A single-minded focus on what you think is best, rather than what others are telling you is best for you, can produce both victories and defeats. More than a decade in, it's clear which category Bourdain's travel TV is in.
Anthony Bourdain, now in his 14th year as a chef-turned-author-turned television host makes television for Anthony Bourdain.
His desire, along with that of his long-term production team at Zero Point Zero, is to make travel shows that don’t appeal to a well scrutinized demographic. But appeal they somehow manage to do, despite a decidedly contrarian approach to the modern grand tour. In his shows we see poverty, political conflict, development run amok, violence, and how people really live like locals. Even the scenic cathedrals have a complicated backstory.
And it is succeeding. Bourdain is on his third network and regularly wins his time slot: At CNN Bourdain has turned his Sunday evening segments into some of the channel’s most-watched non-election related programming, regularly doubling the audiences of Fox News and MSNBC combined.
“I don’t make television for an audience really,” Bourdain told Skift. “I make it for the same reasons when I cook. You don’t see the customers when you’re cooking in a kitchen. You put the plates up to the window and the highest and the best thing that could happen is the cooks on either side of you look at it in an approving way. You put it up fast, you put it up good.”
You would think that a profane ex-chef with outspoken views on everything would not play well with a mass audience. But Bourdain brings in more then the urban foodie set each week. His deep dives into a list of destinations that are as frequently found in Bradt guides as they are in Fodor’s manage to tell a story through food, engagement with local issues, and avoidance of popular tourist sites.
The latest season of Parts Unknown on CNN begins this Sunday night with a visit to Manila, the Philippines during a natural disaster and holiday celebrations. We spoke with Bourdain twice earlier this month. Those conversations have been edited and combined, below.
Skift: Someone at Travel Channel once told me that it was the channel people ended up on when the show they wanted to watch wasn’t on. Why isn’t travel TV more compelling?
Bourdain: It shouldn’t be hard. It should be easy. It’s the best job in the world. I have a ridiculous and very unusual amount of freedom to go where I want, do what I want, and tell stories the way I want. It’s something I wonder about when I watch other shows. Why don’t people just talk like normal people? Why do they use TV voice? That’s a question that I’m always struck by. Why do they have to stick with a format? You’ll notice at the end of every segment they always sum up what we just saw, then they tease out what we’re about to see after the commercial.
Television in general is an environment where most of people who work in television live in a state of perpetual terror that they’re going to wake up and not be on television anymore. They’ll do anything to not risk not being on television anymore. That means talking down to the audience, using TV voice, sticking with certain conventions to avoid brand erosion or confusion just in case you missed it. “You just saw the world’s best hamburger. Next we’re going to be eating a hamburger with avocado!” I don’t really understand that.
I guess I know that I could get another job if this one falls through.
It seems to me if you just talk like a normal person that would be a huge improvement on a lot of otherwise promising or good shows. I think there are exceptions. I think what Eddie Huang and Action Bronson [on Viceland] are doing is really refreshing for exactly that reason. They talk like they do in real life instead of “When we come back it’s not just burger … it’s a burger with bacon!”
Skift: How is your audience different now than when you were at Food Network or Travel Channel and how does that influence how you do your show?
Bourdain: Not at all. I don’t think about who my audience might be. That is the road to madness when you start thinking about “who’s watching,” “why do they like me,” “who are they,” “what is my demographic?”
That’s evil shit to start thinking like that.
I don’t make television for an audience really. I make it for the same reason when I cook. You don’t see the customers when you’re cooking in a kitchen. You put the plates up to the window and the highest and the best thing that could happen is the cooks on either side of you look at it in an approving way. You put it up fast, you put it up good.
I make television the way I do to please myself and the people I work with. We push each other to be creatively satisfied and have a good time and be different than what we did last week. I really, really don’t ever and never have thought about who might like me or not like me and what might they expect. Networks — thank God not this one — but my previous networks are all too happy to provide good hard data on what audiences like and who’s watching. That’s in my experience the beginning of a really ugly phase.
What audiences want is barbecue shows. I don’t want to do barbecue shows. Maybe one every five years. I like barbecue just fine. I don’t want to be standing there eating fucking corn dogs. I’m not running for president, thank God. I don’t have to eat corn dogs.
