Celebrity chef/author Anthony Bourdain is known for his brash, no-nonsense style. So in many respects, his snappy delivery perfectly suits him as host/executive producer/writer of “The Layover,” a fast-paced TV series in which Bourdain gives advice on what travelers can do while spending one or two days in a major city. Make no mistake: “The Layover” (which Travel Channel premieres on November 21, 2011, at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific Time) is about what Bourdain recommends based on his personal preferences, instead of trying to take a guide-book approach of appealing to a wide variety of travelers. In other words, don’t expect “The Layover” to be a TV show that is all about the city’s most famous tourist attractions. And the series most definitely takes an “adults only” approach, since many of the places and activities he spotlights are not for children.
For example, Bourdain is very forthcoming about his love of dive bars, which get a lot of screen time in “The Layover.” And when he visits Amsterdam (where marijuana is legal), he inevitably goes to places that have marijuana available. Although he does make some recommendations for luxury travelers, what is usually covered in the series is affordable to most travelers. (Inexpensive eateries such as diners and take-out joints also get a lot of screen time in “The Layover.”) His unapologetic, crude humor might turn off some viewers, but it will get other viewers hooked on the show because Bourdain doesn’t take himself too seriously. Here is what the always outspoken Bourdain said when he recently did a telephone conference call with journalists.
Where did you get the inspiration for “The Layover”? And what is the distinction between “The Layover” and your TV series “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations”?
Other than the fact that it’s a lot more fast-paced and a lot more scenes jammed in there and destinations, unlike “No Reservations,” it is our hope that this will be actually useful. It is all about me, me, me and me having fun and me satisfying my curiosity about the world and less about whether or not anybody of the audience will actually be able to replicate the experience.
So with this show [“The Layover”], we’re actually trying to be useful. We’ve unmasked a lot of information about places around the world over the course of eight years. We’ve gotten pretty good about cutting right to the heart of the matter. The fact is I happen to know a couple of places in Rome that serve this most Roman of dishes really, really well.
So this is exactly the sort of destination that we’re sharing on the show, particularly local, unique to that location places that we’ve come to know and like or that in some way personally connected to or clued into over the course of many years making television and all of them in locations where a traveler might reasonably expected to find themselves hopefully at some point in their life.
As with “No Reservations,” it’s not about the museum or the Eiffel Tower or the major sort of sight-seeing spots. We kind of assume that you will know about those things already. They’re more about the local joint, the places that make each individual place different than the other place. I like to use the example of New York. I mean, if you find yourself in New York for a brief period of time what do we do better in New York than any place else?
I always advise people to go for a pastrami sandwich. So we’re kind of looking for the Tokyo version — or, pardon me, the Hong Kong version or Singapore or Montreal or L.A. or San Francisco version of the pastrami sandwich, the local dive bar, as well as sort of uniquely weird and wonderful places around the world that you might not be able to stumble upon yourself. So it’s very much a departure for us and that, again, you will be actually able to go to these places and do these things.
A lot of people who do what you do wouldn’t necessarily go out of their way to shine a spotlight on things like the situation in Haiti and go to Iraq and put themselves in dangerous situations. So why do you choose to use your show to represent issues like that?
It’s something I never set out to do but I guess I’ve changed over the years. I never set out to let politics intrude into a scene. But again and again, the elephant in the room sort of makes itself so obvious. I mean, you have to ask, “What happened to your arms and legs? What happened? How did we get to this point? Why are you eating what you’re eating? Why are you cooking the way you cook?”
“No Reservations” is very much about what’s behind who’s cooking and why they’re cooking what they’re cooking and why people eat what they eat or even what they’re not eating. And I think that just as we progressed over the years, certainly Beirut was a kind of a tipping point as far as direction on the show; reality really came home there.
So you’re right. We’ve been going to places with the expectation of eating a great meal as a secondary consideration. I think in a lot of ways, maybe in the back of my head, it’s not like I’m looking to do good in the world but I’m very aware on the one hand if I’m going to be eating one of the last meals at this extraordinary dining experience, I just feel better about myself in the world if I could then go to a place where they don’t have it so lucky.
