No one knows travel quite like chef, author, and television personality Anthony Bourdain. After all, the guy has been to 75 countries and written 10 books and counting.
Early childhood memories of watching classic Japanese films (Sanjuro, Seven Samurai) with his father helped fuel Bourdain's obsession with the country's food and culture, which was only heightened on his first trip to Tokyo. “It was an eye-opening, traumatizing, life-changing experience,” Bourdain said in an interview about his latest book release, the graphic novel Get Jiro: Blood and Sushi, which comes out today. He has traveled all over Japan at this point, most recently to Okinawa Island.
“Let’s put it this way—every opportunity given, even the most ludicrous excuse to go, I will go,” said Bourdain. “I just love it there. Ask just about any chef—if you had to be trapped in one country to eat for the rest of your live—they’d all pick Japan.”
Everything, from early mornings at the Tsukiji Fish Market, to the ancient ryokans and hot springs, to the "honky-tonk" Kabukichō neighborhood with its strip of microbars and izakayas—has captured Bourdain’s imagination and inspired his Get Jiro comic book series, which follows the rise of a master sushi chef in a dystopian future transformed by culinary battles. To celebrate the release of Blood and Sushi, we picked Bourdain's brain to find out where the professional traveler vacations when he's not working, what he eats while on the road, and what he can't leave home without.
You have a cookbook, Appetites, coming out in the fall of 2016. How has your cookbook writing influenced graphic novel writing, or vice versa?
“The bad guys in my books don’t respect quality food and they tend to get killed. I respond to, and sympathize with, people who are passionate about food. And I’m deeply suspicious of people who are indifferent.”
When you’re not traveling—or eating—for work, where do you like to vacation and what do you like to eat?
“When I vacation—because I travel 200-250 days a year for work—it’s all about my 8-year old daughter. She makes all the decisions: where we’re eating, what we’re eating. Sometimes we drive to Long Island for an old-school family vacation and rent a place for a month. I try to introduce my daughter to the food that I loved and remember as a kid: steamer clams and lobster, hot dogs and cheeseburgers. Of course, we cook together. My daughter loves to cook. She loves it if I actually let her handle a knife.”
Does she have any food obsessions of her own?
“Right now, she’s on a Szechuan jag: she insists she can take it no matter how spicy it is.”
What off-the-grid destination surprised you most during all of your TV travels?
“I was really knocked sideways by how well we were treated in Iran and how delicious the food was and hospitable ordinary people were to us. Beirut is a fantastic vacation destination; I would not hesitate to send people there. It’s a great, exciting city that anybody would feel comfortable in. Cuba is obviously going to be the next big thing. I don’t know if they’re ready for the flood of excited tourists that will be pouring in there, but visitors won’t be disappointed by how beautiful it is.”
What are three things you never travel without?
“I bring an iPad loaded with books and films. If I’m stuck in an airport or a bus station, I have books to read or a movie to watch to kill some time—so that’s vital. Right now I’m reading the biography of Joan Didion. Also, comfortable shoes and something that I can scrunch up and use as a pillow. I’m pretty much good to go if I have those things.”
What can we expect from the next season of Parts Unknown?
“Cuba, Ethiopia, Istanbul, and Okinawa Island, which was really a revelation. It's so different from the rest of Japan; it’s almost a different country. Okinawa is much more laid back, very un-Japanese in a lot of ways. They have sort of been treated like the stepchild... and the feeling is mutual.”
What destination is about to have its moment?
“I hope Marseilles! When I told all my French friends I was going to Marseilles, their faces dropped. It’s France’s second-largest city but the French seem to have a very ambivalent attitude toward Marseilles. It’s very multicultural and it’s shockingly off the grid: it shouldn’t be.”
How do you have a New York City staycation?
“I stay at home as much as I can, that’s pure exotica—doing nothing at home, cooking in my own kitchen. When I do go out here, date night for my wife and myself is generally Korean BBQ or yakitori. You know, meat on skewers is pretty much the order of the day. Torishin, in Midtown, is terrific for yakitori.”
What’s a dish worth traveling for?
“One of the things I learned on my first trip to Japan is, there’s a huge difference between good sushi and great sushi. And really great sushi is worth driving a few hundred miles for. You have to travel for it.”
Where do you go for great sushi?
“Masa in New York is extraordinary. It’s one of the greatest places in the world. Of course, Jiro Ono’s place in Tokyo or my friend Yasuda’s place in Tokyo, Sushi Bar Yasuda. I’m very traditional when it comes to sushi, generally speaking. I don’t like big, exotic spider rolls or whacky inside-out rolls. I’m old school.”
If you had to move into one hotel and live there for the rest of your life, which one would it be?
“I would not feel cheated by life if I died in Chateau Marmont, in Los Angeles. I love that hotel above all others. It’s an organic entity—not like a chain or even a building—like a friendly version of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining in the sense that it has a heart and a soul. I feel like I’m staying with family every time I go. It’s the sort of place where, if you forget to put your pants on and walk down to the lobby in your pajamas, nobody’s going to care.”
Of all cities you’ve traveled to for work, which one would you like to go to alone, without the cameras, or anybody else?
“That’s tough. Tokyo is very exciting alone. It’s intimidating, but thrilling. Every time you need to feed yourself at a restaurant you’re taking the plunge, stepping through the curtains into a room filled with locals, menus in Japanese, feeling awkward and freakish—the tallest guy in the room—having no clue what it is that they’re serving. That’s thrilling to me, absolutely. When you finally get to the point when you can order breakfast at a restaurant? That’s a great feeling of accomplishment. That’s what I love about Tokyo. You’re forced to learn stuff every inch of the way.”