Q&A: Anthony Bourdain critiques reality shows, talks 'No Reservations' milestone
Food and travel provocateur Anthony Bourdain is celebrating the 100th episode of his genre-busting Travel Channel series "No Reservations" on Monday. The host, chef and author critiques other cooking reality shows, defends his pork enthusiasm, tells THR which cities have the best (and worst) food and where he’s going next.
So which city had the best food?
Anthony Bourdain: Wow, tough question. Either Hong Kong, San Sebastian, Saigon—those would all be strong candidates.
How about best in the U.S.?
Bourdain: New York, of course. We have a good mix of high and low cuisine. We have large immigrant communities, so we have Mexico, Central and South America, all over Asia.
And the worst?
Bourdain: Bucharest [Romania] and Tashkent [Uzbekistan] are not high on my list.
On "No Reservations," when some nice family in the middle of nowhere is
making you something that looks utterly horrific in a bucket, and you go, "Umm, that’s good," I always think: "Sometimes you have to be full of it."
Bourdain: I try to be as polite as possible. If it is terrible, I will be nice on camera, but you will hear me on the voiceover say "OK, that really wasn’t so wonderful." It may seem that I’m liking everything. Maybe that’s part of a function of my general sense of feeling very lucky and grateful that I’m given the opportunity to do this.
You’ve slammed Food Network and its talent. Have you ever heard anything
Bourdain: "Rachel Ray" sent me a fruit basket. And I had an uncomfortable
meeting with Sandra Lee, where she pretty much had me for breakfast. But
officially, no. It’s not like we socialize together. They work their side of
the street, I work mine.
What do you think of the latest food competition show, Fox’s "MasterChef"?
Bourdain: Uhh ... Dreadful.
I saw one episode where they had the contestants try to identify the ingredients of chili. "I’m guessing there’s onion in there"—you know what I’m saying? "There might be beef too." I wish Gordon Ramsay well, but I think "Top Chef" remains the benchmark. [Note: Bourdain occasionally appears on "Top Chef" as a guest judge].
When you see challenges on food competition shows, how much do they really test a chef?
Bourdain: I’m horrified at the low level of competitor in "Hell’s Kitchen." None of these people could ever -- ever -- be up to the standards of a line cook at a real Gordon Ramsay restaurant. So the whole construct seems artificial to me. "Top Chef," on the other hand, what they ask these cooks to do is really difficult and the quality of the contestants is very high. I think [judge] Tom Colicchio keeps that show honest.
How about face-stuffing competitions. Like Travel Channel’s "Man vs. Food"?
Bourdain: It’s a little morally quesifying.* I think Adam Richman of "Man vs. Food" is enormously likable and a compelling character who really makes that show interesting, but I fear for his life! I mean, the guy must really like T-shirts. I find him very likable, but I’m kind of horrified by the show.
No other reality show makes the process of its creation more transparent
than "No Reservations." You’re always making references to the producers,
the network and the reasoning behind the content. You even a did a behind-the-scenes episode which showed how un-spontanious shooting "reality TV" is. What drives that?
Bourdain: Since the beginning, me and my partners were not interested in
doing the same thing week after week. It’s just a really important component
of the whole process -- to find ways to keep it fresh and new and different. We’re always looking for ways to tell a story in a new way, to undermine what we did last week.
Then also, there’s really an instinctive loathing with the conventions of travel and food television. The story arc: Any time you introduce a beginning and an end, which require an intro and a sum up, and commercial breaks, and some expectation of a timeline -- you’ve already have entered an artificial construct that me and my partners instinctively don’t like and try and find sort of ways to subvert.I hate watching a travel show where you have the host moaning about being lonely and frightened in the desert, but there’s footprints in the sand from the camera person walking backwards in front of them.
You’re also pretty experimental -- like doing an episode in black and white
when you went to Rome. Do you ever argue with the network about the content?
Bourdain: There have been some discussions over profanity or subject matter
that they were uncomfortable with. The black and white show highlights everything that’s different and good about the people I work with. We expected a lot of negative reaction. And to their credit, they’ve been really supportive.
OK, I realize this next question is a long-shot. But do you ever feel like your love for all things pork and disdain for vegetable dishes -- sure, you're being honest about what you like -- but you have a TV show in a country with serious obesity issues. Is it really the best idea to consistently tout to the opposite of what most doctors recommend people eat?
Bourdain: I think there's also a virulent and ferocious hatred for American fast food that at least as pervasive in my show, and in my writing, as my affection for pork. That said, I don’t ever claim to be an advocate. I’m not your doctor, or your moralist. I’m about eating for pleasure. I very much also believe that if you need help to get out of your car, then there’s a problem.
Is there one place you really wanted to go that you haven’t been?
Bourdain: We’re looking to really raise our game next year.We’re hoping to do a show right off the Congo River retracing Joseph Conrad’s trip up there in "Heart of Darkness." We’re returning to Cambodia. Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua. Cuba is a place I’ve been trying to go every year and it hasn’t worked out.
Do you think you could do another 100 episodes?
Bourdain: I could do an entire season in China and still die ignorant. So, without question. I mean, it’s a big world.
*Not a word, but should be.