“It was never really about food,” Anthony Bourdain says of his CNN series Parts Unknown.
For Bourdain, his focus began to shift from the culinary to the cultural in July 2006, when he and his crew found themselves trapped in Beirut during the 2006 Lebanon War, a 34-day military conflict between the Israel Defense Forces and Iran-funded Hezbollah terrorists. The second-season finale to No Reservations, the previous iteration of Parts Unknown, documented that chaotic, war-torn week in Beirut, and earned an Emmy nomination.
The show has broadened its scope since its move to CNN in 2013, and, entering its 11th season—which premieres on April 29—is now more of a docu-news program with a few mouth-watering food scenes spliced in. It’s even won a Peabody Award.
“I like food. It was the center of my life for 30 years and I’ll always look at the world through that prism, but it is not the only thing,” Bourdain tells me. “If you’re commenting on how crunchy-delicious your salad is while your host is missing two limbs, you might want to ask them how that happened, and often you will get a story that’s far more interesting than what’s on your plate.”
Parts Unknown’s Season 11 premiere takes the tattooed ex-New York City chef deep into the heart of Trump country: West Virginia. There, he eats a bag lunch with miners inside a coal mine, shoots some automatic weapons, and tries to get to the bottom of why these blue-collar Americans voted for a billionaire real-estate heir who “shits on a gold toilet.” Their answers may surprise you.
The Daily Beast spoke with Bourdain about what he learned in Trump country and much more.
The West Virginia episode is, in my opinion, one of the best you’ve done. Why did you choose there to open Season 11?
I think the timing is right. I think because it’s so different than the culture I grew up in and the place I grew up in, and the political landscape is very different than mine. I pride myself on trying to show up with an open mind and an open heart in places like Saudi Arabia, Liberia, Vietnam, Iran. Why not my own country? Why not show that same respect and empathy in the heart of God, guns, and Trump country? I was curious, and I was utterly disarmed and very moved by what I found there. People were incredibly kind and generous to me, not hostile to my political beliefs, and we talked a lot about coal, the Second Amendment, and why people who come from five generations of breaking their backs in the coal mine would vote for a sketchy New York real-estate guy who’s never changed a tire in his life. The answers were a lot more nuanced than I’d expected.
A man who, you say in the episode, “shits on a gold toilet.”
Right. It’s very different there. You know, the contempt with which we speak of West Virginia in the political circles that I’m inclined to vote with I think is sort of disgraceful and counterproductive and unlovely. A little understanding and a little empathy—the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes for a few minutes—has got to be a good thing. I went to West Virginia with the intent of making a show that was respectful and sympathetic, and that was easy because people were genuinely deserving of that respect. And they’re not foolish—they don’t think Trump is going to bring back coal to where it was—their concerns were more immediate and practical, like the difference between dinner on the table tomorrow and no dinner.
The episode focuses quite a bit on guns, and you mention after a sequence of you and several others shooting full-auto machine guns that it was shot right before the Las Vegas massacre.
Yeah. So we were very aware of the dissonance between having a good time in somebody’s backyard whose business is modifying semi-automatic weapons and what those weapons could do.
You end that gun-firing sequence by saying, “One would hope that there is at least some middle ground.”
I hope there’s some, because they were really nice and I liked them, but as you saw, they were not willing to give an inch on their position. They were non-negotiable in their view.
Well they were selling the stuff, right.
I do not believe they were the typical gun owner—especially in a place like West Virginia, where every kid learns to shoot because, in many cases, they might need to. Learning to shoot and then dress and cook a squirrel is something that a lot of kids learn. I believe that there is middle ground. I don’t know [what it is], but I thought it was useful to talk to people who were unwavering in their interpretation of the Second Amendment. Again, one of the things that makes the argument so difficult is that they were so nice, and from what I could see, they were responsible gun owners—very rigorous about safety, training—but I feel the way I feel, and I had to be honest about that.
Where else does Parts Unknown go this season, and are there any moments that you’re particularly excited for fans to see?
I’m ecstatic about the Hong Kong show. The episode is directed by Asia Argento and the director of photography is Christopher Doyle, who’s perhaps the greatest cinematographer in the history of film. How that played out is an amazing story. I’ve been obsessed with Wong Kar-wai and his longtime DP Christopher Doyle for years, and for years I’ve been desperate to get him on the show to talk about how he sees the city of Hong Kong, which he’s lived and worked in for thirty years. My highest hope was to get him on camera talking about film and maybe hold a camera for a few minutes; he ended up shooting nearly every scene. For me, it was just the most mind-boggling thing that ever happened. He’d shoot with us all day, and then hang out with me, Asia and the crew after telling behind-the-scenes stories about making films, how he got certain shots, philosophy. It was just the most extraordinary experience. I can’t believe Christopher Doyle was director of photography on my crappy little television show!
