Anthony Bourdain on Food Porn, YouTube Stars and His Intolerance of Gluten-Free Diets

Just don't get him started on Chick-fil-A

Photographed by Robert Ascroft for Adweek

We’re deep in the bowels of New York’s Chinatown, down a flight of stairs in the wood-paneled Cantonese classic Hop Kee. It’s late afternoon, before the dinner rush, and Anthony Bourdain is ensconced in a brown vinyl booth surrounded by platters of salted squid with hot peppers, sauteed string beans, Cantonese-style snails and pan-fried flounder while a handful of waiters and busboys silently look on. All of them are waiting patiently for a selfie with the writer and host of CNN’s Emmy Award-winning series Parts Unknown. Bourdain is more than happy to oblige.

Bourdain, 59, is refreshingly humble about the fortune that’s come his way. He spent 28 years as a professional cook and chef, including several years at Brasserie Les Halles (and, beginning in 1998, four years as its executive chef). Bourdain was thrust into the spotlight in 2000 with the publication of his best-selling tell-all Kitchen Confidential. Then, one opportunistic thing led to another—more best-sellers, shows on the Food Network (A Cook’s Tour) and Travel Channel (No Reservations, The Layover)—and in 2013 Bourdain settled into his current gig at CNN where each week he takes viewers on a wild culinary and cultural tour, from Montana to Manila.

As always with Bourdain, there are many projects afoot—which is why it should come as no surprise to find him on Adweek’s list of the 30 Most Influential People in Food. Last year, he invested in Roads & Kingdoms, a digital media company focused on writerly pieces about food, travel and culture. He also made a cameo in the Oscar-nominated film The Big Short, in which he explains big banks’ collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs, by way of day-old “fish stew.” Lately, Bourdain is readying for a fall tour to support what he jokingly calls his “dysfunctional family cookbook,” Appetites (on sale Oct. 25), which will include recipes for meals he makes for his wife Ottavia and their 9-year-old daughter Ariane. Bourdain also is forging ahead with ambitious plans for a 155,000-square foot international food market on New York’s Pier 57, scheduled to open sometime next year.

Pausing between his photo session with the waitstaff here at Hop Kee and an evening out with Eric Ripert, the renowned chef of Le Bernardin who moonlights as Bourdain’s travel companion and foil, we slide into an empty booth for a spell. Over beers we talk about topics including the CNN show, YouTube food stars, his love of budae jjigae and his beef with Frito pie.

Anthony Bourdain strolls along New York’s Mott Street.
Robert Ascroft for Adweek

Adweek: You’ve traveled to quite a wide variety of places lately—Chicago, Senegal and Cologne, Germany, which was in the headlines for sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve that many blamed on Syrian refugees. Did you get a sense when you were producing the show there that the town was going to boil over?
Anthony Bourdain: It had just happened when we arrived, and what was interesting was that the attitude, the overwhelming tone of the discussion outside of Germany and outside of Cologne in particular was completely different than the tone within Cologne, which is sort of an ongoing conflict in the show. Cologners remained unerringly positive about a pretty horrendous and terrifying incident. Everything I heard in Cologne from across the board there seemed to be unwavering faith in the German ability to both absorb and fix the situation.

You’ve gone to some sketchy places, like Iran and Mexico City. What happens when you’re interviewing people like The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian or Mexican journalist Anabel Hernández, and they say something that could put them at risk? How far will you go to protect them during the editing process?
This comes up a lot. We are acutely aware of the fact that (a) I’m not a journalist, so the story is not the most important thing, OK? I have a point of view, but I’m not ashamed of it. I have personal loyalties. I have personal prejudices. It’s very easy for me to shoot in China, for instance, and, say, do a long, 20-minute rant on Tibet when I get back. I have to think about who we shot with back in China. They’re still there.

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