Anthony Bourdain On 'The Layover,' Writing And Why The U.S. Should Be More Like Vietnam
If chefs belong in the kitchen and celebrities belong in the skies, jetting from one glamorous locale to another, then Anthony Bourdain has officially landed in the latter category. The author and world traveler is talking to us from the backseat of a car in New York en route to the airport, where he'll depart for Tokyo -- after a quick layover Washington, D.C.
Did you get all of that? No matter: Bourdain travels 240 days out of the year and has cooked up an enviable career out of combining culture with cravings, airports with anecdotes, layovers with leisure. If "No Reservations" is all about Tony doing whatever the hell he wants, then his new show, "The Layover," would be his CliffsNotes: a snappy one-hour manual of where-to-go's and what-to-eats in major metropolitan cities, with Tony still doing, well, whatever the hell he wants during a 24- to 48-hour period.
"We're trying, in our own clumsy, dysfunctional way, to do a show that's actually useful," Bourdain says.
This is good news, coming from the guy who once slung back the still-beating heart of a cobra and gamely participated in an Inuit Eskimo family's feast of raw seal. Part of the pleasure in watching Tony has always been watching him confront the grit and gristle of the developing world head-on.
But does "The Layover," shot concurrently with "No Reservations," count as just another addition to Bourdain's rapidly growing empire that now includes two television shows, ten books, his own publishing company, screenwriting credits for HBO's New Orleans drama "Treme" and a graphic novel in the works? Aren't those recent nudie TMZ photos evidence, if there were ever any, of his bonafide celebrity brand?
Tony scoffs at the idea. "I don't give a shit about a brand," he says. "I don't want assholes calling me up all day. That's where real money is made."
Hey Tony! "No Reservations" has been on air successfully for seven years. Why come out with "The Layover" now?
"No Reservations" is more about being out and having fun, and indulging my curiosity and a child-like desire for adventure late in life. You can't actually recreate those things or many those experiences. This is trying to be functional and take -- let's face it -- a pretty conventional format and mess with it as much as we can. It's always terrible for us when I hear people going to a place like Rome or Hong Kong and they go to absolutely the wrong place when it's so easy to go to a really typical, cool place that cuts to the heart of the culture.
What happens to an establishment after you've shot an episode there?
A successful show for me is finding an off-the-road place that really hasn't been discovered, hasn't been ruined yet. And I love it, I have a great time, I share that with people. And in doing so, I do ruin it. I'm killing the things I love in some way. I think the businesses themselves are pretty happy with the increased business. But places that are really popular with locals -- they see it as their place, and after the show airs, they show up and they're like 'who are all these Americans in Singapore?'
We've gotta ask: How do you stay so slim? We wouldn't be able to lift ourselves out of the chair by now ...
It was tough on "Layover" because of the compressed schedule. Ordinarily I try to schedule downtime. If I'm eating two imperial Chinese meals I try to put room in between meals. That wasn't always possible on "Layover." I don't exercise. I don't have time, and even if I was, I'm not that sort of person. But I don't snack, I don't eat breakfast, I don't eat sweets. I don't drink soda. That's not a sacrifice for me. I used to be able to eat with reckless abandon and never gain weight. Now I'm shooting in Italy and the south of France in the same period, I've gotta schedule myself a country with a lighter cuisine afterwards or we're all gaining ten pounds.
Speaking of lighter cuisine, is there a country whose eating habits and cuisine that you think America can learn from?
I think Vietnam would be a really good example. To some extent, Spain. But Vietnam: It's really tasty, flavorful, local, fresh, cheap and just incredibly delicious and with very low impact on the body.
If we remember correctly, one of your "No Reservations" episodes was dedicated to the idea of you moving there...
The idea was to go for a year and write a book about the experience, but when I signed that book deal I expected the show to be canceled by now. It's come as a surprise to me that we're still on the air. I can't believe I’m getting away with this shit.
Okay! Let's say we have just 24 hours to eat in some place truly amazing. What place would you recommend?
If you got a lot of money to spend and you want to eat the best of the best, Tokyo would be pretty amazing. But for the most bang for your buck, the most variety, the most vibrant street food culture, the best of Chinese, Malay, Indian, the most just all around food madness, it's hard to beat Singapore and their hawker culture -- their food stands, their food stalls, their food courts.
You've been a big proponent of street food ever since we can remember. But isn't some street food just as unhealthy -- or worse -- than the kinds of processed, canned food you've famously slammed Paula Dean and Rachael Ray for using?
If you look at Vietnamese street food or a lot of Chinese and Singaporian street food, it is a rebuke to American fast food. It is food that you can eat. It's certainly fast food, [but] it's affordable to the working poor, it's delicious, it's supportive of individually owned and operated independent businesses rather than some big evil corporation. It's democratic. A bowl of pho in Vietnam is a hell of a lot better for you than anything that came out of McDonald's and it's certainly a hell of lot of better for you than a lot of the novelty food that you see on TV. A Krispy Kreme donut or a Cinnabun for God’s sake. I don't know anyone's that's gotten sick from eating in Singapore. They are relentlessly careful -- their health and safety requirements in Singapore are about as scrupulous as it gets anywhere. These are places that are set up to serve their communities. These people were not in business year after year poisoning their neighbors.
Do you really hate vegetarians?
I just don't really understand how you can graciously travel in the developing world, as opposed to the industrialized world, and not hurt people's feelings or not go off from experiences that I see as transformative and life-changing and enriching. To go to Thailand and say beforehand that you're not going to eat 90 percent of this amazing cuisine that's thousands of years old -- I just don’t understand that.
Do you consider yourself more of a writer than a chef? How would you say other people in the industry view you?
There's no question about it, I'm no longer a chef. It's been ten years since I worked regularly as a chef. While I feel I earned the title after 28 years of doing it, I do not consider myself a chef because I don't work as one and I would hope that my former colleagues were fully aware of it. I travel 240 days a year, I'm of no use and could be of no use to anyone in a professional kitchen. And honestly I barely have the time to cook for myself at home. If I were looking for a food critic, I would be the last person I'd hire. I'm an enthusiast at best. I see myself as an essayist. I don't know if what I write is about food. It’s often seen through that prism. I write TV shows, I write film criticism, I write about myself. So food writer, maybe. Food critic, definitely not.
You know, the world just can't seem to get enough of you. But at the same time, with all of your recent accomplishments, the word "brand" comes to mind...
I don't give a shit about a brand. I don't know what it means. It doesn't sound like a good thing. I make my decisions on a case by case basis. I like comic books, I was given the opportunity to work with really great people doing one. I'm sure I'm not going to get rich doing it, but I did it because I can and because I like comic books. I'm writing for "Treme" because I really look up and admire David Simon. It's deeply, intensely, creatively satisfying. It makes me happy. If I were building a brand my time would be better spent on the home shopping network. I can assure you those opportunities have presented themselves. I want to be happy. That would not make me happy. I also don't like to get involved in business with anybody I don’t want to talk on the phone. I don't want assholes calling me up all day. That's where real money is made. Cut down on the number of assholes I have to speak with. That's not the way you build a brand, saying I'm not going to work with anybody who I don't like and admire. I’ve been really lucky, you know. I've been able to make television for almost ten years the way I want with the people I want without much input or constraint for anybody, that's working out pretty good for me, so I see no reason to change any other part of my life. I never thought about writing for television, a dramatic series or anything else. But when David Simon calls -- oh hell yeah.
"The Layover" debuts on the Travel Channel on November 21st.