Anthony Bourdain has been busy, and not just recently but for the past 13 years. The ex-chef turned writer, TV star, and food world provocateur hosts Parts Unknown on CNN and is involved in many other projects. On top of his already loaded schedule, Bourdain is taking part in a public conversation on filmmaking and culture with documentary legend Albert Maysles tomorrow night at the Society for Ethical Culture. Tickets are still available here.
We had the chance to chat with him this morning, fresh off the plane from Lyon, about his love of Maysles’s work, his approach to television, and the Brooklynization of the world.
Whose idea was it to get you and Albert Maysles together to talk? They contacted us! I was enormously flattered. I’m a huge film wonk, as is everybody on my crew, so it means a lot to us. When Albert Maysles calls up, that’s the pope calling as far as we’re concerned, so we’re very excited that he would even know who we are, much less acknowledge us in this way. It feels good.
A lot of Maysles’s most famous work—Grey Gardens especially—really captures the weirdness of the early '70s, which was around the time you started your own career cooking in New York City. How did his work have an impact on you when you were younger? Well, I come from a family where film was really big. My parents were both serious film fans, and I probably saw most of the Janus film collection by the time I was twelve. My dad would come home with a film projector—he worked at Willoughby's. Treasure of Sierra Madre I must have seen that by the time I was six.
I think he couldn’t bear his sons not having seen any Kubrick. He couldn’t wait. He took us out to see Dr. Strangelove a little too soon after the Cuban missile crisis for my taste, and probably at a younger age than most parenting organizations would recommend.
But film was a big deal, and the names Pennebaker and Maysles were names that we heard around the house. If there was a new Maysles brothers film out my dad would be recommending it. So these were names that meant something at the time. I saw Grey Gardens, I saw Salesmen, though it’s been many years. Gimme Shelter of course. Those things mattered.
What are you expecting, or hoping, the audience might take away from the conversation? Well any chance to highlight the technical aspects of how we tell stories on TV, I’m very proud of. I’m proud of the cinematographers and editors and post-production and colorists that work on the show. Our show is very different than a lot of the other travel shows for a number of reasons, and I think principally the sort of hand-crafted attention paid to things like color balances, individual editing styles, always pushing it with equipment, and sort of the language of sound of each individual episode—we talk about that a lot. We work really, really hard at it. And to be recognized for those things actually feels, in an unqualified way, good. To be recognized for that, by people who do it for a living, that’s the good stuff.
Parts Unknown definitely feels like a different show from what you’ve done in the past. Was there ever a conscious decision between you and the production team, or with CNN, to focus a little less on food and a little bit more on the people and places themselves? I think we just felt freer to wander in any place that interested us. We go in looking at the food, but we’re freer to wander away from anything resembling a format. These are personal essays.
Let’s put it this way: CNN has allowed us to be smarter. To either tighten the focus on one person’s story or one small area of one city or widen that focus to the whole history of a country. To be either completely food-centric like the coming Lyon show, or barely food-focused at all like the Congo episode. They made it very clear from the beginning that they were open to an hour of any story we wanted to tell, anywhere we wanted to tell them. And we felt very strongly that with CNN standing behind us, as they have solidly since the very beginning, that we had a lot to live up to. We didn’t want to just turn out the same show. We’ve tried very hard to up our game every week.
And we’ve handed them some very difficult material. We never would have been able to do Libya on another network. The DRC? No way. And I think the Japan show—with all the hentai culture—that was some difficult fucking material we handed down and they didn’t blink. I mean, no, they blinked. They blinked a lot. But in the end they stood by us and let us go with it.
And that makes a lot of sense. Each episode is a very direct, and I would say very focused, statement. It’s the conversation we have most often when we’re sitting around, me and the cinematographers and producers. We’re constantly pushing each other on what’s the most fucked up thing we can do. What can we do that we’ve never done before? We’ve been talking about shooting on 16 millimeter if we ever get the chance, and at some point we’re looking for the opportunity to tell an entire story backwards, like Memento.
If I fall in love with a film or a director, I’m often the guy to come in and say “Look, Wong Kar-wai! We have to rip off that style, we have to get that look.” It doesn’t matter if only one tiny percentile of our audience has ever seen these films we’re referencing. We’re free to be inspired by films that we love.
You wrote after airing the Detroit episode that “One only need to look at New York’s Lower East Side or Meat District to see what’s possibly coming down the pike for Detroit when it inevitably ‘recovers’.” Do you still think that? Do you see aspects of what Detroit’s going through as reminiscent of Manhattan? Well what will happen with Detroit I don’t know, and how long will it take, that I also don’t know. But I’m pretty sure that as it’s quote-unquote rehabilitated in bits and pieces that it is more likely than not that the people who have been sticking it out there all along are not going to be living in those neighborhoods.
I mean the Lower East Side went from a drug supermarket to an expensive neighborhood. I think it’s something that we always have to be wary of. It’s a subject of discussion in New Orleans, for instance. The influence of money and investment and hipness and artisanal coffee bars—that means that more often than not that original residents who have been hanging on are pushed out.
Do you buy into the notion, then, that artists and loft-dwellers are going to refab parts of Detroit as a kind of cheaper Brooklyn redux? It’s always part of a continuum. First come the artists, and then following the artists will be designers and the hip, wildly expensive boutiques, and then a couple of restaurants and then you’ve got a different neighborhood. I’m not even necessarily saying that’s bad. But that’s generally the way it is whether you’re talking about East Berlin or the Lower East Side.
The final episode of No Reservations featured Brooklyn. Could you ever picture a Parts Unknown episode that centers on New York City? I'm looking at the Bronx now. There’s been very little attention paid there. Other than Arthur Avenue there’s been very little attention paid to the Bronx as a borough. Queens is already pretty well acknowledged, at least, as a foodie paradise because of all the great Chinese and Korean places. That alone is enough to make it a kind of powerhouse of gastronomy.
And Brooklyn, you know, arguably we’re looking at the Brooklynization of the world at this point. Everywhere you go, whether you’re in Australia or England or Paris even, they’re referencing Brooklyn in some way. But the Bronx, I think that would be a really interesting challenge. A full hour in the Bronx really appeals to me.
You said last month “people who cannot afford to eat at Le Bernardin eat at Le Bernardin” and that young food lovers are saving up to eat at restaurants that are way beyond their price range. Do chefs think about this kind of younger, less reverent dining population? How is it changing the status quo? I think it’s improved the status quo. Le Bernardin completely redesigned the interior of the restaurant with this new customer very much in mind, looking to make things a little more comfortable and welcoming to a new client and yet keep the old ones happy. I think this is something that, particularly on the fine dining end, people are aware of and they’re grateful for it. It’s sort of awesome!
There’s no doubt about it that people in their 20s, people who used to spend their disposable income on cocaine or clubs or records or films or concerts, they’re not doing those things as much. They’re thinking about food and restaurants as an entertainment or cultural form, and I think that’s great. I think that the more people that know about food, care about food, appreciate food, the better for chefs and the better for the world.