Chef turned author turned TV personality Anthony Bourdain may have been booked as part of South by Southwest Interactive’s food mini-festival -- called Southbites -- but he spent precious little time talking about food at his onstage conversation at a packed ballroom at the Austin Convention Center Sunday afternoon.
Instead, the host of CNN’s Parts Unknown and a new partner/editor at the travel-essay website Roads and Kingdoms talked about using food as a portal to discover the world and using his interest in literature and film to showcase his journeys.
“Food porn, like any porn, is pretty much the same sequence of shots,” he said with a laugh while being interviewed Roads and Kingdom’s Nathan Thornbaugh. “We push ourselves to mess with that formula. I don’t know when the show morphed into what it is now...We acknowledge the elephant in the room.”
The “elephant” are the often fractious social issues that involve traveling to some of the places he’s visited such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Gaza, and most famously Iran where he interviewed the Washington Post’s reporter Jason Rezaian shortly before the reporter was jailed by the Iranian government. (He was recently released after 18 months in prison.)
“I had dinner with Jason and his wife 10 days ago,” he said. “It felt real good to see them.”
When Thornbaugh asked Bourdain if he then considers himself a journalist, he demurred, “I wouldn’t go that far. I like ‘enthusiast.’...I have a point of view and making television is a manipulative process. I enjoy that process. Is it journalism? No.”
He acknowledges that some of his shows anger or confuse viewers and that he doesn’t think about that. There’s the episode about South Korea which, frustratingly for many, started at the end of the trip and worked its way back to the start. Or the one where he delves deep into his drug abuse as a young man as part of exploring the area where he grew up.
“Whenever you think about [just pleasing the audience], that leads to madness,” he said. “If we cared about that, we would do every show about barbecue.”
There are also Parts Unknown’s stylistic visual quirks which Bourdain says are influenced by everything from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai and the little-seen film starring Brad Pitt, Killing Them Softly, to the band Queens of the Stone Age. “I see a film and if the cinematography captures me, we try to do that, cheaply,” he said.
Among the things he doesn’t like: Buzzfeed-style lists and much of food TV. “I like stories. Everybody else likes lists. We do stories. I like atmospherics.”
Still, he did touch on food that he likes. He started the conversation saying how he had just spent some time in Nashville, home of one of the trendier foods of the moment: Nashville hot chicken.
The problem with it though is it can wreak havoc on one’s digestive system. “It’s a three-day experience,” he said with a laugh, “verging on four.”