Anthony Bourdain does not shy away from politics — especially when he’s talking about the people who make the restaurant industry tick. Although his show Parts Unknown is not overtly about politics, the program often offers insights into the local political climate of the places that Bourdain and his crew visit around the world. In a new interview with the New Yorker’s David Remnick, the chef-turned-media star says that he learns a lot simply by breaking bread and talking about food with people. “There’s nothing more political than food,” Bourdain remarks.
Case-in-point: While shooting the Egypt episode of his old Travel Channel show No Reservations, Bourdain was surprised by the fact that his fixers, the local experts who sometimes “work for some interior ministry group,” did not want him to shoot a segment about one of the staples of Egyptian cuisine: ful. Here’s Bourdain explaining their response, and what he learned from that experience:
“No, no, no. We can’t do this. You must not do it. It’s not interesting. You must not shoot ful or we will cancel your permits and you’re out.” One of our executive producers feigned an attack of violent diarrhea to distract the fixers and we shot the scene. What was it? They understood what we did not — most of the country, that’s what they eat. That’s the meal. It’s not just a meal, that’s the meal.
There had been bread riots; the army apparently controlled the flour and bread production. And I don’t think it was that they were worried about what other people outside of Egypt would think. Our show was shown in Egypt. And I think they were worried that there would be a France show, and then an Italy show, and then they see themselves eating ful. I think they saw it as potentially angering to their own people...they knew well that this is all we got. “Who’s eating what” is something that we inadvertently started to show, and maybe had more importance than we realized.
The interview on the New Yorker Radio Hour also touches upon Bourdain’s rise from the kitchen to the small screen, and what it was like to eat bun cha in Vietnam with President Barack Obama. Bourdain quips: “I’ve never seen anyone so happy to be drinking beer out of the neck of a bottle, sitting on a low plastic stool, eating what’s essentially a street food classic in Hanoi with chopsticks.”
• Episode 69: Bun Cha with Obama, and Trump’s New World Disorder [New Yorker]
• New Yorker Radio Hour [WNYC]
• All Coverage of Anthony Bourdain [E]