. I thought that would be really cool. I was a fan of George Orwell's "Down And Out In Paris And London," and that account of another dishwashers' life had thrilled me. And I kind of wanted to evoke that response in a few other cooks.

DAVIES: And for people who don't know...


DAVIES: What's the kind of the substance of this of the story you were writing about?

BOURDAIN: I just wanted to write about my life from the point of view of a working journeyman chef of no particular distinction, honestly. Maybe I didn't mind goosing the general public, horrifying them a little, but that was not the intention. I wanted to just write about our thing, our life, the way we spoke in the same sort of over-testosteroned (ph), high-speed, hyperbolic prose that I was familiar with in the kitchens. But the customer, the intended reader, was always a fellow professional who would get it, and I hoped they would get it and respond.

So I wrote the piece. They said they'd take it. They kept bumping it. Every week I'd run to the box on the corner, open the magazine - open the paper. And I wasn't in that issue. And eventually, at a moment of frustration, I think my mom said to me, well, you should send it to The New Yorker. You know, I know someone there. They'll read it. And I thought, OK, great. You know, of course, The New Yorker - just the likelihood of ever being published for an over the transom piece there is astronomical.

DAVIES: Doesn't happen, yeah.

BOURDAIN: So I sent it along, and to my surprise, a few weeks later the phone rings in the kitchen. It's David Remnick on the phone. They ran the piece, and, I mean, I had a book contract - a book deal within days. And when the book came out, it very quickly transformed my life - I mean, changed everything.

DAVIES: How - what did it feel like? How did it change everything?

BOURDAIN: At first, I was distrustful of what was happening. I say freely it's an unreasonable attitude to think that you could ever make a living writing. And I'd been in the restaurant business long enough where there are so many failed writers and actors and performers and artists and playwrights. So even after the book came out, even after it hit the best-seller list, I was distrustful. I thought I better keep my day job, and I continued, you know, making steak frites and salads and working in a busy kitchen until it just got crazier and crazier. And I got offered a TV show. And I just went to work one day, and there were, like, 20 journalists in the restaurant waiting to talk to me. And I said, you know, I might actually be able to milk this scam for a few more months.

DAVIES: Well, you're now on your third television show. You did a show called "No Reservations"...


DAVIES: ...For the Food Channel, right?


DAVIES: And then "The Layover," 48 hours in a...

BOURDAIN: And actually, even before that, there was "A Cook's Tour," so...

DAVIES: OK. Right. Right.

BOURDAIN: Third network, fourth show.

DAVIES: Right. And now you're traveling around the world, visiting places in "Parts Unknown." And I thought we'd begin with the clip. This is the beginning of your trip to Borneo on the series. Let's just listen how it starts.


BOURDAIN: When I first went up this river, I was sick with love - the bad kind, the fist-around-your-heart kind. I ran far, but there was no escaping it. It followed me upriver all the way. That was ten long years ago, a previous episode of a previous series in a previous life. Yet here I am again, heading up to that same longhouse in the jungle.

DAVIES: And that's from your series "Parts Unknown." You know, these are part travelogue, part personal essay and a lot about food. This seemed really personal. What did you want to - why did you want to go back to this little village in Borneo after 10 years?

BOURDAIN: I think I wanted to see how things had changed. I think - someone said - some travel writer said that, you know, you - what you're really looking at when you travel is inward all the time. I think in a lot of ways - the first time I went up that river, the Skrang River from Kuching up to a Iban longhouse in the jungle, I was heartbroken. I was coming off of a love affair that did not pan out the way I had hoped. I think in a lot of ways, the motivation for the show, the second one, was to see if it still hurt - you know, to see how I felt. So it was very personal. I thought, I'm going to go right back to the same longhouse. Yes, let's see how that community has changed. Let's do a better job with better cinematography, bringing to bear all of the things that I've learned and my crew has learned in the intervening years. But really, it was revisiting an old wound to see if it was OK now.

DAVIES: There's a moment in this - a powerful scene in there - I mean, in this episode where you're standing in pouring rain with a spear in your hand. You've been granted an honor by the village. Explain this.

