How Anthony Bourdain Could Save CNN

The chef's 'Parts Unknown' has made him the network's most innovative star as his hard-to-define food show makes the most of its often bizarre ingredients: "You can learn as much from an episode as you can from any of our field reports. And that's an incredible thing," says Jeff Zucker

This story first appeared in the Oct. 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"Iran is so confusing," says Anthony Bourdain. He means this in a good way. "I don't think we'd ever as a crew — with cameras or without — been treated with such hospitality. 'Americans are here! We're so grateful! Sorry about the "Death to America" sign. Here, try this! Come to my house. Let me feed you!' They are not lying to us on the news, but the schism between what happens between nations and what happens on the street is different."

A nonstop storyteller, the chef turned TV personality takes a sip of his Bombay and tonic, settling further into his rear booth and holding forth at Musso & Frank in Hollywood on a recent Saturday night. ("I'm an old-school guy; I like old-school places.") He is discussing, among a flurry of subjects ranging from extortion attempts in Congo to drug use in small-town New England, the final episode of the upcoming season of CNN's Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, which debuts Sept. 28 — his critically acclaimed, essayistic travel show told through the prism of food.

"A lot of people are grateful that anybody is noticing very ordinary things. I'm not asking about their political leadership," he says, speaking about "regular" people he meets. "And there are a lot of folks for whom hospitality is just a very big deal. In Islam, theoretically, you are supposed to host even your enemy." He continues, mentioning the age-old query, "What's for dinner?": "When you ask that question in Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Congo — you get very surprising, nuanced, complex answers that open people up."

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Traveling the world and asking pointed questions about food has turned Bourdain (whom The New York Times' media columnist David Carr has called "macho but not overbearing, profane without being coarse, and tall and handsome") into an increasingly important brand — and provided a key boost to CNN at a moment when the struggling network could really use one. After three seasons, Parts Unknown has emerged as a dependable bright spot on Sunday nights, pulling in an average of more than 400,000 viewers ages 25 to 54, No. 1 for cable news in the 9 p.m time slot.

The Taste

Bourdain singles out Jeff Zucker, CNN Worldwide's frequently battered president — who arrived shortly after the Parts Unknown deal was finalized — for high praise. "Ordinarily, you find yourself an orphan in that condition; just about any chief executive takes a wait-and-see attitude — they might get spattered with shit," says Bourdain. "He stepped up and embraced the project, saying, 'This is exactly what I'm all about,' even though it was a risky thing to be seen with us back then — a celebrity chef for CNN?! And we presented him with some very difficult material. That Japan show we did? I mean, [we discussed] tentacle porn, for f—'s sake!"

Zucker acknowledges that "some people initially were skeptical of having this TV food personality on the air, but he's shown everyone that you can learn as much from an episode of Parts Unknown as you can from any of our field reports. And that's an incredible thing."

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As American attention ping-pongs outward across the globe, from Middle East upheaval to the West African Ebola epidemic, it's Bourdain whose covertly revealing work increasingly has captured the zeitgeist. His style of barbed humanism is resonating beyond the headlines.

Bourdain insists he's still interested in what people put into their mouths, but it's clear he has become far more interested in how people put their thoughts into words. "People say many remarkable things to me, both on the camera and off," he says. In one breath, he warns that he's "not Bono," that "I don't consider myself a bleeding-heart liberal." In the next, several octaves lower, he intones somberly: "The world is filled with nice people who are ground under the wheel inevitably. They are regularly destroyed."

Bourdain is more likely to tell you what he's not than what he is. An elliptical thinker and discursive talker who rarely fails for words, he's also loath to label his evolving approach. But still, he knows he's on to something. In one-hour chunks, he is raising the ambitions of what a food show can be and redefining the boundaries of cable news programming, all while transcending the original pilgrim's purpose that made him famous: understanding the food of the world.

"We spend a lot of time having meals with people," says Bourdain. "But we're hunting bigger game."

In just a few weeks, Bourdain will be back on the road, straight through spring, shooting back-to-back seasons of Parts Unknown. "I feel an urgent need to keep moving," he says. Maybe so, but for now he's in the middle of shooting the third season of ABC's The Taste (returning in the winter), the cooking competition he co-executive produces and judges, in the gigantic Playa Vista hangar where Howard Hughes built the Spruce Goose, not far from LAX.

When weighing brand extensions or new ventures, Bourdain applies a “no assholes” rule of doing business. “At the end of the day, it’s a quality of life issue.”

