CNN will begin its new season of Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown tonight (9 p.m. ET/PT) with a twist. Like the film Memento or your memory the morning after a long night 0f cocktails and canapes with power-drinking Korean businessmen, the first episode of the season will run in reverse.
The Daily Beast caught up with Bourdain last week and talked about everything from drinking games to spam to skin sloughing—and that just covers the first episode of the new season of Parts Unknown.
I just watched an advance screening of the season premiere, and there is a lot of alcohol in that episode. You might need to put a surgeon general’s warning in front of that one.
To be honest, we filmed over the course of a few days, so I wasn’t putting all of that away in one day. It wasn’t as horrifying a reality as it appears on the show. [Laughs.] Any time I go to Korea, there’s just no way out. You’re going to do a lot of drinking there. They break all the rules of reasonable drinking.
The impression I got was that you didn’t know those four businessmen you were drinking with before that dinner.
Did not know them at all.
Did a producer just round them up on the street?
Yeah, we pretty much sandbagged them at a barbecue joint. They were amazing good sports and terrific on camera.
So that episode is shown in reverse like the film Memento. Was that the plan, or did you figure that approach out in editing?
We had been looking for an opportunity to tell a story that way for a long time. As we were filming, it became clear that this was the one. How perfect is it to start with a hangover and work backward and progressively become more sober as the show goes on? In the initial edit, we actually opened with the closing credits but figured that was too much to ask of the audience—they might tune in at 9 o’clock and think that they had missed the show.
The online cooking show you did with the guy who made the hot dog and ramen noodle stew reminded me of the game show scene in Lost in Translation.
I had no idea what my co-host was saying. It was funny and kookie and a phenomenon that really doesn’t exist in the United States. I loved that dish. It’s amazing to watch something come together like that where every additional ingredient sounds like a really bad idea and in a matter of minutes is delicious.
So set it up. It was spam, hot dogs, ramen noodles—
Kimchi, chili paste, baked beans. It’s called army stew because it was essentially put together by hungry people pilfering stuff from PXes or maybe even the trash bins of army bases during the Korean War. It’s part of this subculture or subgenre of Korean cuisine that looks back nostalgically to that wartime mashup of American and Korean ingredients.
And it was good?
It makes no damn sense at all, but it was deeply awesome.
The scrubbing thing, which I gather is something of an institution in Korea, looked like a massage gone very wrong. What was that?
They peel off a horrifying amount of skin. I’m glad we didn’t linger too long because it’s really hideous. They peel off giant handfuls of dead skin. It’s horrifying. But look, they like to be clean in Korea. They do this regularly.
Did it hurt?
I wouldn’t recommend rubbing yourself with lemon juice immediately after it. You’re pretty raw.
It looked like you had to edit around a lot of naked old men, right?
As a naked old man, I can tell you, “yes.”
[Laughs.] As far as the odd food—in the second episode in Miami [airing on May 3] you’re eating cow foot soup—are you game for anything?
Oh my God, cow foot soup is not weird to me. Cow foot soup is a classic of just about every great cuisine. In one form or another, cow foot is present in classic French, Italian, Chinese, Latin American—every great cuisine. Anytime you see the same ingredient cooked the same way in so many cuisines, it’s probably because it’s a really good idea. It’s not about weird food at all. It’s about good, delicious stuff that I love.
There’s no food that comes out to your table where you’re, like, “I’m not eating that, Let’s move on to the next dish”?
No, I’m not in that business at all. I’m looking for the typical whenever possible.
How do you put a show together? Do you just parachute in and figure it out, or do you do some advance work?
We have advance people on the ground—especially with Korea, which is a subject dear to my heart. We put in a lot of time on pre-production and trying to get it right. There are shows where I do sort of parachute in. Every show is completely different and told from a completely different perspective and hopefully a completely different style of shooting.
The Madagascar show [airing May 17] was built entirely around the filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, who said it would be awesome to just go along with me sometime, and I said, “We can go anywhere you want as long as you do some shooting.” I’m a huge fan of his work. So we went to Madagascar and did a show about the difference between my perspective and somebody else’s perspective. We tried to give a sense, at least for a bit of the show, what it’s like for me to step to the side and examine the same place from somebody else’s perspective.
So the credit will be, like: Cameraman No. 3, Darren Aronofsky?
[Laughs.] Yeah, pretty much.
You’ve been doing Parts Unknown for two seasons a year, so 16 episodes a year? Does that pace give you time to do the other things you want to do?
I like to stay busy. I’m a guy who needs something to do. I fear too much free time. I sense a lazy hippie who lives inside me, and I try to outwit him by staying busy. I go where I want, I tell the story I want while I’m there, and that’s a pretty nice place to be.
Korea was a repeater. [Bourdain made an episode there for his previous Travel Channel show No Reservations.] Are there some other places you want to go back to?
Yeah, I enjoy the challenge of going to a place that’s been filmed a lot—by others and maybe even by me and trying to find a completely different look, feel, sound, and aspect to that place. The Los Angeles show we did in Season 1 is an example of a place that’s been filmed by everybody. It’s the most filmed city on Earth.
Was the Beirut episode [airing June 21] partly an effort to tell a conflict story?
It’s a place I love and am fascinated by and have history in. It’s a very complicated place, and I think the more time Americans spend in Beirut or looking at Beirut, the better for the world. It’s a very hopeful place in a lot of ways—a very complicated place—and it’s worth trying to understand. That’s a place where I feel a personal mission to show people this complicated, troubled, beleaguered, but awesome city as often as possible.
Was Korea your worst hangover of the upcoming season?
Yeah, I can only do a show like that once a season. I do jujitsu in the morning, and jujitsu with a hangover is truly a horror.
The drinking games and stacking up the glasses—it looked like a fun time.
They really take it to extremes. No reasonable person mixes drinks and does oyster shooters at the same time. It was fucking crazy.