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Anthony Bourdain Eats the World
May 25, 2012  | By Eric Gould

Editor's Note: On Tuesday, May 29, CNN announced that Anthony Bourdain was joining the news network as host of a new weekend program in which Bourdain will travel the world looking at food and dining rituals. He will also provide commentary on other CNN programs. Bourdain's new CNN show is slated to air Sundays in primetime, and will launch in early 2013.

It's sometimes hard to tell whether Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations main focus really is on food, given the attention paid to culture, geography and politics.

On a recent, fascinating trip to Mozambique, for instance, Bourdain clearly found impossible not to discuss that nation's history of civil war, and the slow recovery from its devastating effects. The local food — an amazing melding of African, Arab and Mediterranean influences — was, of course, showcased, but there also were very somber discussions with residents about how, twenty years later, the country has not recovered from the nihilism that happened there.

On one of the show's recent on-air promos, Bourdain said: "We've been doing it for eight years, and I still don't know what the show's about."  And maybe that's the best thing about No Reservations, the food-oriented travelogue that debuted on the Travel Channel in 2005.

Bourdain is committed to avoiding anything remotely mainstream or touristy. He is passionate about tapping into the real feel of a place, and that means going off the grid, talking to the locals, discussing the history and finding the most down-beat spots with the best, most authentic food. While most globetrotting travel-show hosts would profile places pitched by tourism bureaus and restaurant publicists, Bourdain is more apt to get recommendations from a random cab driver or stranger in the street.

In addition to the Mozambique trip, Bourdain this season has visited the Croatian coast (left)  — and didn't duck talking about the Balkan war with his guides there.

He's also traveled to Finland, trudging through the winter gloom for reindeer carpacio, a shot-style drink called "Grandma Slippers" and a bizarre sauna treatment involving cupping and blodletting (below, right).

His next visit is to Baja and Tijuana, a destination traditionally associated with debauchery that's now being reformed under a government crackdown. There he investigates the local cuisine and finds the usual out-of-the-way spots, at one point eating fried chicken necks after a night of drinking.

Bourdain was an executive chef before publishing Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly in 2000. It popularly established him as a sort of hybrid: a gourmand who knows his food, and an intrepid adventurer — a Paul Theroux-meets-Hunter Thompson free-form essayist willing to go anywhere for an authentic experience and a great story.

Each episode of No Reservations is full of great stories. Bourdain and his crew are so well-travelled that it might be easier to list the places they haven't been, rather than list those they have. He has taken part in an Inuit seal hunt, visited Chernobyl for a low-dose radiation tour, gone to Kurdistan, The Azores, Macau... And, well, the list goes on.

Like any great show about food, No Reservations presents images that are beyond savory — meats searing on grills, sauces swirling in hot pans, cold beers sweating on plastic tablecloths. With Bourdain's accompanying musings, it's not hard not to imagine the smells, the flavors.

But more satisfying is the palpable sense of place he creates — an understanding of his environment that's only possible by sampling of food, talking with the locals, photographing the landscapes, learning the history and understanding politics. It's almost as though he's conducting anthropological forensics, rather than hosting a gourmet travel show. (With giant crayfish in Mozambique, left.)

Bourdain is a complex character himself. He's a Vassar grad, has cooked in some of New York's finest restaurants, is a punk rock devotee, revels in liberal cursing and off-color sexual metaphors and is a sometime crime novelist. He's an obvious departure from the Bobby Flay/Rachael Ray world of studio food shows. There's not a lot of attempt at polish, and almost a joyful revolt against the faux glamour of food porn.

And the books and blogs may be a slight notch above the show. Here's a bit from his blog, describing his recent trip to Cook It Raw, an event where the world's most creative chefs get together in various remote locations "to challenge each other to forage, improvise, figure out what’s good in each location — then, using non-traditional methods — make the most seriously ****ed up creative single plate their fevered imaginations can muster."

He then thanks the organizers for their patience with his TV crew, adding: "They were — across the board — friendly, inviting, generous with their time, and fun to be around.

"I wish I could say the same for one of the “lions” of the food writing community — someone who (until this trip) I had always liked and looked up to. Over the course of a few days, he revealed himself to be the most vicious, abusive, misogynistic, back-biting piece of shit I have ever met in my life. (and after 30 years in the restaurant business, that’s saying something).

"I’m hardly the nicest or most polite guy in the
world. But even I was shocked. When not shouting profanities at the chefs, bursting into noisy and prolonged bouts of flatulence during the traditional tea ceremony, insulting and belligerently interfering with my crew by petulantly flashing his cell phone camera directly into their eyes while they were working (“I’m a journalist! I’m allowed!”), this guy was drinking himself stupid.

"It was only through their infinite mercy — and perhaps no small amount of pity for this elderly and shambolic creature, that my crew did not punch his face in. They were sorely tempted. Anyone who attended the event will surely recognize which particular steaming dribble of ordure I’m talking about."

Lesson is?  **** with my crew, you **** with me.

Bourdain doesn't pull any bloggers' punches, even though his crew held their actual ones. And given the miles and empty bottles behind him — and the literary wit — you have to admire the fighter's style.

And the stamina.

Tonight (May 29, 2012) on No Reservations, Bourdain visits Baja and Tijuana. The show airs at 9 p.m. ET on the Travel Channel.

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