Anthony Bourdain: America's Falling Behind (and I'm Afraid of Sandra Lee)
The effervescently opinionated Anthony Bourdain, an erstwhile drug addict and chef, sprang to literary fame as an observer of the culinary world, but now he's one of the most well-known travel writers in the country. Since 2005, his Travel Channel anthology No Reservations has consistently been the best-written travelogue series on television, and this week, it begins its new season with a powerful episode shot in post-quake Haiti, where he learns to re-evaluate easy notions of altruism in the face of social chaos. His travels have realigned his perception of American values, too.
Being 6' 4", you must have noticed how travel has changed over the recent years. With the airlines squeezing their pitch, you must have much less room than you did years ago.
We do a lot of little puddle-jumpers, internal flights, so yeah, that's not so great. But politically speaking, Americans are more welcome in more places. Western Europe has become a little easier. Travelers are also much more foodie now. There are real gastrotourists out there, so I notice they're not as surprised when Americans show up and want to try things that Westernerns used to not ever want to touch. You also see how fast Asia and China are outpacing us as far as high-speed rail, the quality of their chain hotels, infrastructure, telecommunications. It's kind of dismaying when you come home and you ride an American carrier. You get spoiled in the East.
It's almost as if travel hasn't changed enough.
Traveling domestically hasn't changed at all. If anything, it's gotten worse. Traveling internationally, you go to a Western chain hotel in Beijing or Shanghai, they are swank. The level of luxury is extraordinary. The same hotel in the States, not so good. Not good at all.
Your show seems to be very much about turning other people on to what's out there.
I think that, like eating, travel should be a fairly submissive experience. You should open yourself up to stuff and let things happen. Generally speaking, it's an amazing world. People may or may not agree with you, but when it comes to eating and drinking it's a world full of peace and proud people doing the best they can. Hospitality is a feature of a lot of cultures that you might not expect to be welcoming.
Americans often see fine food as something of a consumer item or something for the wealthy, but abroad, as you show time and again, it's the simplest expression of tradition and of human connection. How did we get so high-minded here?
I think it's not high-mindedness. Post World War Two, we got lazy. We got spoiled. We could eat 20-ounce steaks. There were restaurants everywhere. It's all about excessive portions and meat and potatoes. We lost touch with having to cook well because we didn't have to. The nation had just been through a war, and suddenly there was a period of incredible prosperity, relatively, and it was all about convenience and things other than food. American culture is all about assimilating and moving away from your roots, moving away from your small town or your poor background. Families changed, populations moved, and everywhere we went there were cheap hamburgers and chicken without skin or legs.
And yet on the road, you're often finding the most satisfying, nuanced food is the cheapest stuff. Why isn't it that way for us?
We weren't forced into a situation where we had to find ingenious ways to make something that was not very good, and there wasn't very much of it, into something delicious. Where people have to cook well, or are forced by circumstances to cook well, they learn to make the most of it. It was just as easy to go out to a Howard Johnson's or a Horn & Hardart back in the '50s than it was to eat at home, in fact you were encouraged to do it. The TV dinner was seen as a godsend for people who had more important things to do than feed themselves. That's changing. We're much more aware of where our food comes from.
What will it take to get the average American care about their food the way so many people who live abroad do?
I hate to say it, but I think we will see it. As the price of raw ingredients rises, we'll reach a point where a lot of working families will have to figure out how to cook again to make the most out of what they have. A lot of foods we take for granted now are going to be out of reach. We very well might have to start cooking eventually more like the Chinese, where meat, for instance, is less the main event than the garnish, the condiment, the flavoring ingredient. So we might be forced to eat better, cook better, and eat healthier just by virtue of these food items we take for granted being out of reach economically. Even at mid-range restaurants, any chef could put a big fat fillet of wild salmon on a plate. Now? Not so much.
What do your travel food experiences teach you about yourselves?
You realize how damn lucky you are and how good you've got it. In the Egypt show we shot over a year ago, I realize now we documented an important moment without realizing how important. Our government fixers and handlers did not want us - did not want us - to show the everyday, standard, staple breakfast of the working Egyptian. It's a dish called foul. It's served everywhere in the streets in Cairo, and it's basically a watery chickpea stew with a big stack of flatbread. They did not want us to show that, and I didn't understand or realize at the time what they were so afraid of. But the fact is there had been some bread riots recently, the army owned the bakeries, the price of flour had gone up. Just the change of a few cents per pound for the price of flour or bread - the whole security of the regime rested on a thing like that. I think they well understood and were terrified of that. They understood the power of us saying, "Hey, this is what most Egyptians fill their bellies with every day." That's the sort of fact that topples governments, as we've seen.
Is there something you want Americans to take away from that? I think some would hear a story like that and be afraid to ever go to Egypt, but I don't think that's what you intend.
