Television host, author, and former executive chef Anthony Bourdain has licked his plate clean all over the world, from soup dumplings in Shanghai to piranhas in Peru.
The New York City native’s CNN show, Parts Unknown, heads to locales such as South Korea, Madagascar, and Scotland during its fifth season. Bourdain’s busy in his hometown, too: He plans to open an Asian-style hawker market in Manhattan this fall.
Here’s a look at the world through his unique lens (and appetite):
Hannah Sheinberg: In your opinion, what’s the world’s most underrated destination? Why?
Anthony Bourdain: Uruguay is an underrated destination. Montevideo in Uruguay—that’s to a great extent undiscovered. Everyone from Argentina knows how cool it is because they fill the place up during the season, but other than them, the rest of the world has yet to catch on. It’s a very laid-back place, the people are really nice, the beaches are incredible, and there’s great food. Tough country for vegetarians, though.
Which city has it all, and why?
Tokyo. I mean, if I had to die mid-meal anywhere, it would be Tokyo. If you were to ask most chefs if they had to have house arrest for the rest of their life in one city and eat all of their meals there, just about everyone I know would pick Tokyo.
So, if you were to die eating mid-meal in Tokyo, what meal would you want to be eating?
Definitely Sukiyabashi Jiro, Jiro Ono’s place. It’s pretty amazing.
When someone comes to visit you in New York City, where’s the first place you take them?
If you weren’t living in New York, where would you want to call home?
I’ve thought about it a lot; I ponder what it would be like to live in Sardinia or [somewhere else in] Italy. My wife is Italian and she has family there—even places to live if she wanted to.
But I’m kidding myself. I’m a workaholic, I love my job, and I think I’m hardwired to New York, so as much as I’d like to spend time elsewhere, I’d be deluding myself if I thought that I’d ever retire to a hilltop in Tuscany.
But, if everything went wrong in my life and I ended up alone and drinking too much, then I’d probably head to Vietnam.
What made you want to open a hawker market in NYC?
Pride and envy.
I’ve always been bitter that we don’t have the kinds of hawker centers that Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong have. We’re supposed to be the greatest city in the world and we don’t have that kind of a food option. Given the opportunity of creating a space like that, I jumped at it.
Do you have any tips for navigating the street food scene, regardless of where you are?
Are the stalls busy? Are they popular with locals? Are they moving product? Those [observations] are key. Hawkers and street food people are not in the business of poisoning their neighbors. That’s a bad business model.
Often you’ll see a place selling exactly the same thing right next to another place that has no one there. There’s probably a reason for that. Those are just good rules of thumb.
If I’m in a place where the water is not good, I’m not going to eat a lot of green stuff. Room-temperature organ meat is something that, in a tropical climate, I might avoid.
Other than that, if [the stall is] busy, I’m eating it. Sinister street tacos, I’m there. I’ll eat just about anything in India if the place is busy. They may be washing the plates in the river right next to me but I don’t care; I’m eating it.
What’s the most memorable dining experience you’ve had while traveling?
I had one of the last meals at elBulli [a Michelin three-star restaurant in Cala Montjoi, Spain, that closed in 2011] and that was pretty emotional. Everyone in the restaurant that night knew history was happening that minute. Half the people in the dining room were in tears.
And, of course, eating with [legendary chefs] Paul Bocuse and Daniel Boulud at Bocuse’s restaurant [L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, near Lyon, France] was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience that I never dreamed I’d have.
In the fifth season of Parts Unknown, you’re heading back to Beirut, Lebanon, where you and your crew got caught in the middle of a conflict in 2006. What made you decide to go back?
I felt that there was always unfinished business. I was having an extraordinarily positive time there until the war broke out and I felt that there was, there is, and there will always be a much more interesting, much more multidimensional, much more positive side to show of Lebanon.
It’s a very complex, uniquely incredible place—it’s one of my favorite cities—and for all of its problems, and there are many, I think it’s a place that people should go and enjoy themselves.
I’m fascinated by it and everyone on my crew loves the place, so to go back and tell other aspects of that story—I’ll do that at every opportunity. It hasn’t been examined anywhere near as caringly and as carefully as it deserves.
Which destination surprised you the most?
Iran, for sure. The people you meet, the mood, and the streets are very different than Iranian foreign policy and the Iran we have to deal with on a geopolitical level. The reality is that it’s tough there, but there’s a very different Iran out there that most of us don’t get to see. [Experiencing that firsthand] was very confusing and exciting.
How do you and your crew find the balance between “being in the moment” and “getting the shot” while you’re on location?
The whole show is very subjective, so we’re always trying to make people feel the way I felt about a place. Some might say that’s a very manipulative process, but it’s a show with a point of view, so I don’t delude myself that we’re journalists.
Did traveling for work change the way you travel for vacation?
Yes, very much. I tend to stay put for vacation. If my family’s taking a lengthy vacation, it’s on a Long Island beach, and I’m driving there and I’m not moving. I’m letting my seven-year-old daughter make all of the major decisions about what we’re doing. You know, are we going to the beach today, or not? Are we having hamburgers or hot dogs? I’m as close to a vegetable as I could be.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen in your travels?
I’ve seen a lot of stuff that I might have at one time called strange, but at this point—I don’t know. I’ve had dinner under a bouquet of human skulls; I guess that was pretty strange.
You recently professed your love for California’s In-N-Out chain. What’s so great about it?
It’s not the best burger in the world, but it’s a fast-food chain that treats its employees well, works efficiently, and serves you a reasonably healthy, freshly made, decent-quality burger that makes me very, very happy. It’s a not-so-guilty pleasure.
Hannah Sheinberg is an assistant editor at National Geographic Traveler. Follow Hannah on Twitter @h_sheinberg.