“Interesting television” is a slippery terrain – only a few can walk on it with such sure-footedness as Anthony Bourdain does – “What’s the most f***ed up thing we can do? Blue sky, what have we never been able to do? What does everyone tell us we can’t do or shouldn’t do or would be really stupid to do? What obscure film that no one’s seen do we want to rip off? How do we make that show?” …Even the CNN loves his kind of ‘anarchism’ – giving him all the freedom to decide where he wants to go, what stories he wants to tell and how he wants to tell them…
Of course there is a method to his anarchism, a framework to his theatre, a cage around his eccentric raspiness – and yet, what remains most fascinating is the fact that this man travels around the world, to the remotest corners, to look at how people eat. And that fundamental, umbilical, primal narrative of mankind often finds a way to tell itself – escaping the teller and his points of reference – “interesting” or not interesting – but always humane to the point of being poignant. Here, the quintessential Tony, among other things, recounts his travels through some of the most difficult and violent places on earth, which left him “frightened, inspired, saddened and confused…”
When you say, you look at the world in a “food-centric way” – what does it mean or to put it another way, what does food mean to you?
I don’t know…I am the guy who cooked professionally for 30 years, so I’m always going to look at the world through that prism. I like cooks, I’m predisposed to like and respect anybody, at whatever level, who cooks food professionally or at home – anybody who cooks or tries to cook well, with love and respect to the ingredients, whatever ingredients they have to work with, I like that! So, I mean, it’s essentially… a celebration.
You’ve conceptualized mostly all of your shows – right from choosing the destination to the people you want to collaborate with…and often these choices are very very loaded – I would say politically loaded -what is it that guides you?
No, I don’t have an agenda, a political agenda, but, I find that, if you have an open mind and you’re open to sitting down with anybody from any country, when your only agenda is to find out what their ordinary lives are like, what they like to eat, what they like to cook – people do tend to say extraordinary and revealing things to you! I don’t intend to be political, but there is nothing more political than food: you know, who’s eating, and who’s not eating, what do people eat – these are often the end results of political situations, so that sort of creeps into the discussion, whether we intend to include them to or not.
Absolutely! …You’ve shot your shows in locations like Lebanon, in the West Bank and Gaza – tell us about people living in conflict zones, continuously surrounded by a certain kind of violence – what kind of a relationship do they share with food?
When food is difficult to get, when things like access to water, access to basic ingredients, is difficult, it sort of makes everything more intense. I can’t help but feel automatically an affinity for people who persist in cooking well, even in conditions of extraordinary difficulty, who do their best to make delicious food when even getting ANY food is a difficulty. People who are proud of their food. I find this a very disarming quality and I tend to be unabashedly sympathetic, at least on one level to anybody who likes putting good food on the table or does their very best to do that, often in very difficult situations. but production and creation as well.
So do you really think that this sort of creativity actually flourishes within such limitations? Because, if we look at the trends in the Western countries, where the supply is more than the demand, where there are so many 24- hour food channels, celebrity chefs, all kinds of excesses related to food – the art of cooking is somewhere dying, people are spending much lesser time inside their kitchens.
Well, I think, historically, the cultures that have the greatest, and deepest, and richest cuisines, were often cooking in situations of great difficulty. …They cook well because they had to. They had to figure out how to make a lot from a little or how to take a tough piece of meat and convert it into something tender and delicious, only with the help of some technique!
It demands a level of skill that we could never have, because we didn’t have those same pressures. You know, luxury tends to be bad for cooks! It’s no accident that some of the best dishes in the world have really difficult origins! Even classic French cooking. How many of those dishes came from barely real meat – to take a tough, old chicken and somehow figure out how to make it delicious and tender.
You even shot one of your latest episodes of ‘Parts Unknown’ in a kinky Tokyo show – tell us a little about Tokyo…Japan actually – we have all these bizarre stories coming out from there – restaurants themed on toilets etc – its just so intriguing – in between the classic traditional Japanese food culture – and all these bizarre stories – where is the real Japan?
I can’t say that I’ve been able to make any sense of that myself ! But from the little that I was able to explore, I feel, maybe there’s some connection between Japanese sexual fetishes and their obsession with culinary perfection! Is there a real connection? I don’t know. But it makes an interesting hour of television, asking that question!