BOURDAIN: Well, I think both times that I went to the village as the guest of honor - you know, they kill a pig for the feast. The whole village eats. There's an equitable division of pig parts. It's a big deal. But that first time, I don't think I'd ever killed an animal before. I mean, I'd been ordering them up as a chef over the phone, so I was culpable in the death of many animals. But here I was, being asked to physically plunge a spear into the heart of a pig. It seemed to me the height of hypocrisy, however uncomfortable I might have been with that, to put it off on somebody else. You know, I've been responsible for the death of many animals. Here, I'm being asked. I didn't want to let the team down. I didn't wanted to dishonor the village or embarrass anyone.

I - the first time was very, very, very, very difficult. My camera guys almost passed out. It was certainly very difficult for me. The second time, as much as I'd like to say that it was still really hard - I think I said in the voiceover, I don't know what it says about me - probably something very bad - that I'd become - you know, I have changed over time. I like to think in good ways for the most part, but I've also become more callous. I've become able to plunge a spear into the heart of a screaming pig and live with that much more comfortably than I did the first time. And I can lie and say it tormented me forever and since, but, you know, I felt that ugly emotion, or lack of it, and I thought I should mention it.

DAVIES: Yeah. You said, I did it this time without hesitation or remorse.


DAVIES: But it was a relief when the screaming stopped.

BOURDAIN: Well, yes. No one - no good person likes to hear or see an animal in pain. That is monstrous. I mean, I tried very hard to do a good job quickly. Yeah, exactly right.

DAVIES: You had a memorable episode recently where you went to Vietnam, and you - I can't remember whether you said this on an episode or whether I read it somewhere else. You said the world tilted for you in a Vietnamese rice farmer's home.

BOURDAIN: Yeah. I think - the first time I went to Vietnam, I just - I remember coming away from it, thinking, I just - I have to have more of this. This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.

DAVIES: More of Vietnam or more of that kind of travel?

BOURDAIN: I want to be able to come back to Vietnam again and again and again. And if this place is so wonderful, the world must be filled with many more wonderful and interesting and challenging and heartbreaking and inspiring and beautiful places, as it turned out to. But I really got - the first time I went there, I think I found myself sitting in a - yeah, it was a rice farmer's home in the Mekong Delta. At the time, they were a little more suspicious of Westerners with cameras, so the people who I was allowed to eat dinner with were all former Viet Cong with impeccable revolutionary credentials, the sort of people who you would think would be hostile to Americans, particularly in that area, where they caught a lot of ugly action.

I got just hammered drunk and had this sort of wonderful bonding experience. I remember this, like, 85-year-old former Viet Cong. I asked him, aren't you angry about anything? And he looked and, with amiable contempt, said, look, buddy. He goes, in Vietnam, don't take yourself so seriously. Before you, there were, you know, the French, the Japanese, you know, the Chinese, the Cambodians. Since you, there's been - you know, I've been fighting - this country's been fighting for 600 years. Don't take it personally. Now drink.

And I just had this wonderful time, and Vietnam is a country that I go back to at every opportunity, meaning as soon as I can make another show - getting away with making another show there - I do.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Anthony Bourdain in 2016. We'll hear more after a break as we continue our series of interviews featuring staff picks from the decade. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview Dave Davies recorded with Anthony Bourdain in 2016, when he was hosting the CNN food and travel series "Parts Unknown."

DAVIES: You go to some far-flung, exotic places and some places that are a lot closer to home. And I wanted to play a clip. This is from your visit to a place in Camden, N.J...


DAVIES: ...Donkey's that makes cheesesteaks, which is right across the river from Philadelphia...


DAVIES: ...Known for cheesesteaks. And you're sitting down to enjoy one with the owner. Let's listen.


ROBERT LUCAS: Pleasure to meet you.

BOURDAIN: So this is the place - the best cheesesteak in South Jersey, unless I'm mistaken.

LUCAS: In New Jersey.

BOURDAIN: In New Jersey, period.

LUCAS: Yeah.

BOURDAIN: Is there a difference between Jersey style and Philadelphia style?

LUCAS: Yeah. We do ours on a round poppyseed kaiser roll.

BOURDAIN: Really? I'll have one of those. What's the way to go - I mean, anything I need to know or just...