No. I am not political. I'm not an advocate. I call myself an enthusiast. I'm an old-school lefty from New York. I don't have a lot in common with the Tea Party. But I'm guessing that we both like beer and we both like barbecue. And I'm pretty damn sure I could sit down with just about anybody in the Tea Party and have a pretty good time at the table drinking beer and eating barbecue. That's something. That's about as political as it gets from me. If the people aren't getting fed in a country, I'm against you, whoever you are. But I think Danny Ortega's going to be very unhappy with our Nicaragua show.
Do you wish Americans would travel more?
Travel changes people for the better. The more you walk around in another person's shoes, the more you've seen of the world, the better a person you are. If I can convince somebody who's got the money to do it, the freedom to do it, and if one of our shows has inspired them to, then sure. I hear it a lot. People come up to me a lot and say, "I went to Vietnam, and I tracked down some of the same business that you ate at and I had a good time." Sure. That makes me happy. I grew up with books and movies and I dreamed of seeing places like those I'd read about. It's unimaginable to me that people wouldn't yearn for a peek at the other side of the world, an undiscovered beach, a tiny little food stall that serves the perfect bowl of noodles.
Are you aware that you may be changing lives just by visiting with your cameras?
Yeah. I know the show has been good for a number of small businesses, but I'm also changing the character in negative ways as well sometimes. I have mixed emotions about that. We worry sometimes that that tiny, out-of-the-way, unspoiled place suddenly, after the show, there are people in ugly shorts and fanny packs. But I think on balance it's something I can live with. And yet I want [to reach] people who wear silly tourist clothes and don't know how to travel or haven't traveled well in the past. I want them to have fun. There's good stuff out there. And good people!
Good people is a big theme with your show. You have a reputation as a hardass, but really, your writing is all about finding joy and wonder and connection with strangers. I don't think your reputation is fully deserved.
I'm angry and hyperbolic about a lot of things, but I'm also very sentimental about a lot of other things.
You're an old lefty.
I'm a spoiled lefty.
You have had a lot of harsh words about the state of TV chefs and cooking shows, but I haven't heard you say much about the state of TV travel shows.
I think we're in a period of flux there. I think you can see the traditional travel genre trying in fits and starts to tackle the subject. You're seeing a lot of series lately where people travel in nontraditional ways. And a lot of food travel.
A lot of food travel. A lot of guys eating testicles.
Yeah, well, I think that's a good way in. You see a much better, bigger picture of a country if you go in just as a hungry person who wants to know what the average person eats and what kind of foods give them pleasure than if you go in like Dan Rather looking for some hard news and some hard facts. God is in the details.
Is there a place you wish more people would travel to?
As far as hidden gems that not enough people go to but are really awesome? Uruguay. Colombia. Lebanon. These are surprisingly awesome places. My crew loved those places, too, just like I do.
Has having a kid changed the way you travel?
I'm not going to jump off any cliffs into water of indeterminate depth while drunk like I did back in the old days in the Sicily show. I may be a little more wary of charging up a dune in an ATV. But generally, not really.
How long until you introduce travel to your daughter?
Whenever we shoot in Western Europe, my daughter comes with me. Maybe in a year or two, she'll be ready for a place like India. Obviously, with a three-year-old, proximity to a quality hospital is a consideration. But she'll be old enough to go to more challenging places soon, and I look forward to bringing her. She's already got more air miles than most of the adults I've met.
You've had some choice words about Sandra Lee's techniques, but now that she's de facto First Lady of New York State [Lee is the live-in girlfriend of new governor Andrew Cuomo], do you regret anything you said about her?
Well, I'm afraid. I live in fear. She's not an inconsequential force all by her lonesome. We have met face-to-face, and I tell you: She could probably take me in a knife fight.
She'd probably prefer a can opener fight.
I may not be an admirer of her work on this planet, but she certainly had me for breakfast when we met. She just eviscerated me. It was like a one-person shark attack. And she was standing next to Cuomo at the time.
Did that give her power?
There was an implied threat. [Laughs.] I gotta tell you, she could have been alone. She's like Sue Ann Nivens on the old Mary Tyler-Moore Show. She may come across as the happy homemaker, but I'm guessing she's got a good left hook.
I've always wanted to know this: If you know the Travel Channel is going to bleep the expletives out of your narration, why do you put them in?
It's the way I talk to my friends, I talk that way to my loved ones. It's the way I talk, period. So I'm not gonna change. I don't feel that proprietary about my writing. Besides, you never know what slips in. They don't know what I'm talking about half the time. I've gotten a lot of sh*t in under the wire.
Executive Editor Jason Cochran is online at JasonCochran.com and Facebook, and on Twitter as @bastable.
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