Banter With the Beast

04.11.14

Anthony Bourdain Will ‘Try Anything Once’—but He Isn’t Calling in Sick

The chef-turned-adventurer’s CNN show ‘Parts Unknown,’ returns for a third season Sunday. He talks about ‘definitely iffy’ meals, food he’d ‘prefer not to revisit,’ Cinnabon, and more.

Anthony Bourdain —who has popped everything into his mouth from a raw seal’s eyeball to the nasty bits of a cobra, and lived to tell the tale—had a feeling he was going to get very sick this time.

“I was in Liberia, and I think it was a tribal situation,” says the celebrity chef-turned-sociocultural adventurer, whose Emmy and Peabody award-winning CNN show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, launches its third season this Sunday at 9 p.m. “They were eating out of one bowl full of unrecognizable protein. It was hot, very poor hygiene, definitely iffy. To be polite, I joined in. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen.”

When the inevitable occurred, “it was really touch and go,” Bourdain tells me with solicitous understatement, so as not to trouble a delicate stomach. “I was crawling around praying for the better part of 48 hours. It was bad.” But he can’t help adding, with a touch of pride, “Look, in 14 years of traveling this world, I’ve missed a day of work, a day of shooting, only twice because of food-related issues.”

The Liberia incident happened four years ago, back when Bourdain was doing his No Reservations program for the Travel Channel and booked an expedition to the war-ravaged West African country founded by freed slaves. Since then, he hasn’t cut back on exotic travel—this season’s first three episodes find him in Punjab, Las Vegas, and Lyon—nor does he shrink from risky experimentation.

“I’ll try anything once,” he says. “There are some dishes I would prefer to not revisit. The one that’s called Hákarl—the rotten, putrefied shark that they serve at certain times of the year in Iceland—is not an experience I’d like to repeat.”

These days, Bourdain’s show—which is just as much about culture, society, and politics as it is about cuisine (and occasionally delves into the kinky side of life, as it did with last year’s exploration of Tokyo’s sadomasochistic subculture)—is a bright spot on CNN’s schedule, luring both viewers and critical acclaim. It is appointment television, and influential as well. Bourdain’s CNN colleague Anderson Cooper told me this week that he decided to spend a few days in Tangier, Morocco—a city he’d never visited—as a result of seeing it on Parts Unknown.

At 57, Bourdain has been famous, and doubtless infamous in some circles, since the August 2000 publication of Kitchen Confidential, a huge best seller and instant classic that arguably has had the same impact on food writing that Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President had on political reporting.

Subtitled “Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” Kitchen Confidential was part-confessional (Bourdain’s debauched rock-star lifestyle, which included an addiction to heroin), part-paean (to the glories of delicious food), and part-exposé (of the dirty little secrets of the New York restaurant trade). Although Bourdain was, by definition, a culinary elitist, as befitted his position at the time as executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles, he made haute cuisine accessible to the masses.

“Look, I may be a snob,” he says, “but I’m not a snob when, every time I come to L.A., I’m stopping at an In-N-Out Burger on the way to my hotel, and I’m stopping there again on the way to the airport.” He adds, “You will never see me at a Cinnabon [concession at an airport], but I’ll be absolutely honest: If I’ve been eating fish heads and rice for weeks or eating tribal communal meals and bush meat for a week, I will weep with joy at the sight of some KFC macaroni and cheese.”

Nor is he an evangelist for the civilizing influences of savoring every bite. “I’ll wolf food,” he says. “I’ll eat it as fast as you let me eat it. Other times, if you take me out to a good restaurant, I can eat with a fork and keep my elbows off the table. My mama”—a New York Times editor of Jewish descent who married a French-Catholic record executive—“brought me up right.”

So how does Bourdain—who spends much of his life in airplanes and hotels, jet-lagged and at the mercy of whatever is put on his plate—manage to stay so apparently trim and fit?

“Clean living,” he answers with a laugh, although he adds: “Look, I’m not a guy who snacks. If you see me eating a couple of big meals on camera, I’m not sitting there with a big bag of Cheetos on the couch in between. I stay moving. I’m not hitting the gym too much, though I am into jujitsu a little bit lately to try to keep up with my wife and daughter.”

Bourdain’s Italian second wife, Ottavia Busia, is “a serious martial artist,” he says; their 7-year-old daughter, Ariane, is also an enthusiast. “I don’t eat for reasons other than hunger and genuine desire to eat something delicious,” he continues. “I’m not eating to fill some hole in my soul.”

He applauds first lady Michelle Obama’s campaign to persuade children to avoid junk food and eat healthy school lunches, and says he might even have recruited rock ’n’ roll has-been Ted Nugent to the cause.

“Ted is not exactly a fan of the Obamas, to put it mildly,” Bourdain says, recalling a conversation he had a while ago with the rabid Obama-hater on Cooper’s CNN show. “I put it to him as a military readiness issue. I said, ‘Look, we’re surrounded by hostiles. How are we gonna smoke old Osama out of his hole if we’re too fat to fit in after him?’ And he agreed. Who could possibly be against making efforts to assure that our kids are physically healthy? I can’t see any patriotic American or concerned parent, looking at the stats of where diabetes is going and morbid obesity and obesity-related problems, who could be against this.”

He adds a caveat: “I think to try to inspire our children to look like models or actors would be insane and cruel. But I see nothing wrong in endeavoring mightily to keep them at least healthy.”

As for Bourdain, like a lot of men his age he takes daily doses of Atorvastatin, the generic version of the anti-cholesterol drug Lipitor. “My cholesterol number was creeping upwards, like every chef friend I have, and I got the talk. ‘You can either go on this stuff or you can give up cheese.’ At which point I burst into tears.”