The premiere episode of the latest season of "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" finds Tony in Cuba, land of cigars, classic cars and Castro, trying to burrow beneath the surface of America's most unknowable neighbor.
This episode should be of particular interest for globetrotting Americans. With President Obama having recently eased travel restrictions and eight U.S. airports now cleared for charter flights to the country, increased American travel to Cuba is on the horizon.
Tony caught up with HuffPost Travel from Hong Kong, offering some insights into Cuba and talking about what's next for "No Reservations."
Had you been to Cuba before filming this episode of No Reservations? If so, are there any changes you noticed?
No. I'd never been to Cuba before this trip, but it's been an ambition for some time.
What drew you to Cuba? How would you describe the experience you had there?
It's hard to know the true meaning of what I saw and experienced in Cuba as people are still guarded about what they say. The country is clearly headed for some major changes in the very near future. Everybody seems to be holding their breath with anticipation, not knowing what comes next and how events will unfold.
Personally, I'll be fascinated to see if with the inevitable changes – positive ones, like freedom of the press, freedom of speech, connection to the rest of the world, freedom to leave, to move around internally more easily – the country loses some of the uniquely good things like the unspoiled (if run down and crumbling) beauty of Havana. Or, the joy of pure baseball and the cars. I'd hate to see Havana look like Miami in a few years.
Did anything about the country surprise you?
First off, the beauty of the place was thrilling.
I was surprised by how frank and open people were with me – mostly off camera, but sometimes on. The kindness, pride, humor and generosity of the people everywhere, plus their curiosity about the outside world and engagement was compelling. And, the cleverness of the official tourism people – the fact that they recognized what visitors look for in Cuba and that the renovations they are doing are so often respectful of the original structures. Few societies I've seen – particularly communist ones – are so discerning.
Give us one reason we must visit Cuba. And, are there any sites or restaurants we have to hit?
The people of Cuba are the best feature. They've had a tough time of it. Life has been hard for a very, very long time. Just to get by, to eat, to raise a family requires seriously shrewd improvisations and a lot of work. That they've managed to retain a sense of humor after 50 years of food rationing is amazing.
As far as restaurants, there are restaurants for tourists and government types, and then there's what Cubans eat – which is pretty simple at best. Average Cubans could never afford to eat in any of the lavishly restored restaurants for the tourist trades, as even the government readily admits. But at every income level, the "sleeping beans" are awesome.
Speaking of food, what was the most memorable dish you ate there? Can it even compare to the Cuban food we have stateside?
Meat is a luxury. So there no way to fairly compare what the average Cuban cooks and what we take for granted. But like any great cooking culture, they do a lot with a little.
What can we look forward to this season? Are there any other locations that stuck out for you particularly?
Of this season's highlights, I'm particularly proud and excited about our show at El Bulli in Spain. It's a very detailed look at one if the last meals ever to be served in one of the world's greatest restaurants. We enjoyed extraordinary access thanks to Ferran Adria and his brother Albert and my friend Jose Andres. For hardcore foodies, it'll be pure crack. And important culinary history.
Iraqi Kurdistan was eye opening and something of an adventure. I think people will be very surprised by what we filmed. Then there's a desert show with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age who scored the whole episode and provided music that indie rock fans should love and foodies will no doubt be confused or even appalled by (which is good, because we very much enjoy changing the game now and again).
My notorious Russian sidekick, Zamir returns for a Ukraine show, with time spent at the reactor at Chernobyl. And the Naples show, where we try and follow the "red sauce trail" from New York back to it's source in Italy, is gorgeous. I'm really pleased with the New Orleans/Cajun country show we did too because we piggybacked off of the HBO series Treme's hard work and research and connections. The brilliant actor Wendell Pierce from the show appears and I'm curious to see if creator/producer David Simon, who hung with us off camera during a Cajun pig feast, manages to pop up in the background of some shots. All in all, some of our best work this season. As always, we tried very very hard to push ourselves and find new ways to tell a story.
When hitting the road to all these places, what is the one item you can't leave home without?
I can't travel without my iPad. Maybe because I spend so much time in airports and airplanes, I became quickly addicted to having easy access to e-books, movies, games, e-mail and internet so portable. I am increasingly becoming something of a serial tweeter as well.
What's your favorite place to travel?
My favorite places to travel, and I think my whole crew would agree, are anywhere in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. Also, Japan.
Italy barely feels like work and is always a good time, particularly as I will bring family along. And, Spain is magic.
I'm really hoping to shoot in Libya this fall. We've been working with some very nice, very cool and extremely capable security guys lately when we go to potential hot spots like Iraq. And they make every place fun and have opened up a lot of possibilities for going places we might otherwise have never considered.
Had any embarrassing travel mishaps?
Travel mishaps? The unwritten rule of our show is if I, or any of the crew, have an embarrassing mishap or humiliating moment, it ends up in the show. It's all in the game.
To watch Tony in Cuba, tune into the new season of "No Reservations" July 11 at 9 p.m. Eastern on the Travel Channel.