Anthony Bourdain dishes on 'The Layover' and life as a TV foodie
Anthony Bourdain, the chef-turned-writer-turned-gonzo-television host, has judged “Top Chef,” hosted “No Reservations” and written for “Treme.” He talked over lunch in New York (sausage baguette and beer) and later via phone, about many projects, including his new show “The Layover.” It’s a fast-paced, practical travel guide in which he fashions himself as Rick Steves for people too hip to know who Rick Steves is. It airs Mondays on the Travel Channel.
Did you shoot your new show, “The Layover,” during actual layovers of “No Reservations”?
No, but I shot each show in 48 hours (we left crews behind to shoot B roll). We were looking for something we could do fast and nasty. I did what would ordinarily take me five days in two.
The recommendations are really highlighted.
Unlike “No Reservations,” it’s trying to be useful. These are replicable experiences, whereas “No Reservations” isn’t.
Do you worry that your recommendations might change the nature of some of these places?
It’s something I have been wrestling with for years. I will go to some tiny place that I love for the very reason that there’s no Americans there; say, a dirty little place in Bali serving the best roast pig I’ve ever had. The next time I go, after I’ve done a show about it, they’ve had to expand and there are tons of tourists.
I have mixed emotions. In almost every case, the small-business people themselves feel pretty good about it. I hope I’m not destroying the character or ruining it for the locals who’ve been going there all along, but I’m sure that happens, and I’ll tell you honestly that I’m sorry about it. I’m killing the things I love. I completely understand [someone saying] you really ruined it for me — I used to wait 15 minutes for a hot dog at Hot Doug’s in Chicago, and now it’s an hour and a half.
Oh, maybe I’m not going to get a hot dog at Hot Doug’s.
It’s still worth the wait.
It sounds a little brutal putting this show together. Why did you decide to do it?
I didn’t know it was going to be so hard. One of the reasons we did it was because it was a challenge; we wondered if it was possible. We talked a lot about technology; one of our directors of photography managed to convince Panavision to lend us some film lenses. We found that these lenses would allow us to shoot essentially 24 hours a day without any light source at all; we wouldn’t need to have any lighting other than natural lighting. That allowed us to move a lot faster, to bring a new look than we’d used on “No Reservations.”
What was your scariest experience you had traveling with “No Reservations”?
Liberia. There was no infrastructure. There were a lot of hungry people — we’re in a market surrounded by hungry people, unemployed, with no police presence. It is a state with a history of violence so lurid and surrealistic that it’s beyond imagining. It’s a heartbreaking story — it’s a failed utopia. It’s hot, it’s dirty.... In a tribal situation, hygiene is not necessarily the best. I was horribly poisoned.
The story of Liberia isn’t well known — do you think “No Reservations" can teach people about the world?
I have no mission on the show other than to satisfy my own curiosity. To live out my little-boy fantasies of going to far-away places like I read in adventure books as a kid. And to make increasingly challenging and interesting television — I mean challenging and interesting principally for me and the camera crew. How can we make a show that looks like a Wong Kar Wai film? If everybody loved last week’s episode, then we have to find a way to do the exact opposite this week. We are lucky enough, largely because I got the show on the strength of an obnoxious book — I’m pretty sure I have as much creative freedom as anyone has ever had in the history of television. The network has been very, very cool about what they let us show. I shot a pig in the brain on camera: you see the pig go down.
Did you get a lot of flak about that?
Surprisingly, no. I got a lot of good reaction, people saying it was ugly, I had to turn away, but that’s where meat comes from, isn’t it? I’m not some outdoorsy hunting type, but they were going to do it anyway, for me, so I said, it’s my responsibility; I’ll do it. David Simon showed up at 6 o’clock in the morning just to see me do it. I think he flew from Baltimore; it was at a Cajun boucherie. We piggy-backed on a lot of their research for “Treme.”
What exactly is your role on “Treme”?
I write for the show. I was covering one character [Janette Desautel, played by Kim Dickens] — we knew at the beginning of the season we were going to send her to New York, and at the end of the season we were going to bring her back. I had pretty much free rein from then on to create characters, dialogue. I’d never done anything like it, and it was easily the joy of my life professionally. It was deeply, deeply satisfying and fun. I’m the biggest "Wire" wonk going, so when I got a call from him [David Simon] out of the blue, I got a serious case of the vapors.... It’s the first time I’ve ever written dramatic stuff for television, so to write a scene and then have people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars creating it, it’s pretty awesome.
Have you learned anything new from writing for “Treme”?
After a couple of sentences, you’re on dangerous ground. It’s a visual medium: Less is more. One of the greatest scenes ever in “The Wire” is that long scene [with a single expletive repeated over and over]. I have nothing to teach anybody about writing for television other than that working with David Simon is really, really fun.
What’s it like judging “Top Chef”? Will you be back?
I love doing it, I just don’t have the time. I do it because it’s really fun cracking up Tom Coliccho. He’s a very serious guy, and he’s usually serious on the show. I have a lot of respect for him. And it’s fun! You’re sitting there drinking gin, eating pretty good food. Pretty good to very good.
We’ve all got big shaker glasses of gin under the table. By the time it’s “pack your knives and go".... We’ve argued over who goes home for as much as two hours, and the shoot is very long, 16 hours straight is not unusual. It’s a hard thing that’s asked of these contestants. Through cunning, experience, age, strategy and stealth, I might have been able to finesse myself to not being the worst through five episodes.
We’ve seen you travel and eat and drink for years now. Are we going to see you go to the hotel gym in “The Layover”?
I hate nothing more than getting on the elevator first thing in the morning and some sonofabitch is there in a jogging outfit. I’d really like to do that, but I never have. It makes me feel bad about myself seeing people get up early and going to the gym when I’m headed out to shove more food in my face.
You Tweet as @NoReservations and have more than 600,000 followers. What do you think of Twitter?
I look at Twitter not so much as interacting with fans as a challenge, like composing haiku. I’m satisfied by the challenge of jamming content into that many characters. To drive ratings, I live Tweet during the broadcast of the show, so people will watch it during the time period; almost no one watches it anymore because they Tivo.
You’re not fond of L.A., are you?
I’m such a hypocrite about it. I’ll gripe about it for the first 10 minutes, but then I’ll grab myself an In-n-Out burger and a convertible. The fact is, I want to die at the Chateau Marmont. As long as you put me up at the Chateau, my standards go down — I’ll appear in a stupid show. Jonathan Gold is a personal hero to me: if Jonathan Gold says it’s good, it’s great. What L.A. does better than just about anywhere in the country is that low-end, strip mall Thai, Korean, Japanese, Mexican. San Francisco maybe has better midrange; New York has better high end. But L.A. has it over just about everybody on the low end, and I love that stuff.
Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of places to go on your shows?
No. I could spend a whole year in China and still not scratch the surface. The minute it’s not fun, the minute it’s not interesting, I’ll stop. There are many more dignified things to do than appearing on television.
— Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Anthony Bourdain visits Los Angeles on "The Layover." Credit: Travel Channel.