I’m not trying to be an advocate. I’m curious about the world. I guess I’m investigating and looking at places, satisfying my curiosity about places a little outside the tighter scope that I started out with. I mean, it’s interesting to me. I’m fascinated in history and current events. So on one hand, I’m indulging my curiosity. On the other hand, I don’t know. I think it’s something people should know.
In “The Layover,” you say you’re going to go from five stars to dive bars. So if you had to choose on any given day whether you’d rather be in a fancy restaurant or your favorite dive bar place to eat on the planet, which would you prefer and where would that spot be?
Chances are, on any given day I would much prefer to be eating and having a beer in a late afternoon in a favorite dive bar or at a family-run place — no tablecloth, not fancy, sleeping dog on the floor. It would be very hard to do better than having a local pasta in Rome or a bowl of noodles someplace in Alaska or something like that in Singapore. That’s hard to beat for just pure pleasure and satisfaction, especially for a jaded guy like me. That reliably puts me in my happy place every time.
I’ll tell you that when we shot the Rome show, the whole crew, as soon as we were headed into town, it was, “OK, we know exactly the place we have to go to eat and we know exactly what we’re going to eat when we get there.” It was a very, very local thing.
In a lot of ways reflective of what we’re doing with “The Layover,” because it’s we learn stuff. We’ve made mistakes during the lengthier process of making over the years. So we’re pretty good at getting right to the good stuff even if it’s just for us. And to some extent we’re sharing that now. We’re sharing that hard-won information.
What you feel about U.S. airports, since you travel the world so much?
It’s really dismaying. I’m a guy who was taught to believe that we have the best of everything in our country. And I certainly feel that as the wealthiest nation we’re the best. Why shouldn’t we have the best? So, yes, it’s really dismaying when you’re seeing better mass transit all over the world.
When you go to an airport like Changi airport in Singapore, it really makes it tough to travel through American airports. They have a swimming pool and a movie theater and actual good food run by individuals who are nice to you. It makes it all the more enraging when you’re treating with callous indifference at these sort of half-assed chains that you find in so many of our airports. I think dismaying, a little embarrassing.
There’s like a whole generation of Americans that have this world view that we are the best. Why can’t we have food courts like they have in Singapore and in Hong Kong? And why aren’t we supportive of those things, particularly given the state of our health and our economy?
I would think that this would be a transformative event in many cities’ food cultures to have that kind of affordable dining environment. I’d love to see that. We lag behind, and yet we have all of the elements in place. We could have it if we wanted it if there was a will for it.
For every step back, we take a step and maybe a tiny bit leap forward. I mean, to be fair, there’s never been a better time to eat in America, and there’s certainly never been a better time to cook, in spite of all the silliness and the excess and the bad food out there. I think there’s never been a better time to be a chef.
You said a lot that every episode of “No Reservations” is very different from the last. Is that something that’s going to carry into “The Layover”? Will it have a similar feel in that way?
I don’t know we’re not making many movies like we do with “No Reservations.” It’s a lot more vérité style. “No Reservations” is a lot more bipolar, even manic-depressive at times. The whole look, feel, choice of lenses color scheme, music changes wildly. So far, at least this season, I mean, I guess the short answer is no.
Can you discuss any of the places that you visited in the New York episode of “The Layover”?
Sure. Quirky, special places to me that you haven’t seen or may not have seen in the other travel shows but that are places that you can actually go that they’re reproducible experiences that you, yourself could do.
I mean, I’m passionate about the Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel because it’s just something I think a lot of people who visit New York haven’t seen. As a dad, I feel this is something that particularly new parents would think is really cool, especially somebody who’s read that book aloud to their kid. And then some sort of quirky restaurant favorites that are for the most part really affordable but a little bit off the beaten track and, again, kind of unique to New York.
Did you mention Katz’s Deli?
