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Anthony Bourdain has one of the most enviable jobs in food. Since the release of his explosive tell all book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly in 2000, which lifted the lid on the excesses of the restaurant industry and gave the pot a great big stir, the chef, author and broadcaster has been touring the world, making some of the most watchable food television going, from A Cook’s Tour, through to No Reservations and now the ninth season of his Emmy-winning show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN.
The latter has featured some unforgettable moments, from Bourdain sitting down with former US President Barack Obama for a beer and a bowl of noodles in a Hanoi cafe, to an eye opening trip to Iran, and a culinary pilgrimage to Lyon in the company of Daniel Boulud that brought our host to tears.
Now there’s an online guide to accompany the show. Explore Parts Unknown is a website that allows visitors to delve deeper into the stories Bourdain uncovers in each episode, with exclusive videos, field notes and recipes to bring each location to life and hopefully inspire the trip of a lifetime.
We spoke to Bourdain about the highs and lows of a life well travelled.
You’ve eaten in so many places over the years. What's the most memorable meal you’ve ever had?
There have been so many, but dinner at Sukiyabashi Jiro, one of the greatest sushi bars in the world, would be one of them. Simple things. I mean, magic moments are often about timing and not the food. Okay, the full incredible meal at The Bocuse in France with my hero, Paul Bocuse, with him right there serving me the greatest hits of his long and glorious career, that’s a meal where you could literally see me tearing up on camera.
Is there anything, though, you wouldn’t eat?
I've managed to successfully avoid eating dog for my entire career on television and travelling. I'm pretty happy about that.
No variation of dog? Not even wild dog?
I've been offered dog many times, but I've always been able to graciously decline without hurting anybody’s feelings or offending my host, I'm very grateful for that. I won’t order shark fin for ideological reasons, though I've been served it at weddings and I dutifully took a few mouthfuls. That’s about it. Anything else, I mean, how bad could it be?
You’ve had this gig for over 15 years now. How has it changed your approach to food and cooking?
I guess I see how hard people work in so many places in the world to make dinner, to get the ingredients for dinner, how much they can do with very little, how good food can be even when you have almost nothing. So, it’s given me an appreciation, a richer, deeper appreciation of food, and a less tolerant attitude towards waste.
How important do you think it is then, for chefs to travel as much as possible?
It’s the same with anybody else. I think you become a better person by travelling, and are more likely to empathise with other people. But I don’t think it’s necessary. In fact, some of the best cooks of the greatest meals I've had in my life have probably never left their town. They're grandmas and owners, or chefs of tiny little osterias in Rome, or street food stalls in Vietnam, so it’s not necessary for sure to be a great cook.
Back in the US, which restaurants and/or chefs are exciting you right now?
I think what Ludo Lefebvre does in Los Angeles at Les Trois Mec and elsewhere is really exciting. I'm always interested to look at my friend Eric Ripert’s new menu. I adore Mission Chinese in New York; I haven’t been to the one in San Francisco. Masa, that’s an incredibly expensive, but amazing experience. And I love Korean barbecue. I could eat the same 10 dishes … I'm happy at a Korean barbecue, that’s my default setting actually if I'm going out for dinner in New York.
Which is the toughest kitchen you’ve ever worked in?
Wow, there were a lot of them. I worked under a really domineering control-freak, hyper-organised owner years ago in the West Village. I called him Bigfoot in Kitchen Confidential. I still wake up reliantly, regardless of time zone, at 5:45 in the morning, every day, hyperventilating, because all these years later I'm afraid of being one minute late, because back in those days, you were one minute late, you got sent home. If you were one minute late the next day, you were fired. I've been in kitchens where, you know, getting physically hit, abused, or sexually harassed by other senior cooks was not uncommon. That was a long time ago.
Is that still prevalent today?
No, it’s a very different world. You could drink openly in a kitchen and even smoke in a kitchen when I started, and it was a predominantly male environment. Being the new cook at this one restaurant I started at in New York was really like being the new fish on the cell block.
So what’s next for you?
I'm just going to keep going, doing what I'm doing, as long as I can get away with it.