Anthony Bourdain on How His First Trip to Vietnam Changed His Life

By Lauuren Jade Hill,


With the fourth season of his CNN series Parts Unknown having just premiered, it’s an excellent time to talk to Anthony Bourdain about the highlights of his life on the road. (Coincidentally, we’re chatting at the hotel he rates above all others: the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles.) In the forthcoming season, the globe-trotting chef ventures to offbeat locations such as Tanzania and Iran, focusing on the culture and people of each place as well as the cuisine. He admits it’s his curiosity that drives him to continue exploring. “I like delicious food,” he says, “but I’m just as interested in who’s cooking it and why.” Here, he discusses his favorite destinations, memorable food experiences, and more.

From all of your travels, which destination has made the biggest impression on you?

I’m crazy for Southeast Asia. I think all of us that work on the show love that part of the world. I love Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia for the flavors, the landscape and the people. Going to Vietnam the first time was life-changing for sure; maybe because it was all so new and different to my life before and the world I grew up in. The food, culture, landscape and smell; they’re all inseparable. It just seemed like another planet; a delicious one that sort of sucked me in and never let go.

Has anywhere you’ve been truly exceeded your expectations?

Iran was amazing, surprising and incredibly friendly, and Colombia is an extraordinarily friendly and welcoming place with delicious food. Uruguay was a very pleasant surprise too.

On the other end of the spectrum, has anywhere been a disappointment?

I didn’t have the best time in Romania as it’s difficult to shoot there. The government likes to control what you shoot and how you portray things, if at all possible, and the people there are generally uncomfortable around cameras. It wasn’t the most welcoming place I’ve been.

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You’ve eaten at more places around the world than most people ever will; what had been your most memorable food experience while traveling?

There’s been a lot of them but eating with Paul Bocuse was remarkable. It was an epic meal with someone I’d idolized since I was a young man, and he’s one of the greatest chefs in the world. During the meal, I was very aware that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience; to eat with the chef himself, with all of those incredibly elaborate, luxurious courses. I was very aware when I was eating it, how fortunate I was. It was an amazing experience.

If I had one meal left to me in life though it would be in Tokyo at Sukiyabashi Jiro. It is the best—if not, one of the best—sushi bars in the world and I’m a sucker for really great, traditional, high-end sushi.

What’s the strangest dish you’ve eaten?

I don’t even know what strange means anymore, as I’ve been travelling for 14 years. It’s entirely each person’s perspective. I am constantly shocked by what we eat in this country though; like, the Cinnabon.

You must spend a lot of time in transit. What do you think of airline food?

I don’t eat it. Some airlines try harder than others for sure, but you never feel better after a meal than you did before it, so I take advantage of my time on a plane to sleep. I like arriving in any country hungry, so I can eat there when I get on the ground.

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Do you have a favorite restaurant or is it too hard to choose?

I’m actually happiest eating street food, whether it’s in Mexico or Vietnam. I like eating at casual street food stalls in Asia or Latin America. I like yakitori; I like pho from Vietnam very much; I like the chicken rice in Singapore and the tacos in Mexico. They’re all delicious.

And do you have a favorite hotel?

I love very old colonial hotels in Southeast Asia, like the Metropole in Hanoi, the Majestic in Saigon or the Grand Hotel d’Angkor at Angkor Wat, but I also have a soft spot for the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, which is probably my favorite in the world.

What drives you to travel?

Curiosity about the world in general. I think food, culture, people and landscape are all absolutely inseparable. I like delicious food but I’m just as interested in who’s cooking it and why.

What destinations are next on your travel agenda?

I’m hoping to go back to Korea, Madagascar, Beirut, Okinawa, and Borneo; all for very different reasons. I’d like to go back to Borneo because I made a commitment to a tribe called the Dayak there who I stayed with years ago, and I want to go in harvest season. I think Korea is an emerging and important cuisine that I’d like to know more about. There’s always a personal or historical reason, or it’s just out of curiosity.

Series four of Parts Unknown premieres on CNN on September 28.

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