Oh, we did Katz’s previously, so we have tried on this show to avoid doing places we’ve done elsewhere on the same show. But we did Takashi in Hudson Street, which is an awesome and mind-boggling new place, relatively new place. The burger bar at Le Parker Meridian, which I only found out about it a few years ago. That’s a slightly off-the-road find. So we’re trying to be helpful in our own dysfunctional way.
And where do you write when you’re on the road and what’s your process like?
I’m a yellow-legal-pad kind of guy. I’ll write very, very quickly on yellow legal and it depends what. If I’m writing a book, I’ll take notes on the road and then do the actual writing when I’m home and I’ll try to set aside some time at home. Voiceovers for the show, stuff like that I’ll do on my laptop while I’m playing train, backup car, hotel, wherever.
When you travel as a civilian, when there’s no film crew tagging along, do you deliberately plan layovers so that you can have little side adventures like this?
I have, but not often. I travel so much and have so little time at home with my family and since I get to go, I choose where we go on these shows and what we do there so I don’t need to do that. But every once in a while I have. If I’m doing a speaking engagement in Australia, as has happened, or like a writer’s festival or food and wine festival, I would stop off scheduling myself a couple days, a two-day layover in Singapore would be something I’ve done before. I see friends, catch up with friends and get some good food.
That would be a place that, yes, I would go out of my way to have a layover. Also Hong Kong. I hate the thought of just changing planes in Hong Kong and at least not running into town and grabbing some roast goose or something.
You mentioned a while ago about how “The Layover” is sort of like “The Samantha Brown Show.” How is it going to be different?
I guess we’re very different people to start with. If things go wrong, I’ll actually look at the camera and say, “This sucks.” So that would be a distinctive difference. I’m not really interested in the best of the most iconic places in locations where I think most other travel shows made an effort to at least make you aware of the pyramids of the Eiffel Tower.
I’ve kind of gone the other direction. This is at least trying to do my own. Like anything, it’s a personal. Like anything I do, it’s always my point of view, it’s always a personal essay of sorts. I’m trying to do a useful, if dysfunctional version of that kind of show in our own sort of darkly dysfunctional way. I’m trying to be useful to the extent that I can.
They were going to start running a cook’s tour on Cooking Channel. Do you have any comment on the slight irony of that considering how you wrote about it in your book?
Yes, I think “irony” is the correct word. It’s a little frightening to me to see that I look my own son on those shows. It was so long ago. It’s like, “Who’s that guy?”
When it comes to “No Reservations” and “The Layover,” is there a difference in the challenges to putting together a show about an American city that probably a lot of Americans have been to versus a foreign city or a particularly remote city?
Always. I mean how many L.A. shows have there been and you attack the tropes head on? We can fill a “Live and Die in L.A.” We really sort of like that golden-hue, working-class, non-Hollywood oil, the rocker arm oil-rig scenes. It really started with that and that look and that filth that we were just kind of looking at it from that point of view.
To do “Layover,” yes, it’s a challenge because you’re looking to do an informative L.A. show without trying to avoid the usual suspects. So, yes, it’s hard, particularly in L.A. … The difference between L.A. and so many places around the other major cities is it’s not European at all. The heart and soul and spine of L.A. is not Europe, which is a big difference from a lot of the other cities. And I guess I missed that. I hope that this show is a success in that I actually learn something.
Do you think it’s ever a challenge to make foreign and really remote cities more accessible to an American audience?
I don’t really care. I think “Layover,” these are places that any international traveler wouldn’t be likely to find themselves. But the challenge is making like Saudi Arabia or Liberia more accessible in the sense. And I think the way you do that is you sit people down at a table or you show people sitting down at a table and you relate in some way the way that I do.
It takes us four hours to do a five-minute meal scene for “No Reservations.” That’s the end result of a lot of time spent getting to know the family playing with the kids petting the dog and drinking the local moonshine. It’s that kind of thing, bringing people into the human dimension but relating to people over food, being open to the experience on camera that maybe, I hope, allows those places, those off-the-road place and cultures to be at least more emotionally accessible and understandable to American viewers who might not ever see themselves going to those places — at least I hope so.
Regarding your production process for “The Layover,” do you have a whole different production team altogether from “No Reservations”?
