Human travelogue Anthony Bourdain has, in the past year or so, used his ever-widening platform to not only explore the culture behind the most spectacular places on earth, but also to speak truth to power. He’s expressed his views on everything from the 2016 election to Donald Trump to his own role in creating restaurant kitchen bro culture. His increasingly political views have been on full display on Twitter, and are increasingly a topic he addresses or comments on indirectly in his shows.
“I ask people what makes them happy, what they want, what’s for dinner. I don’t have an agenda,” Bourdain said on stage last night, at an event to promote "The Perfect Dish," an 8-part video series streamed on Explore Parts Unknown, which is the online magazine offshoot of his Emmy Award-winning show, Parts Unknown. “But I have to say, I am pleased to go to Iran [for example] and show people who are willing to watch: This is who we’re talking about. I was completely enchanted by my experience in Iran. My crew and I... walking around with cameras, have seldom been treated with such guileless affection by random people,” he said. “Right under the ‘Death to America’ poster… everyone was kind to us. [I hope viewers are] surprised like I was. Open your mind a little bit, and experience if you can, in a very subjective way, what I experience a little bit. I don’t know if it changes hearts and minds, but I hope it does.”
"The Perfect Dish," which streams online, doesn’t delve into politics as much as Bourdain’s full-length CNN show. Bourdain introduces each vignette and then throws the show to that host, an experienced journalist who has never been to that place or tasted that food, and gets to experience it live with a local tour guide.
But onstage last night with journalist and author Yasmin Khan, he opened up about how today’s politics and news influences him. “I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I get called out a lot by people, people whose views are different than mine,” he said. “[They say], How can you go to that country, given their policies on... fill in the blank here. And there’s usually something pretty heinous… So I guess I’m not gonna go there anymore because they do something really offensive? But please find a country for me where they haven’t done something really horrendous.” Instead, Bourdain tries to empathize. “When I’m on their home turf, I try to be grateful, I try to be reasonably humble, and I’m grateful people are kind to me.”
“Kindness is an undervalued quality,” Khan said. Bourdain agreed. “I’m fortunate to have received many acts of kindness and generosity from people who have much less than I have,” he said.
Early in his tenure as host of a travel show, Bourdain remembers how people from other cultures may have viewed him, a privileged American man: with distain, with caution, with openness. But given America’s current political climate, how Americans are perceived in other parts of the world has changed. “…Pity,” he said, “is not something I’m used to getting from others.”
Some change can be good, though. The TV host is in a relationship with the Italian actress Asia Argento; last month, Argento was one of several women to tell The New Yorker that movie producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted her.
Since then, Bourdain has been particularly outspoken about the old boys’ club that may have allowed such behavior to thrive for so long. “First of all, I want to be really clear, I’m not central to anything,” he said. “I’m not an advocate of anything. I’m someone who met an extraordinary woman with a very painful story, who introduced me to other extraordinary women with very painful stories.”
He noted that he’s become increasingly aware of changes in acceptable behaviors. “How is the world different? I think that a lot of good-hearted people are asking themselves, ‘What is my part in this world that we find ourselves in? What have I been complicit in? What have I seen? What have I missed?’ Generally speaking, people are thinking about the consequences of their actions and what they’ve seen, times they should have stepped up, they should have spoken up, times they stayed silent… Change is good.”