Last year, on a moody, overcast May afternoon, I waited with anticipation to meet and interview Anthony Bourdain. A few weeks before, Tom Vitale and Jeff Allen, the director and producer of the Emmy Award-winning CNN show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, had reached out to me about an episode they were planning to film in Sri Lanka. For nearly a month, we had brainstormed about the socio-political climate in Sri Lanka, hole-in-the-wall restaurants of the sort that Bourdain favoured, and the best haunts for Jaffna crab curry.
As a food and travel writer who had moved to Sri Lanka only three years before, the opportunity to contribute to Parts Unknown felt like a career-defining moment. I had always been acutely aware of the weighty responsibility implicit in writing about a country that I was only just getting to know – which only sharpened my desire to make the most of my short interaction with Tony, as the crew called him. After all, he had crafted a wildly successful global career in television doing the same thing.
Until Bourdain swept onto our screens in the early 2000s as the lanky host of No Reservations, with his trademark tattoos, deep baritone and wry humour, often broken by a cheeky grin, travel shows felt like carefully curated picture postcards. Apart from a few shows, such as TLC’s Globe Trekker hosted by the goofy and affable Ian Wright, travel shows seemed impossibly remote, scrupulously scrubbed clean of the gritty reality – and the true cost – of experiencing the world.
Bourdain challenged this voyeuristic style of travel journalism – although he took pains to clarify that he was not a journalist, preferring instead to be called an “enthusiast”. On his frequent travels to places such as Haiti, Lebanon, Senegal and Iran, which would not feature on the average travel brochure, he subtly recalibrated expectations of what travel could mean, of the heft that those collective experiences could carry. His voracious appetite and abiding interest in seeking out authentic food experiences – whether it was in a nondescript noodle shop or a family home – emboldened a generation of travellers to chart offbeat itineraries, and to try foods that would otherwise remain separated by an intractable cultural divide.
In preparation for that evening, I wondered what I could possibly ask Tony that he hadn’t been asked before. One of the most interviewed celebrities of our age, he had been quizzed about everything, from his views on American politics (“Our president is a ****ing joke,” he said, in all seriousness, after my tape had stopped rolling) to the craziest things he had eaten (a question he had grown tired of answering, I was told).
In early 2017, he had been profiled poignantly in the New Yorker, a story so thoroughly researched and engaging told that I wished I could have written it. I was curious about how much his onscreen persona matched his real-life one. I also wanted to understand whether the meaning of travel had changed for him – both personally and professionally – after nearly two decades on the road.
Settling down with a large gin and tonic, Tony committed completely to the interview. Where I had assumed that he perhaps had a well-stocked arsenal of answers, he listened carefully to each question, fixing me with his intent gaze as he worked out his response. I asked him whether, in a shrinking world where travel is easier than it has been in any other era, there really were that many parts that remained unknown. “I think what’s unknown these days...[is] almost increased,” he said. “We’re living in a world...where there is a rising tide of nationalism and inward-looking mentality. The world is very big, and we will never run out of places. I think we can go back just to Los Angeles again and again and again, and show aspects of Los Angeles that most Americans have never seen. I don’t feel at peril of running out of places or aspects of culture that are relatively unknown or haven’t been explored.”
Unfathomable to those of us for whom travel is a means to reboot our routine lives – and not upend it completely – Tony spent most part of the year travelling on a punishing shooting schedule. Although his life as we saw it seemed like an idyll to aspire for, I asked him whether he missed being rooted to one place. “I had 30 years standing on my feet in a rooted place,” he said, referring to the time he spent in restaurant kitchens in the United States. “I wasn’t good at that. I don’t miss that. It’s like that line from Apocalypse Now: ‘When I’m there, I want to be here. When I’m here, I don’t want to be there.’”
Yet, he paused to tell me about the off-camera aspects of his unconventional life choice, words that seem almost prescient now. “It’s a strange life. It’s both liberating, exciting, humbling and alienating. I spend 250 days of the year waking up in hotel rooms around the world. It is a privileged place to be for sure – I believe that I have the best job in the world. On the other hand, it’s not normal. I’m a freak. I live outside the margins of society, of normal life or relationships or any hope of having any of those things.”
With each episode of Parts Unknown, Tony and his team created what he once described in a television interview as “a series of standalone essays that generally try to focus on the subject of food and where it comes from, but not always”. Until I had the opportunity to feel, albeit from a distance, the adrenaline and creative energy that went into the crafting of an episode, I had always been content with the possibilities of the written word. Yet, after my brief interaction with Tony and his talented team, I felt buoyed by his irrepressible enthusiasm for television. Even as I harboured dreams of working on the show some day, I began to understand why he was so often besieged by clamouring fans, and why his Instagram account was overrun with people begging him to visit their hometowns.
He visited the places that television had forgotten, ate the food that few had heard of, and lent them the gift of being seen and heard. As for me, he inspired me to keep telling stories about the country I now call home – to explore boldly but keep my footprint light.