I remember, one of my friends had sent me this link to one of your blog-posts about Romania – where you wrote – how things were fucked up – it was mostly primitive, and something like soups may taste good, but they don’t make interesting television etc – It came across as extremely culturally insensitive…and he also directed me to an account by Paul Robeson, who loved the Romanian people…loved performing for them…had lovely things to say about the country…so how does one choose – who to listen to..?
I’m not in the business of going to a country and having a bad time and making fun of them. What happened in Romania was – various government agencies, in a very hamfisted, intrusive way, tried to manipulate events. They didn’t let us shoot. The Romanian government essentially – their representatives didn’t allow us to show the real Romania and instead, created this artificial environment, trying to make things look better for the camera, forcing people into what were supposedly traditionally clothes, moving the local butcher to a home that wasn’t even his home because they thought it would look better and would put a better, more attractive face on what we saw. They prohibited us from speaking with the Roma people, the gypsy population, which is about a sixth of the population. The government made it impossible for us to show the real Romania …you know, we fucked -up the show! But, we showed you how ludicrous, ridiculous, painful and false the experience was! That was my experience! Was that a comprehensive or fair overview of Romania? No, of course not! But that’s what happened to us when we were there. I tried to make fun of our experience, as if we wanted to play along with this terrible, false world that they tried to create for us. They made it very, very difficult for us to show anything that made the real Romania and we made a show about that experience. You know, I don’t like to make shows like that but it was a very funny show and an accurate expression of our experience there. I’m not in the business of doing a fair overview or a show that’s representative of the full sweep of Romanian culture. I’m not so megalomaniacal to think that we could, even if we wanted to! I went to Romania, I was there for a week – the show is about what happened during that week.
So would you like to go back and do a completely different show?
Ummm…I wish things would have turned out happier but I have no reason to believe that we will have any better experience next time. The government was very, very, very intrusive. They really made things very difficult. It was just very difficult to do business there, let’s put it that way.
Okay. And you also shot in Congo recently. And what was your experience there?
Frightening…tragic…inspiring, confusing. It’s the most difficult show we’ve ever done. There was very little… really no infrastructure, people really struggle to live. We did, the very best we could to show a very big, very complicated subject in an hour. To give people a view of what very few other people have been able to show.
So what is it that comes across through the show, really? What is it that is so complicated about food in a place like Congo?
Well, I think, just how other people have to struggle just to get water, just to drink and to wash. The struggle to live every day, just to do simple, little things that we take for granted. That left a huge impression.
You’ve ravelled all over the world…have documented the changing food cultures – Do you find a certain homogenization? Also, there are fatter people, and there are hungrier people – how do you see the future of food in such times?
I don’t know. I don’t know that I’m smart enough to predict what the world’s food situation is going to be like in the future. I think there’s going to be more and more and more of an appetite, a rapacious appetite for luxury ingredients, clearly – as we see an emerging middle class all across India and China. These are people who are going to want the same things that we’ve been enjoying in New York and they will be increasingly able to afford them. At the same time, we’re going to see the shrinking food supplies in other areas. I don’t know… we have some very difficult challenges ahead of us, that is for sure.
Will you be visiting India sometime soon?
I just got back from Amritsar and Shimla, I just got back yesterday.
Oh, wonderful! And what was your experience like?
Fantastic. It’s always a joy to shoot in India. I’ve been there for work. I can eat vegetarian every day and still be happy in India. So the food’s fantastic. And it’s an environment that lends itself well to making beautiful television!
And in the end, if you recall the movie, Tampopo…
Yes, of course, I love it…
It had these lovely instances…moments, which contained the essence of one’s relationship with food, in vastly different contexts. What would be your moment…something that holds the true essence of your relationship with food…?
My bowl of Pho…My first bowl of Pho in Vietnam was something of a religious experience. You know, just some good noodles in the street on a low, plastic stool…Vietnam’s a country filled with passionate cooks and passionate eaters …it was also one of the first countries outside of the US that I was able to visit… I had waited for it… I was surprised that I was able to go there…I had pretty much given up on that dream… I don’t know…your first love always has a special place in your heart…
Thank you so much for talking to us!