Anthony Bourdain is a giant of the travel world. From scouting out local-only restaurants in unexplored locations (the Republic of the Congo, Libya, Burma), to delving deeper into the sub-cultures of well-known cities (K-town in Los Angeles, Tangier in Morocco), we’ve followed his every move on Travel Channel’s recently wrapped No Reservations and CNN’s new Parts Unknown. I got the opportunity to ask him for some travel advice, as well as his favorite restaurants, and more. Here’s what what he had to say…
Part 1: Travel Advice
Q: How do you discover the professionals who take you around? Can anyone do this on their own?
A: We rely heavily on chefs and food bloggers. They’re useful resources. But, often it really depends on the location – sometimes we rely on contacts from friends, using our network. Food bloggers are a great resource because they’ve gotten to know and cover one aspect of the culture.
Q: Sometimes Americans are leery of eating out while they’re abroad – they might think they’re going to get sick or taste something they don’t like. What’s your advice for people who are new at this?
A: I always say you’re much more likely to get poisoned at the hotel breakfast buffet than by eating street food. Their concerns are misplaced; eating and getting out and expressing a willingness to try something new is the best way to see the country. You’ll see things you’d never see otherwise. When it comes to that, the possibility of diarrhea is well worth it.
Q: You often get to try home cooking when you travel, and that might be difficult for the average traveler. Any advice on how to do this?
A: I find that street food and markets are a great place to start. They give you a good look at what the home cooking of the country is like. We really try to highlight and find the everyday, beloved, cheap staples of the country. And we try to make friends. We walk around and if we can get a home cooked meal out of it, that’s great.
Q: How do you recommend people find great restaurants in a new place?
A: I always recommend provoking food nerd fury on websites. Say you’re going to a new place; go online and find any old reference on Google for a good restaurant. Before you go, post about that restaurant on a local food forum and say that you had the best [region/country’s specialty] there. Inevitably, it will spark rage in the locals and they’ll tell you where their favorite spot is and how it’s so much better. Pretending to be knowledgeable about places you’ve never been is a great jumping off point. People will tell you how stupid you are. Provoking that kind of fury in a food nerd will introduce a ton of great spots.
I also always say avoid the concierge. No matter how many times you say you want to eat like the locals, their experience has told them that Americans want someplace clean and western-friendly, with a bathroom that’s in good condition. Instead, ask the locals: If you’re taking a taxi, ask the driver where they eat. And ask them if they want to eat with you.
Ultimately, if there are more than two people from your own country at the chosen restaurant, you’re in the wrong place. And that goes for everywhere, from Venice to Vietnam.
Q: How do you recommend travelers get a feel for the culture and vibe of a new place?
A: Read up; but not the guide books. Read novels by people who spent a long period of time at the street level there: Ex-intelligence officers, NGO workers. It doesn’t matter how old the book is, it’ll give you a sense of how a place smells, feels, the little intricacies, annoyances, and delights of a place.
Q: Any other advice for travelers?
A: Mistakes are fun. They’re the best time you ever have traveling – when things go fantastically wrong. That’s when you end up having a better time than you thought you’d ever have. It’s not when you’ve planned things out. It’s when you least expect it. I always encourage people to get lost.
Part 2: Favorites and Confessions
Q: What is the single best meal you’ve ever had while traveling?
A: That’s like picking a favorite child, but the sushi at Sukibayashi Jiro, in Tokyo is amazing.
Q: As travel writers, it’s sort of our job to spoil these lesser-known, but still awesome, spots. Do you feel like after you go, the places you visit become overly touristy because you went there?
A: There is that risk and it happens regularly. It’s sort of the morally queasifying aspect of what we do. We call them unspoiled places because they’re known and beloved exclusively by locals. After we go, often there is a change in the character of these places. But more often than not, the owners are really happy with the additional business.
Q: What are your favorite food destinations in the U.S. and abroad? Any that are unexpected or up-and-coming?
A: Austin has a vibrant food truck scene. San Francisco is always a joy to visit. They’re doing some really cool things down in Asheville, North Carolina. Los Angeles is getting better every year. I love K-town there. Also Baja, both California and Mexico is definitely under-appreciated; it’s an emerging food wonderland. Penang; Vietnam; Japan; Spain has simple, yet delicious food everywhere. Sardinia is great, too.
Q: Do you ever get homesick and eat fast food or American-style food while abroad?
A: Never abroad. Really the last time I ate Burger King was after a 10-day trip to the Congo. I had barely eaten the entire time and had such low-quality food that, at that point, I was grateful for a fast food burger. I’m a fan of In-N-Out and a sucker for Popeyes. But other than that I don’t really get fast food, even when I’m in the States.
Q: Are there certain restaurants that are worth traveling for, all by themselves? What do you order there?
A: Asador Etxebarri outside of San Sebastian. The sushi at Sukibayashi Jiro is worth flying to Tokyo for. You don’t get into what you should eat, you just go and say, “Feed me.”
Q: What’s your favorite airline snack?
A: I try to avoid eating on airlines at all costs. If I do, my go-to is generally a lot of port and some cheese.
Q: You got your start in the kitchen. When you’re traveling, are you ever inspired to go back and help out or see what the chef is doing?
A: I had 30 years of that. It wouldn’t be helpful to anybody for me to go back and try to help out. For instance, I could never make sushi well. It takes a lifetime and years of practice to do that. It took me a lifetime to get French bistro down. I like cooking now and again, but I rely on dishes I’m very comfortable with. I’ll cook people some French or Italian food if the rare opportunity presents itself while traveling.