Anthony Bourdain extinguishes his Marlboro Red before heading into a Popeyes in Lafayette, La., on a rainy February evening—his third trip to the fried-chicken chain in three days while in town to film the upcoming June 17 Cajun-themed episode of his CNN show Parts Unknown. Bourdain has been frequenting this spot—where he orders the mac and cheese, spicy fried chicken and biscuits and gravy with a fountain Dr. Pepper—because, as in every city he visits, he’s done his research.
The chef turned travel TV host knows that this particular Popeyes, a seven-minute walk from the DoubleTree Hilton hotel where he is staying, is the last remaining location in the U.S. with a buffet—and having just eaten his way through Bhutan and Hong Kong, he’s in an all-you-can-eat kind of mood for something different.
“To me, Popeyes is exotica,” he tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday. “I was eating noodles and roast goose and Chinese food for the past 10 days. So to be back and eat some Americana food, well, I will weep with gratitude at macaroni and cheese.”
Indulging purely for pleasure is rare for Bourdain, 61. He and his tight-knit six-person film crew—many of whom have worked with him since his first foray into television in 2002 on Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour—spend about 10 days in each city seeking out indigenous cuisine and the locals who make it best. All of Bourdain’s waking hours, including his meals, are meticulously scheduled by a producer for the series, currently in its 11th season.
“They try not to beat up on me and not schedule two big eating and drinking scenes in one day,” says Bourdain, who will often fast off-camera to keep his appetite strong on-set.
While most days start early for Bourdain, on this morning in Lafayette, he has a “gloriously late call time” so he can down “two big jugs of coffee” for breakfast, retreat up to his hotel room to do some writing (he pens all his voiceovers for Parts Unknown), and sneak in a nap.
At 3 p.m. he meets his driver, who will take him to the episode’s biggest food scene, the fais-dodo, a Cajun dance party set under an enormous white tent in the backyard of a friend he met while filming a previous episode. Bourdain has researched the history of the fais-dodo and the people he’ll encounter there, but everything else that happens is spontaneous.
“We’ll provide enough backstory, but there’s no script,” says the episode’s producer Jeff Allen. “Tony just arms himself with information.”
The crew have been on the scene for hours to set up and gather extra footage so by the time Bourdain shows up, the party-goers have forgotten they’re being filmed. “Everyone should think of these crew guys as, at worst, an annoying relative with a camera. Not as an invading army from outside,” says Bourdain. “Alcohol helps and therefore, it’s not just my responsibility, but the responsibility of the crew to drink.”
His impossibly cool demeanor (he wears all his own clothes—usually jeans and T-shirts—and doesn’t bother with hair or makeup for filming) and general uninterest with being the star of the show help to set the locals at ease.
“Ideally I shut up and let other people talk. Or if I ask a lot of stupid questions, we’ll edit those out,” he says. “The point is, it’s not about me, it’s about getting people to a place where they feel comfortable enough to say interesting things about who they are, where they come from and what makes them happy.”
Because he spends roughly 250 days a year on the road, Bourdain says the Parts Unknown team “has become like my dysfunctional family. At the end of the shoot, a lot of times we hang out for hours drinking someplace like the breakfast nook slash bar in the hotel.”
But he also makes time, albeit extremely limited time, for his own family. Bourdain never shoots two cities back-to-back. Instead he reserves about five days a month to spend with Ariane, his 11-year-old daughter, who lives with his ex-wife Ottavia Busia, a mixed-martial-arts fighter, in New York.
“I’ll go back, see my daughter, unpack, repack, mimic a normal life, which is extraordinarily pleasurable to me,” says the star, who also further complicates his hectic travel schedule by planning trips to Rome to visit his girlfriend, actress Asia Argento, between shoots. “I really love doing laundry. When I go home, putting my laundry in the machine and then hearing the dryer going around, that’s very comforting to me.”
Though that doesn’t mean Bourdain is ready to put away his passport (he’s on his 12th) and retire to one of the nearly 100 countries he’s visited anytime soon. “I gave up on that. I’ve tried. I just think I’m just too nervous, neurotic, driven,” he says. “I would have had a different answer a few years ago. I might have deluded myself into thinking that I’d be happy in a hammock or gardening. But no, I’m quite sure I can’t. I’m going to pretty much die in the saddle.”
Parts Unknown airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on CNN.