Skift: You’ve been doing television and traveling for about 14 years then. What do you think are the biggest changes over that period in how Americans both eat and travel?
Bourdain: If you do a poll of what motivates people to travel to a particular place, the food is now the number one reason. I’m sure that that’s a significant change. I think people are less interested, or at least I hope, scouting online to go up the Eiffel Tower, look around and then come down again. I think they’re looking to have a more, for lack of a better word, real experience.
Skift: You’ve used food as the way to get into sticky situations and get a conversation. Is there any other way to get into those conversations, or do you think that food is the essential way to connect with people?
Bourdain: As I said, it’s not the answer to world peace, but it’s a start. It’s the beginning of a conversation, and if you don’t eat what’s offered, if you’re unwilling to try people’s food, if you’re unwilling to eat out of your comfort zone in order to be a good guest, that’s the end of a conversation. It’s the end of any possible relationship, so all it is is a start. It’s a good start. The willingness to sit down and experience a little slice of life outside of and different than your own. Usually, that’s a very rewarding experience. Obviously, I love it, but, as I’ve found over the years, it’s opened up the world for me in really unexpected ways. I think it’s just a beginning of a conversation.
Skift: Chris Collins, one of your producing partners, spoke at our conference last fall. He said the spirit at the start of your show was creativity and utter confusion, which is good TV. You’re more than a decade in now. How do you keep this gonzo or independent spirit alive when you’re one of the top rated shows in your time slot?
Bourdain: If you talk about confusion, if the network is confused or they’re uncomfortable then we’re doing God’s work. It’s that simple. If our most loyal fans turn on the show and for the first five minutes already unsure that they’re watching the right show that’s a good day, too.
Skift: Food tourism seems to be a low-cost, high-return way for destinations to really differentiate themselves, and get people to come. It’s easier to have a great hot dog joint than to build an Eiffel Tower. What destinations out there do you think have leveraged their food scene to best push tourism.
Bourdain: I’d say probably Singapore. First of all, they’ve been very smart about understanding that their food culture is interesting and worth travelling for, and I think they’ve managed to preserve and protect, as best they can, other traditional food culture, while changing and taking into account modern requirements for health and safety, and traffic control, and that sort of thing. I think Singapore is probably the best example of a national push to promote their food.
Canada, particularly Quebec, could do a hell of a lot better. They have such amazing, amazing, food, and really great chefs and I think the interest’s there. I just don’t know that they’ve promoted it as well as they could.
Skift: Since you’ve been doing this for so long, you’ve gone back to some destinations. When do you know is the time to go back and take a second look, or a third look.
Bourdain: That’s sort of a personal challenge that we, me and the crew, ask ourselves all the time. Can we go back to Los Angeles and do another show in this most photographed of locations, but find a new perspective? A completely different look at it?
As soon as we can think of a different angle, a unique one, a creative one, that’s satisfying to me and my creative partners, we’re going. Especially if it’s a place that I love spending time in. We’re always looking for any excuse to go shoot in Vietnam. Rome, I’d love to keep going back to. Creatively, it’s satisfying to be able to figure out a way to go to a place that’s as over-photographed as L.A., and yet tell the story differently, from a unique point of view.
Skift: Right. You started at CNN when they were cutting back on bureaus, when most of the shows are Wolf Blitzer arguing with people in a room. How do you get to do things on CNN that in a way they don’t let their traditional journalists do anymore? The hour long deep dive into a destination?
Bourdain: When they first reached out we were shocked and sort disbelieving and skeptical. The first thing me and Chris and Lydia [Tenaglia, of Zero Point Zero] did was we picked up the three most difficult — the shows the Travel Channel hated the most, really, really hated and were most uncomfortable with. The most fucked up sort that didn’t even fit on Travel Channel much less ever on CNN. We sent them in and said “Are you sure? Could you watch these on a video then ask yourself are you sure you’re calling the right person?” They said “Yes, we know who we’re talking to. We like what you do. We’d like to help you be even better.” They’ve honored that initial commitment religiously since that first conversation.