LUCAS: No - a regular, cheese and onions.

BOURDAIN: Beautiful thing.

LUCAS: I need one, Paulie (ph).

BOURDAIN: It's round. It's got steak, spices, browned onions, real American cheese - such as it is - and a poppyseed roll.

Fantastic. Thank you, sir.

And it is sublime.

- Relish what do you think?

LUCAS: That's hot pepper, yeah. A little bit of that won't hurt.

BOURDAIN: A little bit? Oh, man, I drove a long way for this, thinking about it the whole way.

LUCAS: Good.

BOURDAIN: Man, this should be, like, a national landmark right away. This sandwich is unbelievably good.

LUCAS: Thanks.

BOURDAIN: Really, a thing of beauty.

LUCAS: That's good to hear.

BOURDAIN: Worth driving across the state in a blizzard for.

LUCAS: Well, we get a lot of people from Philly.

BOURDAIN: No way - Philly?

LUCAS: Yes, for sure.

BOURDAIN: Wow. That's treason. Do they, like, change the plates on their car and, like, wear a disguise? I mean...

LUCAS: It's different. The poppyseeds help.

BOURDAIN: Yeah, I like roll. It's awesome. That's delicious. Well, I think we learned something here today. Jersey cheesesteaks - I'm not saying they're better than Philadelphia. Yeah, I am, actually, so there. This is great.

LUCAS: Glad you enjoyed it.

DAVIES: That's fun. That joint's about five miles from here.


DAVIES: I'm going to get over there.

BOURDAIN: It's good stuff.

DAVIES: I'm going to get over there. Do you care about the reactions you get from the locals after their episodes appear?

BOURDAIN: I care about the - yes. I - what I want to happen ideally - it's weird. It's a double-edged sword. Ideally, I'll go to a place like - I'll find a little bar in Rio, let's say - some little local place that perfectly expresses the neighborhood. You know, it's not a tourist-friendly place. It's, for lack of a better word - I hate this word, but I'll use it anyway - authentic. I'll feature that on the show. The response I'm looking for is to hear from someone from the neighborhood saying, how did you ever find that place? I thought only we knew about it. It's, you know, truly a place that we love and is reflective of our culture and our neighborhood.

But on the other hand, that's kind of a destructive process because if I name the place - and I don't always when it's a place like that - I've changed it. The next time I go back, there's tourists. There's people who've seen it on the show. Then I might hear from the same person from that neighborhood saying, you ruined my favorite bar, you know? All the regular customers have run away, and it's filled with, you know, the tourists in ugly T-shirts and flip flops.

DAVIES: Do you sometimes protect somebody's identity?

BOURDAIN: There are times that I have looked at the camera and said, look. I'm just not going to tell you where this place is. It's too good, and I don't want to change it. It should stay like this forever. I do do that now and again.

DAVIES: You're known for being willing to eat just about anything. What's some of the most intimidating or nasty stuff you've been offered?

BOURDAIN: I don't know. I mean, at this point, if freshness and hygiene is a question - I mean, generally, it's tribal situations that are problematic, where the whole tribe - the chief is offering you something that's what they have. And often, it's - they don't have refrigeration. It's often old. Their tolerance for meat that's even spoiled is higher than my relatively sensitive stomach. Often, these dishes are eaten in one large bowl, with the whole tribe jamming their fingers in.

So yeah, rotten food, food that's clearly not clean, water that's clearly not good - those are a challenge. On the flavor spectrum, I'm pretty good with just about everything. There are a few dishes that are - you know, when you get to, like, rotten shark in Iceland, that's - I mean, I could do it, but I'd rather not. I won't be doing that again.

DAVIES: You did it?

BOURDAIN: Yeah, yeah. It's unpleasant, but, I mean, it's not the end of the world. I don't know. For sheer soul-destroying misery - like, you know, if you're talking about a bite of food that just makes me question the future of the human race and just sends me into a spiral of depression, I think eating at a airport Johnny Rockets pretty much would be the nadir.

DAVIES: (Laughter) That's as bad as it gets. In a circumstance that you just described where there's food that's rotten or not clean, how do you handle it?