Well, we had to use two simultaneously. It was really a challenge. First of all, we were using completely different cameras and lenses. It was really revolutionary for us. After quite some time of asking, we were giving use of these amazing Panavision lenses that we used I think for some of the first time ever on little DV cameras.
And so essentially, we were using film lenses that allowed us to shoot at night, any time of day, any situation, any circumstances without any with light, no light, it didn’t matter. So for the first time, we were shooting very vérité style, very high speed, in real time, but with these really amazing, amazing lenses.
In order to do the show, we’d have to send one crew to, say, Singapore. They’d arrive early. I would show up. We’d shoot for two, highly compressed, very active, very busy days at which point I would leave Singapore, leaving that crew behind. There would be another crew waiting for me, shooting B-roll in Hong Kong.
I’d shoot with them, then move on to let’s say Montreal where the first crew would have been then leapfrogged. So it was a lot of logistics and less room for error than “No Reservations,” where if things go wrong we can make a scene out of that maybe not a fun one for me but an entertaining one for the audience. In this case, since we’re trying to inform and actually provide people some useful information, we try very, very hard to get it right in preproduction. I’m already well into the next season of No Reservations.
In what ways has all this travel made you a better chef?
It hasn’t. I mean, the short answer is it hasn’t at all. It’s taken me out of the kitchen … I think anytime you’re able to see how other people live around the world, I like to think it makes you more compassionate and tolerant person, maybe. Maybe I’m a little tiny bit smarter, a little bit more optimistic actually about my fellow man. But as a cook, if anything, it’s taken me away from cooking.
Perhaps the only way that it’s changed my cooking in a useful way it is seeing how much people make with very little around the world and how delicious so many cultures could make food that you wouldn’t think of as being delicious again and again and again. And seeing how hard people work for food and how generous they are even when they have very little. It’s made me a lot less likely to waste food. It’s made me a little more careful about the respect with which I treat it.
And is there anything that you miss about being in a restaurant kitchen on a regular basis?
I miss the first beer after being in the restaurant kitchen, that sense of triumph and camaraderie of having survived another busy night, the sense of certainty, the sense of closeness to the people you work with, of being part of this sort of cult. I miss that. But I had 28 years of it. I don’t miss standing on my feet for 16 hours, not at my age.
Given all this global knowledge, what sort of restaurant would you be most excited to open and is that even a possibility?
I would never open a restaurant. If I’ve learned anything in 28 years of being in the restaurant business it’s that I never want to own a restaurant. That’s a marriage.
How do you travel and eat out so much without getting fat, for lack of a better word?
Well, it’s something I think about. I don’t snack. I eat when I’m hungry. I’m not eating to fill some other yearning. I don’t eat for a distraction. I eat like an Italian in a perfect situation, meaning, I’ll have a little coffee and maybe a bit of croissant in the morning, nothing more, if I’m having a big lunch and then a light supper. If I know I’m going to overeat tomorrow, I’m going light today and I’m certainly not eating breakfast and I’ll try to schedule myself some rehab time. We have to think about it.
And if we’re doing a show in Italy, I’ll be looking for some place with a lighter cuisine for the next show. It’s all about pace. I look at my stomach as being a limited amount of real estate. And if I’m going to fill it, I’d like to fill it with good stuff, rather than waste it with crap. So you’re never going to see me eating a cinnabun, you know.
Do you have any favorite snacks to eat when you’re traveling or on the go?
I don’t snack. I really don’t snack. The crew will eat those nasty health bars that taste like stable floor. But they’re carrying cameras. I guess they need the energy. I’d rather hold out. I’ll wait for the good meal rather than settle for a crummy one now if at all possible.
Do you exercise when you’re filming?
What about when you’re not filming?
Did you see the George Clooney movie “Up In the Air”?
Do you have any travel tips like his character had about going through security, like what to wear and what not?
I’m very, very, very good at going through security, and I’m unflustered. I don’t get cranky. I just go limp, like a guy who’s been to prison many, many times, you know. I’m ready for the worst.
