Dishing with Anthony Bourdain
The ambassador of cuisine and culture offers insight on his show, food-centric America, and what it’s like to live with no reservations
Interview by Melissa C. Smith
Noted author, chef, and host of the Travel Channel’s No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain brings his culinary musings and wit to the Asheville Civic Center this Saturday. On November 5, he’ll dish on candid moments and comic insights about his life’s work and intrepid travels. WNC magazine caught up with him to bring you a taste of what he’ll serve up.
Q: As host of No Reservations, you control which countries and cuisine you cover. What are you looking for when you put together the show and how do you keep things fresh and entertaining for yourself, the crew, and audience?
A: Well, first and foremost, I’m looking to satisfy my own curiosity about the world and maybe learn something and hopefully have a good time. If I’m not interested, I see no reason for an audience to be interested. And then technically and creatively, I think as part of a team of creative people we’re looking to challenge ourselves and find new ways to tell stories. So every week we’re looking to, in a sense, undermine whatever worked from the previous week and find new and self destructively crazy ways to tell the same story in a different way.
Q: During No Reservations crew’s recent talk with Google staff, you said that Rome was one of the most fun episodes you’ve done. You asked your crew about their best and least favorite episodes, but you didn’t mention your least favorite or most challenging episode. Which was it?
A: I think Romania was a very tough, very frustrating episode. It ended up being a very funny show, but it was not too much fun doing.
Q: Can you elaborate?
A: We try to do everyday things to show what normal people do for fun. Their government made that difficult. They were constantly steering us toward the Romania they wanted us to see rather than the real Romania. It was frustrating and looked just as false as it was. It was a disaster, but a very funny one.
Q: With the exception of large urban areas or those with immigrant populations, much of the U.S. was a culinary wasteland for decades of the 20th century, made bland by the canned and frozen foods that came about in the ’50s. When and how do you think the tipping point came for the average American to embrace this food-centric culture we’re now experiencing?
A: I think the rise of the celebrity chef has been a really good thing. Even at its silliest, the phenomena has empowered chefs, made more people aware of what they’re eating, interested in what they’re eating, where their food comes from, and more importantly who’s cooking it. I think chefs in rural areas feel empowered to open places with more of a personal vision and basically to cook better now. They’re allowed to cook better now.
Q: Do you find any redeeming qualities in typical Southern cooking?
A: I love typical Southern cooking. I think it’s unfair to suggest that it’s necessarily unhealthy. I mean, a lasagna sandwich or a burger with bacon and a fried egg between two Krispy Kreme donuts, that’s not traditional Southern cooking by a long shot. There’s nothing wrong with fried chicken in moderation. A lot of American cuisine as we know it today, our most treasured dishes, are either Southern techniques or influenced by the first waves of Europeans or Africans who came to America. So I just don’t believe that necessarily. One can eat traditional Southern food in moderation and live a perfectly healthy life. I like macaroni and cheese. Do we need to deep-fry it? I don’t think so. There ain’t nothing traditional about that.
Q: You have a new TV series, The Layover, which airs November 21 on the Travel Channel. In each of the 10 episodes you travel to a different destination around the world to unveil how to make the most of a 24- to 48-hour layover. Can you share any thoughts/excitement for the show and tell us what it was like to make it?
A: I’m very nervous. It’s a whole new show. I’m anxious to see how it’s perceived. It’s the same [as No Reservations] in many ways, but it’s very different in that it tries to be useful and informative. That’s what scares me a little. So we’ll see. I’m hanging on to see how it goes over. It was a hard show to make because we made a leap-frogging cruise from city to city, one after the other. It was a lot of food, a lot of activity compressed into a short period of time. It really beat the hell out of me.
Q: And you’re on your eighth season of No Reservations?
A: We’re a few episodes in already. We’ve already filmed in Mozambique and on the Croatian coast, and looking forward to Japan, Libya, and Portugal.
Q: How do you manage juggling two shows?
A: [Laughs] It’s not easy. I’m a hard working guy I guess. I worked in the restaurant business.
Q: You’ve been in the limelight for about a decade. Are you recognized the world over or is there one country where you can hide out?
A: Yeah sure. Anywhere where the show isn’t aired or isn’t aired on a network that people watch. Off the top of my head, rural France is a place I can pretty much disappear.
Q: That’s nice. But you still must stick out a little bit. You’re quite tall aren’t you?
A: Yeah, yeah. [Laughs] I’m 6'4", so not too many places I can hide.
Q: With No Reservations you’ve never turned down any food or said no to any opportunities. It’s obviously the point of the show. But have there been any instances when you thought twice about saying no?
A: Plenty of times, particularly in places where the food is not fresh or it’s dirty. I’ve had a pretty good idea in tribal situations that this food is going to make me ill, but I was also acutely aware that these people are giving me the best they can, and they’re very proud of the work they’ve put into it. And when people’s prestige depends on my reaction, I feel obliged every now and again to take one for the team.
Q: That’s what makes the show so good.
A: I eat that way off camera as well.
Q: Do you have a go-to international dish that you like to eat?
A: I like Vietnamese pho very much. Any spicy noodle dish makes me happy. I like a good bowl of pasta as well.
Q: You don’t cook as often as you did before you left the restaurant industry, but when you do, what’s your favorite dish to prepare?
A: I like to make pasta. It makes me very happy. I didn’t get to do it much in my career.
Q: Trip Advisor recently named Asheville among the Top 10 Food & Wine Destinations in the U.S. Any plans to film an episode in Asheville or Western North Carolina? Or would you consider it?
A: I would certainly consider it.
To purchase tickets ($40-$50) for Anthony Bourdain on November 5 at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in the Asheville Civic Center, call 1-(800) 745-3000 or click here to buy tickets.