What a meeting with Anthony Bourdain taught an Indian food writer in Sri Lanka

Bourdain was a self-admitted ‘freak living outside the margins of society’ who gave forgotten places and foods the gift of being seen.

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.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Do you really need to use that plastic straw?

The hazards of single-use plastic items, and what to use instead.

In June 2018, a distressed whale in Thailand made headlines around the world. After an autopsy it’s cause of death was determined to be more than 80 plastic bags it had ingested. The pictures caused great concern and brought into focus the urgency of the fight against single-use plastic. This term refers to use-and-throw plastic products that are designed for one-time use, such as takeaway spoons and forks, polythene bags styrofoam cups etc. In its report on single-use plastics, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has described how single-use plastics have a far-reaching impact in the environment.

Dense quantity of plastic litter means sights such as the distressed whale in Thailand aren’t uncommon. Plastic products have been found in the airways and stomachs of hundreds of marine and land species. Plastic bags, especially, confuse turtles who mistake them for jellyfish - their food. They can even exacerbate health crises, such as a malarial outbreak, by clogging sewers and creating ideal conditions for vector-borne diseases to thrive. In 1988, poor drainage made worse by plastic clogging contributed to the devastating Bangladesh floods in which two-thirds of the country was submerged.

Plastic litter can, moreover, cause physiological harm. Burning plastic waste for cooking fuel and in open air pits releases harmful gases in the air, contributing to poor air quality especially in poorer countries where these practices are common. But plastic needn’t even be burned to cause physiological harm. The toxic chemical additives in the manufacturing process of plastics remain in animal tissue, which is then consumed by humans. These highly toxic and carcinogenic substances (benzene, styrene etc.) can cause damage to nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs.

The European Commission recently released a list of top 10 single-use plastic items that it plans to ban in the near future. These items are ubiquitous as trash across the world’s beaches, even the pristine, seemingly untouched ones. Some of them, such as styrofoam cups, take up to a 1,000 years to photodegrade (the breakdown of substances by exposure to UV and infrared rays from sunlight), disintegrating into microplastics, another health hazard.

More than 60 countries have introduced levies and bans to discourage the use of single-use plastics. Morocco and Rwanda have emerged as inspiring success stories of such policies. Rwanda, in fact, is now among the cleanest countries on Earth. In India, Maharashtra became the 18th state to effect a ban on disposable plastic items in March 2018. Now India plans to replicate the decision on a national level, aiming to eliminate single-use plastics entirely by 2022. While government efforts are important to encourage industries to redesign their production methods, individuals too can take steps to minimise their consumption, and littering, of single-use plastics. Most of these actions are low on effort, but can cause a significant reduction in plastic waste in the environment, if the return of Olive Ridley turtles to a Mumbai beach are anything to go by.

To know more about the single-use plastics problem, visit Planet or Plastic portal, National Geographic’s multi-year effort to raise awareness about the global plastic trash crisis. From microplastics in cosmetics to haunting art on plastic pollution, Planet or Plastic is a comprehensive resource on the problem. You can take the pledge to reduce your use of single-use plastics, here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of National Geographic, and not by the Scroll editorial team.