I’ve never had a stupid conversation with CNN, ever. They’ve never called and started a conversation with “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if?” They’ve never called and said, never has a conversation started how about, never, nothing. There’s been almost no push back. We’ve sent them some really difficult stuff. I don’t know the answer to your question. I just know that they said they were going to be really cool to work with, that they would help me in any way that I wanted to be helped. They would give me unparalleled freedom to go anywhere. They would not restrain me from telling the stories I wanted to tell. They have honored that commitment. It can’t have been easy at times.
That Tokyo show with …
Skift: The bondage?
Bourdain: Rope bondage and tentacle porn, we knew were setting them up. Something that was really unlike anything they’d ever put on to be sure and was in a vulnerable time. Jeff Zucker had just come on board. People were very skeptical of what the fuck is CNN doing with some celebrity chef? It took real balls to put that up without a peep and they did. They have lived up to their initial commitment. Again, I’ve never had a stupid conversation. I’ve never had a conversation like that on the phone, wincing, wanting to pound my head into a wall — never.
Skift: You’ve kind of gone everywhere, eaten everything. I would imagine you get jaded at some times, but what still excites you about travel and food?
Bourdain: Places where I’m very aware that, no matter how many times I’ve been there. I know nothing. Japan is always going to be exciting to me because I will never know Japan. As often as I’ve been there, and as passionate as I am about the culture and the food, I understand that I will never know enough. I will never be comfortable with how much I know about the place.
Same with China. There’s just not enough time in this life, or any life to really know those subjects if you didn’t grow up in them. So that’s endlessly interesting, endlessly challenging, and endlessly gratifying to me. I like looking up a very steep learning curve, and struggling to at least feel less ignorant.
Bourdain: We’re looking forward to another book, this one on Spain, and we’re looking to expand what the site does. We’ll continue to do great journalism, telling stories that other people aren’t telling, and telling them better. We’re looking at going in a number of directions with the partnership and hoping that gives some overlap between Roads & Kingdoms and a lot of the other things that I’m doing.
I’m not looking to rule the world. I’m just very happy with the work at Roads, and very proud of the work that Roads & Kingdoms is doing, and I just want to bask in the reflected glory.
Skift: You can’t travel to destination, come back and tell hundreds of thousands of people about it without there being an effect on the place like Southeast Asia’s Lonely Planet Banana Pancake Trail. How do you think about your impact on a place once you’ve gone away and told everybody about it?
Bourdain: I think about it more and more. We try to do no harm. We try to do as little harm as possible. I am aware of the fact that I’m in the business of pointing a camera at cool little off-road places in the hope that the people from that neighborhood will be pleased and surprised.
If I go to a little dive bar in Manila, I’d like Philippinos that I bump into years later to say, “How did you find that place? Only neighborhood people know about that.”
On one hand that’s success because that’s exactly the type of place I like and exactly the kind of television we like to make. I also understand that by doing that oftentimes if I were to go back to that bar it would be filled with tourists. We changed the basic character of the place. There have been a few times where we just found a place that was so pristine and awesome that I just didn’t give the name or the location. We just said we shall call this Bar X. I’m not going to tell you where it is because you’ll fuck it up.
It’s something that we wrestle with and we try to be really careful about. We’ve really tried to not do harm. More often than not, most of the time a place gets busy. The owner’s perfectly happy to expand their business and maybe open up another store. That’s happened many times, particularly in Southeast Asia. The customers who loves it the way it was are less happy about things. I try to find a balance. Television can be a destructive force. However, much we may not want it to be, it’s something we think about.
More importantly, when we’re in a place like China or Cuba or Vietnam where the government pays attention, shall we say, to what people say as far as being critical of the government, we think very much about the fact that I could come back to New York and say whatever I want. I’m free to have an opinion. If I come back and shoot my mouth off I have to consider the people who were good to me when I was in the country. What the effect be on them? People have said how could you go to China and not talk about Tibet? A lot of people in China were really, really good to me and took a chance on me.
Iran is a better example. A lot of people took real risks to be welcoming in their home, to be honest with me in the hope that I would not go back and say something that would blow back on them. That’s something, those kinds of consequences are things that I think about. I’m not Dan Rather. The story doesn’t come first. You know what I mean?
Bourdain: I am willing to edit stuff out to not hurt people.
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Photo credit: Anthony Bourdain filming a scene in Manila, The Philippines, in the latest season of his CNN series Parts Unknown. CNN