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Interview: Anthony Bourdain on Traveling to the Heart of Trump Country for ‘Parts Unknown’

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The TV host reflects talks about filming the new season of his hit CNN show and how the #MeToo movement is influencing his work

Bourdain in West Virginia
CNN/Parts Unknown

On the Season 11 premiere of CNN’s Parts Unknown, audiences will finally get to see globetrotting writer/former hash-slinger Anthony Bourdain eat snapping turtle patties and squirrel gravy in West Virginia coal country. This area is famously full of people who voted for Donald Trump, but Bourdain, a staunch critic of the president, didn’t travel here with his camera crew to throw shade on the local scene. As is often the case with Parts Unknown, the Kitchen Confidential author wanted to learn about the area from the people who live there, and find some common ground. Bourdain says he was “utterly moved” by the experiences that make up the season premiere, which will air on April 29.

Earlier this week, Eater hopped on the phone with Bourdain — who’s currently somewhere in Spain shooting a future television adventure — to talk about Trump country, collaborating with a cinematic hero, and how the #MeToo movement is influencing his work.

What was the impetus behind visiting West Virginia?
Anthony Bourdain: I guess for a long time I’ve been going to foreign locations like Iran, Liberia, Vietnam, Cuba, and Saudi Arabia where the culture and politics are very, very different than my own, and yet I try to go with an open mind and show some respect. And I like the idea of going to the heart of “Trump, God, and guns” country and looking at it in exactly the same way — with an open mind, as I’ve done elsewhere. It seemed only fair and only right.

I’ve gotta tell you, I was absolutely rocked back on my heels by, first of all, how beautiful it is, and how kind people were to me, and generous. I mean, in the same way that my preconceptions are upended so often around the world, I felt the same thing happening in West Virginia. In the stereotypical coal mining town in West Virginia — which is pretty much where we went, into the poorest area of West Virginia coal country — I was utterly moved and enchanted by the people and the place. And I like to think I came back from it with a more nuanced picture of what it means to be a coal miner, and why people voted for a sketchy businessman from New York who’s never changed a tire in his life.

You know, I went right at those things — guns, God, and Trump — and I was very moved by what I found there. I hope that people who watch the show will feel the same kind of empathy and respect, and will be able to walk in somebody else’s shoes, or imagine walking in somebody else’s shoes, for a few minutes in the same way that hopefully they do with one of my other shows.

A scene from the West Virginia episode of Parts Unknown: Bourdain watching the Mr. View homecoming game with Garnet Edwards, Garnet Edwards, JR and Monica Barner.

What was your favorite thing that you ate there?
There’s people we meet at the end of the show who, much in the same way that Sean Brock is doing in the Lowcountry, are trying to bring back heritage ingredients and dishes of Appalachia. That was really good, really inspiring.

You’re a vocal supporter of #MeToo, and you’re very close to one of the leaders of the movement in Hollywood. Did #MeToo influence the production of this season of the show, or future seasons?
I think it has made us acutely aware of the need for women’s stories. I mean, that’s something that we’ve tried to do for some time and have often failed at. But I think it’s certainly made us all think about including women’s stories wherever we go. That can be challenging in certain parts of the world. Saudi Arabia, for instance, it’s going to be pretty difficult to get women to come forward and present themselves on TV and tell their stories, much less speak frankly. So some countries, depending on the societal norms, it’s challenging. But I like to think we’ve doubled our efforts, and will continue to do that.

I’m very much aware of the things I haven’t been listening to or haven’t heard, and so I think I’m paying more attention, I’ll put it that way.

It sounds like everyone in the media world is taking a step back and looking at the landscape.
Look, obviously, it’s personal for me. I mean, if I didn’t have a personal involvement with Asia Argento, I can’t tell you that I would have suddenly woken up. It was very intensely brought home to me in a very personal way. I found myself next to someone who was going through an incredibly difficult and traumatic time and telling her story, and I saw what was involved in making that decision and the aftermath. And then because of her situation, a community of women formed around her who were also telling their stories, often in my presence. It became a personal thing, and I can’t claim that I had a burning bush moment on the road to Damascus, where the scales fell away from my eyes. It was personal.

A shot from the Newfoundland episode of Parts Unknown

Circling back to Parts Unknown, every season of the show has a few distinct cinematic influences. I see you worked with Christopher Doyle this time around on one episode. What can we expect?
That’s the big kahuna for me. For many years, I’ve been obsessed with Wong Kar-wai’s films, and Christopher Doyle’s work in particular. And my highest, highest hope was that we could get him on camera to talk about how he’s looked at Hong Kong for the last 30 years — what he looks for, how he sees it — and maybe, just maybe get him to hold a camera for a few seconds, and maybe shoot a little B-roll so we could put it with the credits. He ended up shooting every scene. He became the director of photography for the entire episode.

For me it was as if my greatest baseball hero, I asked him to sign a baseball and instead he volunteered to play on my little league team for the rest of the season. It was an incredible gift both for me and for everyone who worked on the show. To be mentored by Christopher Doyle and work alongside him for a whole episode and go back to the Chungking Mansions, the site of one of his greatest films, it really was one of the most outrageously wondrous things that’s ever happened to me in my television career.

In terms of food footage, what are you most excited about this season?
Well, Hong Kong is always going to be amazing. We did a show in Berlin where Anton Newcombe of Brian Jonestown Massacre prepares a huge, elaborate feast for me and 10 friends while recording a Brian Jonestown Massacre album in between courses, so I’m looking forward to that one.

Is he a good cook?
He’s a really good cook, a really serious cook. Very serious about sourcing his ingredients and the techniques. I mean, it’s no joke to him. He was incredibly nice and patient with us, and we got to use his music and eat his food. It was really, really good.

One last question: A lot of people are talking about the Impossible Burger, this lab-grown meat substitute that’s being served in trendy restaurants as well as White Castle. Have you tried this?
I haven’t. Look, there are a lot of hungry people in the world. I guess if [it] is a means of providing must-needed protein to people who need protein to live, I guess I’m all for it. But, you know, as somebody who spent 30 years as a chef, of course I’m going to be resistant to the notion that there’s any replacement for the texture and musculature and funk of real meat. So, I’m resistant to it. I hate the idea that people are selling this at a premium at hip restaurants. You know, it doesn’t fill me with joy. It makes me fearful of a Soylent Green future.

This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.

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