BOURDAIN: You take one for the team, and you hope for the best, and hopefully, you have a good supply of antibiotics. I've lost three days of work in 16 years, three or - I think only three days that I've been, you know, down for the count and confined to bed and desperately, horribly ill. Generally speaking, if it's, like, a street food stall that's busy, even if it looks dirty as hell, if there are a lot of locals there, they're eating and they're happy, my crew will always eat at that place. You know, eating a Caesar salad at the major chain hotel in, you know, central Africa or the Middle East - that's where you run into trouble stomach-wise, generally.

DAVIES: You must have a heck of a microbiome. Is that what it is?

BOURDAIN: I would think so. I think everyone on our show - all of our veteran crew are pretty good about that. We have pretty good resistance. We don't get sick easily. And when somebody new joins the team, you know, we tell them the rules of the road. But if after we've told them general do's and don'ts, if we find ourselves sitting at a - as happened in, I think, Kurdistan in Iraq, and we're - some new member of the team says, oh, look - Zuppa Di Vongole, like, seafood - you know, like, a seafood stew. And we're awful far from the ocean right now. We all looked at each other, and we're like, should we tell him? Should we say something? And we all just, like - no. Let him learn.

GROSS: We're listening to Dave Davies' interview with Anthony Bourdain recorded in 2016. In the next part of their conversation, they got back to talking about Bourdain's CNN series "Parts Unknown."

DAVIES: Some of the episodes - a lot of them are about food, some about travel, some about, you know, your personal feelings. And sometimes - I mean, like, the episode on the Congo - a lot of that is about just the history of that nation and it being brutalized by Westerners and their...

BOURDAIN: That was - there was no expectation that - it would be obscene to go to the Congo looking to do a food show. We do many food-centric shows. We do comic shows. But some shows are agenda-driven, and I had an agenda here, and that was to, for an hour of television, talk about the history of this tragic, incredibly tragic, afflicted history that most people are unaware of. This wealthy in natural resources, this massive country, such a - I was sort of obsessed with this - the tragically little-known history of this very complicated country, and I wanted to talk about it. I also have long - it's a repeating theme on the show - both "Apocalypse Now" and Conrad's "Heart Of Darkness." So that was an irresistible impulse to go up the Congo River.

DAVIES: You sometimes visit places where there are really contentious political issues.


DAVIES: You say you're not a journalist. You're a storyteller. But you must think carefully about how you deal with that stuff.

BOURDAIN: Well, there's nothing actually more political than food. I mean, who's eating? Who's not eating? Also, it's - I found it's just very, very useful to not be a journalist. I mean, journalists drop into a situation, ask a question. People sort of tighten up. Whereas if you sit down with people and just say, hey; what makes you happy? What's your life like? What do you like to eat? More often than not, they will tell you extraordinary things, many of which have nothing to do with food.

So yeah, we've shot in some pretty contentious places. We shot in Beirut during the war and since. Congo, Gaza, post-Benghazi Libya - I'm not a journalist, but I think it is useful as an addition to journalism to have seen what people are like in Libya, for instance. I mean, who are these people we are talking about when we talk about Benghazi or Libya? Is it not useful to see them with their kids, to see how their lives, their everyday lives, are doing seemingly ordinary things or trying to do ordinary things; to show what people actually live like in Iran, who may not support their government at all? What are ordinary people like in Iran? We seem all too eager and willing to ignore those things.

And I think in southern or, you know, sub-Saharan Africa in particular, we seem to be so used to seeing people of color in these disastrous situations that we become inured and callous. So it's always useful to, especially in Africa, say, look. You know, there are lives happening here. This is what's involved in getting water for the table, you know? This is how nice people can be or how gentle or complicated. It just seems to me the more you are able to show people's everyday lives, often as they revolve around food and daily tasks, when something happens in the news, you have a better idea who we're talking about here.

DAVIES: Anthony Bourdain, thanks so much. It's been fun.

BOURDAIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Dave Davies spoke with Anthony Bourdain in 2016. Bourdain died by suicide in 2018. After a break, we'll continue our series of interviews featuring staff picks from the decade and listen to my 2011 interview with journalist David Carr, who covered the media and wrote a media column for The New York Times. He died in 2015. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF AARON GOLDBERG'S "POINCIANA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.