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How Anthony Bourdain Picks the Destinations on ‘Parts Unknown’

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A chat with the author/TV host about the new season of his hit CNN show

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The first rule of Parts Unknown is that there are no rules. Anthony Bourdain and his crew pretty much go wherever they want and film whatever they want, so long as they find it interesting. During Season 10, which premieres on October 1, Tony will hit up eight cities on four continents, including some of his favorite destinations as well as a few places he’s never visited before.

With the premiere a few weeks away, Eater got Tony on the phone to talk about how he builds a season of Parts Unknown, and how the show has evolved over the last five years.

How do you put together the list of destinations for every season?
Usually, I’ll be sitting with my camera guys and producer on a shoot. It’ll be late at night, we’ve be shooting all day in Sri Lanka or Singapore or wherever, and we’re sitting in a noodle shop or the hotel bar knocking back some drinks, talking about where we could go to play, to make something awesome that we haven’t done before. A lot of it comes from, maybe, movies I’ve seen. We’ll be talking about movies and the look of certain films. And I’ll ask, “Where can we go to do that? Where do we go to do a black-and-white show?” That might be something. Or maybe I read about something in the paper, saw a film, or somebody reached out with a history and a particular point of view that excites me.

This season, I started talking to [alt-rock musician] Mark Lanegan. And it was like, “Well, I want to work with Mark Lanegan.” He’s from Washington state. We know there’s lots of great food in Seattle. We started to think about how the show might look, and the show grew from that. Other times, it might come from a suggestion from a friend or a particular historical obsession. Like, I’m obsessed with the history of the Congo, so that was a long ambition to go there. It usually starts with conversations with me and a few other people.

So you’re not sitting around a conference room, putting ideas up on a white board?
Never. That’s never happened. The list of places for the season, usually I put it down into my phone, or scroll it on a piece of paper and shuffle it around. And over time, I present that to the head of production at Zero Point Zero, and I say, “These are the places I want to go.”

I’ve heard some great buzz about the Pittsburgh episode, in particular. What was the inspiration behind choosing that city as a destination?
I’ve been going there for a while, and love the look of the place. I like the city very much. Increasingly I’ve been thinking about cities in transition — American cities that are transitioning from manufacturing to service industries and tech, Detroit being an example. So there’s something about the company town going through a change that appeals to me. And then, of course, the drum beat about the food and the restaurant scene there was growing and growing and growing. So that all sort of came together. And then I saw a film called Out of the Furnace, a little-known Christian Bale film that had a really good look to it. And I thought, “Aw fuck, let’s go, man. We can make something that looks really cool.”

The final episode of the season will include a meal with Francis Ford Coppola in southern Italy. I know you’re a fan of his films, but had you met him before? How did that come together?
He returned to his ancestral village in Basilicata, where his father’s family are from, and bought the head of the local fascist party’s sort of manor house. His people came from the field. They were peasants, and it’s awesome that he was able to return to the town. He bought this big house and converted it into a hotel and a restaurant. His people might have reached out years ago talking about the place, and I didn’t know what to do with the information. I didn’t have anything fully-formed in my mind about how we’d build a show around that. But then Asia Argento, who I worked with on the Rome show, of course, while we were in Rome doing that show, she said, “You have to go to Puglia and Basilicata. It’s an amazing location and it has the kind of landscape and dialect and music and weirdness that you’d love and would make a great show.”

The Coppola scene ended up being incredible, because generally, his interviews are not particularly revealing, but he spent a lot of time with us talking about really amazing stuff. It was an extraordinary afternoon with him. I don’t want to brag, but I think they’re going to be showing this to film students in 20 years.

What has been the biggest change to the show since its inception?
With Parts Unknown, we had license to kill from day one. As soon as we came over to CNN, they always said, “You go out there and do whatever you want. Put as much or as little food in there. Just go out and go places and tell whatever stories you want, any way you want.” So that was a huge change for us, because with the previous iterations — No Reservations and obviously A Cook’s Tour — it was obligatory to eventually get around to food. There was a structure to it. Every act had to have me shoving food in my face. I was less and less comfortable with that, I guess, after the Beirut war, where it just seemed kind of obscene to shoehorn-in food, when things are happening that are far more important than how they cooked a particular thing.

Other than that, I mean, we’re always trying to change. It’s as much freedom as anyone’s ever had on television. I’ve never received a phone call from CNN — ever, none of us have — that begins with the sentence “Wouldn’t it be a good idea if...” or “How about...” Never. So we’re just taking full advantage of that freedom, in any way we can think of. We’re just trying to change all the time.

I’ll tell you this: This season has the most outrageous show we’ve ever done with Eric Ripert, in the French Alps. It is the most fucked up, crazy-ass, and funniest thing we have ever, ever done. They might have to put an “adult content” warning on it. It’s like, fucking John Wick.

The great chef documentary that you produced, Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent, is airing on CNN during the middle of the Parts Unknown run. That feels like a surprising bit of CNN programming.
They put up the money in the first place! It was always intended to live on CNN, with a limited theatrical release beforehand. CNN’s standalone film division, they’re really forward-thinking. They’re doing some pretty cool stuff and we’re doing some pretty cool stuff with them. Like the Detroit series we’re working on, for instance. They’ve been really open to some really wild stuff.

How’s the reaction been to the Jeremiah Tower film?
Good, really great. I really enjoyed being part of it. I’m really proud of it. I’m really glad more people know about Jeremiah Tower, and I believe it did really well in theaters. It did really well on iTunes, and I expect it will do well on the network.

I know you have a few documentary projects in the works. Would you ever be interested in doing another profile along the lines of the Jeremiah Tower film?
I’d love to. I mean, maybe not a chef. I like making docs, but I’m also working on a short film as well, a fiction/dramatic/comedic/melodrama thing that I’m just doing for shits and giggles.

Awesome. On a wildly different note, as a longtime New Yorker, do you have any thoughts on Bodega, this new vending machine from two Silicon Valley bros? Are you familiar with this story?
I’m not, but fill me in. It’s a machine? That dispenses bodega egg sandwiches?

No egg sandwiches, but non-perishable things that you would find at a bodega. It’s like an app connected to a big vending machine, and they think it will replace corner stores.
And they’re proud of that?

I think they are very proud of that.
Well obviously, you know, I hate them. I love the Japanese vending machines, so it’s kind of hypocritical of me. But bodegas are such an important and vital part of the New York experience that I hate to think that even one of them would close because of some out-of-town bros.

Is there anything else we should know about Parts Unknown Season 10?
The Lagos show, I think, is one of the best things we’ve ever done. We’ve never done anything that looks even remotely like it. The look, the sounds, the editing style, the music, the people — the culture that we were completely ignorant of — absolutely blew me away. That’s the show I’m really proud of.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

All Coverage of Parts Unknown [E]