You know, I think you should do a Parts Unknown episode at Mar-a-Lago. Sort of a dark, surreal one directed by…
I was just going to say that. That would be perfect.
I’ve been to the former heart of darkness in the Congo, and this particular heart of darkness might be a little too far up the river.
The food’s probably terrible too. I wanted to discuss the “Russia” episode that aired in May 2014. It’s a remarkable episode in many respects. You spend the majority of the episode criticizing Vladimir Putin—in Russia—and you even compare Putin to Trump, saying, “He strikes me as a businessman—a businessman with an ego. OK, so he’s like Donald Trump—but shorter.” Then you dined with outspoken Putin critic Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated about nine months after it aired.
It was shot in late 2013, and I ask [Nemtsov] directly, “Aren’t you concerned? The enemies of Vladimir Putin, bad things have happened to them,” and he laughed it off and said, “It would be too embarrassing. I’m too important. I’m a public figure.” One has to wonder if that was in somebody’s mind as they shot him to death pretty much on the front lawn of the Kremlin. It’s not like they don’t want you to know who done it, you know? When they kill somebody with nerve gas or radioactive polonium in Central London, they want you to know who done it. That’s the whole point.
The Trump comparison was rather prophetic as well.
I think the similarities are obvious.
Are you allowed back in Russia?
I am allowed back, but I will tell you honestly: I’m hesitant to go. I’m hesitant to go not necessarily from a personal-safety standpoint, but I don’t want a camera on me when I’m sitting on the toilet, and I have to think about the people I associate with. With Nemtsov, we approached four or five different restaurants and when they found out I was dining with Nemtsov, they canceled the scene. They didn’t want to touch us with a 10-foot pole. So I’m sure I could go to Russia, make a show, come back, and say whatever I want about Putin and about Russia, but the people who put their faith in me and appear on camera with me, their situation back in Russia might be more precarious because they’ve been on the show with me. That’s something I keep very much in mind not only in Russia, but in Turkey. I’m not going back to Turkey for that same reason: if you appear on the show with me, that might prove to be a liability. If you’re a native Turk who says something critical of Erdogan or his regime, that might prove dangerous for you, so I don’t want to cause those kinds of problems for friends or people who are good enough to appear on my show. I would say Russia and Turkey are out, and Azerbaijan I’ve been PNG’d, so I won’t be going there.
Another episode that struck me as rather prophetic was the “New Jersey” episode, which aired in May 2015. That one aired a few weeks before Trump announced his candidacy, and part of it focuses on how Trump ravaged Atlantic City and even has you mocking his hair.
It’ll be really prophetic if he does with the presidency what he did with Atlantic City, which is pretty much declare victory and then retreat. If you remember, when he left his casinos behind broken and in shambles, he was quick to point out how well it worked out for him. He made his money, but his investors and Atlantic City were left with a gigantic, hideous white elephant. Let us hope that’s not a metaphor for his presidency—or maybe we should hope it is. Maybe that would be the best-case scenario at this point.
We’ve talked a bit about Trump. We’re both New Yorkers. Do you find something a bit poetic justice-y in Stormy Daniels potentially having a hand in taking down President Trump?
For me, the similarities to the Gotti trial are what come to mind. If you poke a stick in the eye of the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation long enough, they will get you in the end. They’ve got unlimited time and unlimited money, and they will get you. There was this great moment in the Gotti trial where they play a transcript of Gotti complaining about rats and informers in his organization, and in the room with him at the time are “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, “Willie Boy” Johnson, and two other guys—three of whom are currently informing on him to the FBI or turned state’s witness later on during the trial. In addition, the room was bugged. So I’m thinking that these are not the best and the brightest. “You know, Jared [Kushner] is definitely gonna keep his mouth shut. He’s solid. He won’t flip”—said no one ever. In the end, I think they’re all a bunch of frightened, self-interested greedheads, they’re all going to turn on each other, and the whole thing is going to come crashing down like any other conspiracy of not-too-bright people.
I gotta ask: Is your gig just the greatest job ever?
Yeah, pretty much. I have unparalleled freedom to go anywhere I want in the world, do what I want when I get there, I work with friends, I get to collaborate with people like Christopher Doyle and Mark Lanegan, meet my heroes. It’s creatively and deeply satisfying, and I gotta say, in all my years working at CNN I’ve never gotten a phone call or a memo that begins with the words “how about” or “wouldn’t it be a great idea if.” They’ve afforded me total freedom to do whatever I want, and I’m very grateful for that.
And you get to eat pretty damn well too.
[Laughs] Yes. I’m in Spain now with Jose Andres, and it’s a tsunami of delicious food. I have to hide from Jose in some scenes so he won’t stuff me with delicious ham, and seafood, and cava, and cider. It’s an enviable problem.