I always wear a particular set of shoes. I’ve got my belt off by the time I’m anywhere. By the time I’m near the machine I’ve got my belt off, my wristwatch in my pocket. I dress for security.
I’m not approaching that thing with any liquids or gels. I’ve got my shit together. I don’t want to be that guy that everybody else is waiting for. But also I don’t get cranky at security if it’s moving slow because there’s no point. Long, painful experience has taught me that other than relax, there’s really nothing you can do.
Can you name your top three airport bars in the world?
Top three airport bars, gosh. I’ll give you some top three airports but, I mean, the bars? The last place I want to be drinking is an airport. I don’t know. I like Narita in Tokyo, Changi in Singapore, and Frankfurt’s not bad.
It’s cool because Frankfurt tweets you [on Twitter]. If you complain about an experience you’re having at Frankfurt airport, they get back to you in three seconds telling you and they try to help. Wouldn’t it be great to have like a genuine dive bar at an airport? My gosh, I would schedule myself around that. That would be the answer to a prayer.
You came up with the idea for “The Layover” when you were out with the crew drinking one night. What you were drinking and where you were drinking?
Gosh, I think I was probably in Italy.
Was it while you were filming “No Reservations”?
Yes, it was. I would be at probably more likely was in a procession. The idea came together slowly over time in a series. We’d finish the day shooting and we’d be sitting in some cocktail, terrible cocktail lounge in a hotel somewhere getting our night cap before we’d stagger off to our rooms at which point we tend to sort of blue sky and throw ideas around. It’s where we make a lot of our major decisions, a lot of our creative decisions as well on the show.
On “The Layover,” will you be covering any smaller cities such as Nashville in Tennessee or Corpus Christi in Texas?
Probably not. Certainly this year so far, we’re looking at major hubs where you are likely to be, where you are more likely to be expected to be laid over. So at least for now we’re looking at New York, Miami, L.A., San Francisco, Rome, Amsterdam, London, Hong Kong, that kind of place.
When is the last time that you traveled to a place that you’ve never been before?
Just a couple weeks ago I went to Mozambique. It happens all the time. I’d never been to Croatia. I’d never been to those places. For “No Reservations,” I’d try very, very hard, whenever possible, to go someplace I’ve never been.
You have a lot of die-hard fans. What do you think that they’re going to think of this new show?
I don’t know. I have absolutely no idea. I learned a long time ago that it’s really bad for me to think about — whether it’s a book or a TV show, whatever I do — if I think about what people will think, what they might be expecting, that’s not good for me. I just think all I can do is go out there and do the best job that I can, follow my instincts and hope for the best.
When you’re talking to fans throughout the country, are these more accessible-type trips things that they’ll relate to easily?
I hope so. It’s certainly a more relatable show. We’re trying very deliberately to make it more useful. I think even if you are not planning on traveling, looking at it, you can probably see yourself doing these things or imagining yourself doing these things in a more approachable way than perhaps, no doubt about it, a lot of the things that I do on “No Reservations.” But is that a good thing? Will fans like it? I don’t know. And I try very hard not to think about it, honestly.
With the different format and the rigorous schedule that you mentioned before, how is the experience of filming “The Layover” different from filming “No Reservations”?
To be absolutely honest, it’s a lot harder. It’s a lot harder. It’s tough.
Is it tough on you personally or the entire crew?
On the entire crew. I mean, these guys were running backwards in just withering, withering 110 degree heat, 100 percent humidity in Singapore and Hong Kong, running backwards all day holding cameras, almost no down time. Three, four, sometimes five meals a day as opposed to maybe two on “No Reservations,” a much more reasonable, spread-out, less-compressed schedule. So it’s tough and since I’m shooting them, often shooting them back to back, it was it’s a new gig for us. Plus, we were learning as we went. So yes, it was much harder this time around.
What country do you think the average American would have the most difficulty adjusting to food-wise?
Food-wise? Well, that’s a really good question. I don’t know, probably some of the best. I’m sure that there are parts of China where maybe the average American would have a really … It would be a real shift if you grew up eating meat and potatoes, you’re from rural America in an area where you haven’t been exposed to the urban restaurant scene.
