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Though he has built a career on his steely, iconoclastic worldview, Anthony Bourdain always follows one rule wherever he travels: Never reject a host's hospitality.
The former chef behind CNN's "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown" often brandishes this etiquette advice like a blunt instrument, using it to, say, admonish vegans for upsetting a foreign host rather than setting aside their principles for a night to eat meat. But as Bourdain reminded an audience during his "Guts and Glory" show May 13 in Washington, he has suffered the consequences of his own philosophy.
Like the time he went to Russia and catalogued the vodka shots he was required to down with each meal: two to four for breakfast, seven to nine for lunch and 14 to 19 for dinner. Puking wasn't even a question, he told an audience of about 3,600. It was an inevitability. "You're just hoping to get out the door in a dignified fashion," he said.
Bourdain had no such problem during the most recent episode of "Parts Unknown," which was filmed in Libya, where the official sale and consumption of alcohol is prohibited on religious grounds (although illegal hooch is widely available, as a recent alcohol poisoning case proves). Perhaps it's no coincidence that Bourdain believes, as he said backstage before the Washington show, that the Libya show was "the best work I've ever done anywhere."
I was curious as to why he valued it above his other work, including the seminal "Kitchen Confidential," a memoir that I consider a pioneering piece of gastronomic literature, the slacker bible of the mid-level hash slinger. We discussed that and other matters during a short Q & A session.
Q: Why do you think the Libya show is the best thing you've done?
A: (We were) having conversations with really interesting people saying incredible things, where you are sort of holding your breath, thinking, "Just keep talking, keep talking, keep talking, keep talking." It's also a beautifully photographed and beautifully edited piece of work.
Q: Did you get clearance before the Benghazi attack or was this all afterward?
A: This was all afterward, but we had been setting the show up for two years. Benghazi certainly wasn't helpful.
Q: How difficult was it to get access?
A: CNN made it happen. That's one of the many reasons that it's been really, really great working with CNN. They never blinked. They made it happen. And they were open as the situation changed; they weren't hyperventilating. CNN people deal with these situations all the time. We don't.
Q: I saw the Myanmar (Burma) episode, and while there was food, there was also politics. I don't know if this jump to CNN has afforded you more of a platform to investigate your other interests, namely politics.
A: This is not a platform for my political point of view. If a story presents itself, I feel freer to wander away from the food, if there's history or culture or stuff going on. But that's definitely not an agenda. Shortly after Myanmar, there was Quebec, which was one long gorge-fest of self-indulgence and food. I just feel free to tell any story I want.
Q: How deep into politics did you get in Libya?
A: A young militia member took me to this place called Uncle Kentaki and Kentaki Fried Chicken. It was a Libyan knockoff of the Colonel because, of course, the Colonel ain't showing up anytime soon. He was like, "Look, look what we have now! We're like you now! This is the taste of freedom!" He was practically in tears of joy that people could start privately owned restaurants within Tripoli and that they could be Western-style, youth-oriented, the things that he knows that we have and that Europeans have.
Q: How do you pick your destinations?
A: I look at a map. I read books. Watch the news. I see movies. It can be nothing more intelligent than talking to someone at a bar ... after which I say, "That sounds cool." With the Congo, I'm obsessed with "Apocalypse Now" and "Heart of Darkness." I'm just living the little boy dream, you know. My little boy wanted to go to faraway places and have exciting adventures.
Q: When you actually go to these places, do you get to experience them as a tourist at all?
A: It's weird. Sometimes the (stuff) that's happening on camera is so awesome, and the travel to get there is so awesome, that I pick up a lot while shooting. But no, it's the downtime with the crew when I definitely get the good stuff. Sometimes. You get those things that you can't describe, you can't tell anybody about. Those wordless moments sitting out on a sand dune looking out over the Sahara. We all look at each other and say, "Pretty cool."