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Anthony Bourdain: It’s not bad to be the idiot abroad, if you’ve got an open mind

Anthony Bourdain discusses Sri Lanka, spicy crab curry and the highs and lows of a life with no fixed address

Anthony Bourdain at a fishing port in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Photo: Courtesy ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown’ by David Scott Holloway
Anthony Bourdain at a fishing port in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. Photo: Courtesy ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown’ by David Scott Holloway

The Galle Face Hotel in Colombo has a setting ripe for cinema. As the oldest hotel in Sri Lanka, built well over a century ago, it wears its heritage with appropriate gravitas. Its sweeping ceilings and colonnaded arches are steeped in fraying colonial grandeur. A black and white gravel terrace stretches out like a life-sized chessboard facing the Indian Ocean. Just beyond the hotel’s imposing walls stand a bevy of high-rises, evidence of the country’s impatience to leave behind its chequered past and forge ahead.

Given its location at the crossroads of history, the Galle Face Hotel has particular resonance for Anthony Bourdain, the wildly popular host of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, an Emmy award-winning travel show that explores the intersection of food, culture and current affairs. Bourdain first visited Sri Lanka in 2008, for an episode of Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, the food-centric travel programme that made him a household name in the subcontinent.

On that visit, stifled by the paranoia of a country in the last throes of civil war, he spent much of his time at the hotel. In May, Bourdain returned to Sri Lanka to film an episode of Parts Unknown. He chose to stay once again at the hotel that had served as a leitmotif of his earlier visit, and it was there that I met him on a wind-swept, pre-monsoon afternoon. Towering over most patrons at the sea-facing Traveller’s Bar, with a languid, lanky stride that I remember from his shows, Bourdain cuts a striking figure. The lines on his face are deeper now, about the only reminder that the 61-year-old chef turned consummate traveller has been a fixture on our television screens for over a decade now. Nursing a weather-appropriate G&T, he chooses his words carefully, underscoring his observations with the repeated disclaimer that he is not an “expert".

Compared to his last visit, when he was hemmed in by heightened security in Colombo, Bourdain has had much more freedom to explore this time around. He travelled north to Jaffna, the epicentre of Sri Lankan Tamil culture, which was out of bounds for the greater part of the country’s three-decade-long conflict. While post-war redressal in the region has been slow and uneven, Bourdain says he felt buoyed by the “relative sense of cautious optimism" that he perceived.

Sri Lankan crab curry. Photo: iStockphoto

As in many of the places he has visited, the Scoville-scorching cuisine of northern Sri Lanka has also been shaped, to a lesser or greater degree, by years of conflict. I ask Bourdain what kind of bearing war has on food, especially as a source of cultural identity. “Deprivation and shortages, in my experience, make people appreciate good things," he says. “They also, historically, force people to cook well. I’ve been to a lot of cultures where all they’ve got is rice and beans—but they’re good rice and beans." Compared to some of the poorer parts he has travelled to, Bourdain says he ate “rather well" in Jaffna, treated to the local delicacy of lagoon crabs in a fiery curry laced with drumstick leaves.

While food remains the glue that binds episodes of Parts Unknown, in the course of nine seasons and more than 250 episodes, the show has evolved, beyond keeping food as its central focus. In some of the more remote places Bourdain travels to, food is a much less pressing preoccupation than the daily business of living. In the Democratic Republic of Congo—a once glorious country reduced to penury and chaos by colonizers and rebel groups—for instance, Bourdain learns from a “fixer" that the commodity poor Congolese prize most is soap. “Because at least you have to look a bit clean," the fixer says. The next most valuable acquisition is clothes. “All these Congolese you see here, if you give them $10, they will think of soap, food, and maybe keep $1 for buying a shirt." In all cultures, Bourdain concludes, a sense of pride is just as elemental as food.

Bourdain says this gradual broadening of the show’s canvas was facilitated in no small part by the near carte blanche he has been offered by CNN. “We don’t have to stick to food," he says. “When we went to Congo, we understood that this was not going to be a food show. Our agenda changes depending on our interest. It’s nice (when it involves food), because I know something about food, but I don’t necessarily know about anything else." Although the self-deprecation seems uncharacteristic of his television persona, I realize he has turned it into a true asset—and a winning formula. “It’s not bad to be the idiot abroad if you’ve got an open mind," he says.

While his earlier shows, such as No Reservations, were characterized by Bourdain’s “lusty appetite and quicksilver conversation", as a New Yorker profile described it, both his abilities as a host and the subject matter seem to have matured with time. While not a political show, Parts Unknown doesn’t shy away from contentious subjects. In the Iran episode, for instance, Bourdain interviewed Jason Rezaian, the Iranian-American correspondent for The Washington Post in Tehran, along with his wife Yeganeh Salehi, also a journalist by profession. Acknowledging the country’s religious censorship, Rezaian revealed his mixed feelings about the place he had come to call home. “I hate it. I hate it but I love it. It’s home," he said. In July 2014, a few weeks after the episode was aired, both Rezaian and his wife were arrested by the country’s religious police. While Salehi spent two months in captivity, Rezaian was only released after 18 months.

Bourdain is acutely conscious of the occasional cost of uncovering the forgotten corners of the world. “All of us understand that there is an exploitative aspect to what we do," he says. “There are often consequences of our having put a place, a cuisine or a culture on television. We understand that, and try, like doctors, to do no harm." Still, despite the fact that each episode is researched and planned with exacting precision, one can’t deny the fact that Bourdain is a privileged traveller—with more resources and access than most people can dream of. I ask him if he worries about cultural appropriation, and denying people the opportunity to tell their own stories.

“Am I appropriating? Well, I am pointing cameras at Tamils. I’m going to go home and make an hour of television for a largely non-Tamil audience, and...get a pay cheque for that. In that sense, yes, I am appropriating," he says, after a brief pause to formulate his thoughts. But he is also matter-of-fact about the mathematics of making television for an American audience. “I would make a much better living going to Texas every week, or North Carolina, riding around on a pony, eating barbecue and corn dogs. But there aren’t a lot of people (in television) who are looking at Congo or Sri Lanka. I will admit to taking some satisfaction in that, with the full knowledge that I am appropriating."

With his quick wit, perceptive insights and indefatigable willingness to dine and drink with just about anyone, Bourdain makes his job look effortless. But there is no doubt that the thrill of a life on the road comes at a cost. “It’s a strange life," he says. “It’s liberating, exciting, humbling and alienating. I spend 250 days of the year waking up in hotel rooms around the world. I live outside the margins of normal life or relationships or any hope of having those things."

Equally, he acknowledges the fuel that has driven him so far, for so long. “It is a privileged place to be for sure," he says. “I believe I have the best job in the world."

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