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Compared to his typical globe-trotting schedule for Parts Unknown (he spent more than 150 days traveling for the production in 2013), the monthlong L.A. reprieve "is almost a suburban lifestyle for me." To be sure, it's one in which the New Yorker always bunks at the alluringly louche Chateau Marmont and spends his downtime exploring the "Asian and Latino spine" of the city's roiling restaurant culture with the likes of fellow feted high-low enthusiast Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning dining critic.

A cultish subset of Bourdain's purity-preoccupied fans, the ones who worship him as a hipster-deity, thought he'd sold out when he signed up for the decidedly broadcast-flavored Taste, which only has been a modest performer (a 1.2 rating in the key 18-to-49 demographic). But Bourdain doesn't care. "I don't have to explain myself," he says. "This bus makes many stops. I don't expect you to get off on all of them."

Truth be told, he finds the judging and mentoring process on the show engaging: "It's a competitive reality show; I don't know if we're learning any fundamental truths about human nature. But I am learning that there's some metaphysical ability that some people just have to put together the flavors you need right now."

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Don't let a cushy reality show gig mislead you: For a celebrity chef of his stature, Bourdain is hardly engaging in empire-building. He recently has cooked up a few side projects: a fancy Peruvian-cacao candy bar with his friend Eric Ripert, the Le Bernardin chef; a book imprint with Ecco Press (it published Kogi chef Roy Choi's memoir L.A. Son this year); writing for David Simon on HBO's Treme; a planned food hall in Manhattan dedicated to street eats. But that's about it; his focus is otherwise on the travel shows. He says he's constantly saying no to restaurant deals and endorsements: "I don't have a pots-and-pans line. Believe me, I've been offered a pots-and-pans line."

Would such glittering revenue streams be too time-consuming to handle? Or does he find it all distasteful? "It's not an integrity issue," he says. "At the end of the day, it's a quality-of-life issue." Bourdain's choices are, more than anything, determined by his "no assholes" rule of doing business. "Who's in my life? Who do I have to answer emails from? Who do I have to spend the few remaining hours of my life with?"

Aside from family time — "My summer vacation is very Updike-ian: I go out to the least interesting Hampton, where I'm least likely to see anyone I know; my daughter determines what we're going to do every day: beach or pool?" — he'd like to spend the remaining hours of his life on the road.

You could say Bourdain's journey to the Hamptons began with his funny, unvarnished 2000 memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, about the rough-and-tumble restaurant industry and his drug-fueled bildungsroman rise within it, finally emerging as the respected executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in Manhattan.

Out of the book's heat arose an ever-more-successful series of meal-minded international travel shows — first on Food Network with A Cook's Tour, then on Travel Channel with No Reservations (as well as the more conventional The Layover) before debuting on CNN in 2013 with Parts Unknown. (Bradley Cooper also starred as "Jack Bourdain" on a short-lived Fox sitcom adaptation of Kitchen Confidential, produced by Darren Star in 2005.) On the travel shows, he plays a world-weary Virgil to authenticity-seeking viewers who desperately don't want to resemble ugly Americans on their next trip. "Any guy that I ever talk to says he's one of the coolest guys in the world — and women love him," says Taste creator Chris Coelen, who built his show around Bourdain. "Plus, he's genuine."

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He also has cultivated a tell-it-like-it-is reputation that has yielded many high-profile food fights, from Alice Waters (deriding what he sees as her overprivileged, back-to-the-soil organic advocacy as "very Khmer Rouge") to Paula Deen (before she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, he castigated her as "the worst, most dangerous person to America" for her Southern-fried cooking style). All of which, along with his love of punk and propensity to hang out in dangerous places and a history of wearing leather jackets in press photos, has added up to a bad-boy reputation, one that he's eager to dispel.

Bourdain (here in Vietnam on
Parts Unknown) says people “open up” when you ask them a single question: “What’s for dinner?”

"I'm not saying I know who I am, but I'm pretty sure I know who I'm not," he says. "I was already not the bad boy when I wrote Kitchen Confidential. My leather jacket long ago went in the trash. My daughter [Ariane, with his wife, Ottavia Busia] was born in 2007. My earring and thumb ring went into the garbage that day. So if someone wants to come up to me and do the devil horns and go 'woo-hoo,' that's sweet, but we're not doing Jager shots until three in the morning."