It might be a real shock to the system in like Szechuan Province or poorer areas of China. Certainly the Saudi Arabia the traditional Arab meals, particularly in the desert where you’re eating with your hands, sitting around, all eating out of one big platter. The very things that are in the end the most rewarding for me, the learning curve is maybe a little steep early on.
Has there ever been a restaurant that refused to be on one of your shows?
Sure, it’s happened. Eastern Europe, a lot of places in like the post-Communist world, they’re sort of instinctively wary of cameras. Someone points a camera at you, it was seldom a good thing. It generally meant they’re coming for you the next day, so a lot of that I think carried over. They don’t care about any business it might be bringing them. They’re just worried.
Also like exclusive places. In-N-Out Burger didn’t want us shooting there years ago. We really wanted to shoot inside at an In-N-Out Burger and they were not excited at the prospect.
Do you have a preference to writing or filming television shows?
Hard to say. They’re just so linked at this point. Making the television shows, seeing all of these places gives me things to write about. So I’m always writing in my head, so it’s really hard to separate out. It’s all part of a big, happy mess at this point.
Of all the places that you’ve eaten on the road and all the things that you’ve eaten, do you ever get sick?
I’ve been really ill twice on the show. Once was after Namibia, I was not well after. There was a tribal situation. And then Liberia I was really, really badly poisoned.
When you go out and you’re in all these very interesting places, is the crew as adventurous in their eating as you are or not at all?
Over time, yes they are as adventurous. Generally speaking, if they have the time, there are some scenes where they have to shoot the entire time and maybe they’ll get some leftovers, often very good leftovers. Most of the time, they’ll sit down and eat after me or before me in the same environment. Everybody on the crew more or less eats and is open to eating what I eat.
You don’t work on this show year after year if you’ve got a fussy palate. In fact, maybe the more enjoyable things about making these shows is that we get to hang out after and maybe have a casual meal together. And, yes, they are as adventurous as me in their tastes.
You’re moving really fast on “The Layover.” When you’re on the road, is it just plain fun for you? Is it more fun that work? Does it still have the magic for you?
It is still fun. It’s still fun. It’s still exciting. The minute it stops being fun, I will stop doing it.
You were talking earlier about you don’t have the proclivity to snack during meals or over indulge in that way. Are you in any way surprised by this considering some of your more impulsive addictive past behavior?
No, I don’t know. Yes, it is sort of incongruous. You’d think that I would sort of transfer my addictive personality to food. Maybe it helps that I really don’t care about sweets much. I’m not a dessert-type guy. I’m really kind of oblivious to that. And I think there’s a point after the third or fourth mouthful of a lot of things where you pretty much enjoyed it all you’re going to enjoy it. So yes, it is kind of unusual. You’d think I’d be I’d be huge.
You filmed “No Reservations” in Chicago. Do you any plans to do any more filming in Chicago?
Well, I will tell you this: If we do another season of “The Layover” we’ll absolutely, positively do one in Chicago. Love it there. Love the restaurants there, love the food, love the bars, love the town.
You do a lot of writing for articles. You’ve got your work with HBO TV series “Tremé.” You’re very obviously into film. Is there anything coming up that you’re working on in regards to maybe a screenplay or perhaps an idea for your own hour-long drama, perhaps with HBO or something like that?
No. I am really, really happy and having a lot of fun writing for “Tremé,” and that is a labor of love, honestly. So that’s enough for me.
Why haven’t you been to Vietnam for the first season of “The Layover”?
We’ve done so many shows in Vietnam at this point. I’d like to do a “No Reservations” [episode in Vietnam]. Vietnam’s so personal for me. I don’t know whether this format is right for it. But we’ll definitely be going back to Vietnam soon.
What kind of music do you listen to while you’re on the road?
I bring a lot of stuff with me: rock and roll, early funk, movie soundtracks, rap, mid-‘80s, pop. Everything.
For more info: “The Layover” website
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