New Jersey-born Bourdain, who now lives on New York's Upper East Side, takes pains to clarify that he doesn't, despite his quarrels, harbor contemptuous views of modern American food culture. "Even at its most annoying and ridiculous, it's been a very fast and positive series of changes," he says. "Life is good. We are on the road to enlightenment when people are eating some seriously funky kimchi." Which isn't to say he's fully satisfied. "Why Thai and not Filipino food, for instance? There are so many Filipinos in this country. I don't know. It's a question I ask myself."

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Slicing into a prime cut at Musso & Frank, Bourdain is a relentless raconteur. In one moment, he's illuminating the horror of being a dining-world celebrity whose digestive tract invariably is loved to death by the kitchen staff of any restaurant he enters: "It's called being food-f—ed: You want a hamburger, and suddenly all of these courses with foam begin appearing." Moments later, the 58-year-old will explain how he's obsessed with Brazilian jujitsu, his "weird personal human Jenga game," in large part to combat decades of hard living and the entropy of late middle age. "I'll never be any younger than I am. I'll never be any more desirable. But I do recognize that I can tie my shoes now without groaning."

But underneath the crass language and blunt jokes, Bourdain is serious about his journalism — even if he won't call it that. "On Taste, I'm a passenger on an ocean liner. With [Parts Unknown], I'm invested in every detail. It's my story from beginning to end, and it's very personal."

Exhibit A: The Provincetown, Mass., episode airing next season that touches on its Portuguese culinary influence but is "really about heroin." The connection is direct: "It looks at my road to heroin … and parallels what's really happening in small-town New England, which is just this absolutely stunning explosion of hard-core heroin use in small, white towns."

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Food no longer is mere subject. It's springboard and skeleton key. Now Bourdain can fully turn to matters of life and death.

Bourdain's blurring of the traditional conceits of travel television, which really is tourist television, has been the hallmark of his success. Increasingly, he has distanced himself from the cliches of the genre: over-the-top evocations of gorgeously lensed dishes, insider-only recommendations that instantly aren't by virtue of their airing. Yet his popularity has only grown.

He says his 2006 No Reservations experience in Beirut, when he and his crew became trapped amid the Israel-Lebanon War, "marked a big change. We realized we didn't have to have food in every act anymore; whether it was a food show or not, people would watch it." (The episode earned an Emmy nomination.) Now such a belief is his guiding M.O. "Libya" — where he shot an episode for the first season of Parts Unknown, two years into the post-Gadhafi era — "was not a food show, but the fact that we showed up there and asked: 'What do you eat? Where do you get water?' allowed us access to people and conversations that we probably never would have had."

Says Nigella Lawson, his co-star and co-executive producer on Taste: "He tries to show that food is about a culture — who they are, how hard it is. And then he turns that gaze back on America. Wherever he looks, it's about the story of people's lives."

He says his transition from Travel Channel to CNN has been ideal for this journey. "Suddenly we went from a culture of fear and uncertainty — 'What do people want? What will they not like? Is it safe? What are the numbers?' — to a company that says: 'What do you want to do? We like your work, we support you, go do whatever you want to do, wherever you want to do it. We'd like to help.' " Tom Vitale, his producer during both eras, says simply, "He can be more of himself now."

Bourdain cautions he's not consciously engaged in dining diplomacy: "That's not my intention or my agenda." He says that he's not a journalist, nor an advocate. "I'm certainly not a role model," he notes. "I'm not looking to inspire people. I'm looking to make interesting one-hour hunks of video. I want to let people lose themselves in other people's experiences in a successful way."

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So if exploring food itself apparently is no longer his focus, and he won't admit to anything so righteous as trying to help people better understand one another by breaking bread on TV, what is driving him? "It's intensely selfish," he says. "I don't have a lot of virtues. But I think curiosity is a virtue. I have a restless and curious mind, and I love going to places where the learning curve is incredibly steep, where it's just fraught with peril — just achieving breakfast in a foreign land where you don't speak the language."

Bourdain clearly has found a rare pocket in the pop culture ether, neither traditional food-and-travel TV nor social-issue TV but something distinct and substantive that, perhaps most importantly, viewers are tuning in for.

So he keeps setting out, across time zones, beyond borders, attempting to prove that the consumption of, say, sheep sphincter or boiled grasshopper is but a small divide in humanity's larger universality. "A lot of those moments, they will never be a story or an anecdote for the show. They are moments in time that change you as a person deep inside yourself, and to try to describe them is to cheapen them," he says. "You lock them away, and you either treasure them or you revisit them as a source of pain. But it's private."