“This is going to be the worst day of Anderson’s life,” Anthony Bourdain announces gleefully as he settles behind a table at Takashi, a Japanese-Korean fusion restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village. Before Bourdain’s CNN docu-series “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” premieres each season, he and Anderson (Cooper, obviously) sit down for a meal and film a special preview. Cooper hates trying new food, and Bourdain – the TV host and chef who eats everything – takes great joy in watching the cable news anchor squirm.
Cooper walks in a few minutes later in jeans and a maroon T-shirt; Bourdain is wearing the standard jeans and a black T-shirt. “We mirror,” Cooper says, gesturing back and forth. “I look to you for my styling,” Bourdain explains. The banter continues as the cameras roll and they discuss the eighth season of “Parts Unknown,” the food and travel series that kicks off Sunday with a guest appearance by President Barack Obama in Hanoi.
The White House reached out to Bourdain’s team about getting the president on the show; when Cooper asks whether it’s because the president is a fan, Bourdain deflects. Instead, he talks about how he drank beer with Obama on plastic stools at a small, family-run restaurant. To the joy of the locals, they ate a uniquely Hanoi dish called bun cha, which includes cold rice noodles and grilled pork.
“That puts that ‘secret Muslim’ thing to rest, by the way,” Bourdain adds.
The Secret Service wasn’t thrilled about the “hard to control” environment, but ultimately Bourdain and Obama dined for about 90 minutes. The meal cost $6 and Bourdain picked up the check – quite the unconventional presidential meeting. “But for whatever reason,” Bourdain tells Cooper, “they seemed willing to play.”
Actually, there are a few obvious reasons Obama might stop by. Namely, “Parts Unknown” has developed a fiercely loyal audience in the 3 1/2 years since its debut, and Bourdain’s fans follow his every move as he explores international cultures and cuisines. This month, the show won its fourth consecutive Emmy Award for Outstanding Informational Series or Special. (It won another in 2013 for cinematography.) The show is a great press stop for, say, a world leader who wants to talk about his trip to improve relations between the United States and Vietnam.
But in early 2013, when CNN first announced plans for the series, some inside and outside the cable news network scoffed.
“There were people who were naysayers. ... ‘Why are you putting someone who’s not a journalist on CNN?’” says Amy Entelis, executive vice president for talent and content development. “People thought that change in strategy was threatening to CNN in some ways. ... It wasn’t a huge ordeal, but there was some skepticism about whether this was the right direction.”
At the time, the network wanted to launch a few hours of original programming every week to combat its “peaks and valleys” ratings problem: Viewers flipped to CNN in droves for big news events, but when the story died down, the audience was gone. During a development meeting in 2012, Bourdain’s name came up.
Bourdain, of course, was a cultural phenomenon with the long-running, food-centric hit “No Reservations” on Travel Channel, which started in 2005. He also was known for writing books, such as the best-selling, secret-spilling “Kitchen Confidential.” In 2011, he landed his own book line at Harper Collins imprint Ecco, presenting works by what he called “strong voices,” including Roy Choi’s “L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food” and Daniel Vaughn’s “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue.” (Bourdain’s first cookbook in a decade, “Appetites,” will be released Oct. 25 and centers on home cooking.)
Although CNN was wary of airing something that looked like a reality show, executives could see a sharp, engrossing documentary-style series.
“He made you want to go on a journey with him around the world, which is really what CNN wants to do every day as well,” Entelis says. “He studiously avoids saying he’s a journalist, and we were really looking for a different kind of storytelling on CNN.”
Timely topics and food
Bourdain headed to CNN after his contract with Travel Channel ended; “Parts Unknown” started airing Sunday nights in April 2013. He relished CNN’s resources and the freedom to go beyond topics that were more impactful than, as he puts it, “Is it salty or sweet?”
Bourdain, 60, insists he doesn’t take himself too seriously on “Parts Unknown,” even though he’s gone in-depth on issues including the drug problems in Mexico City, kangaroo courts in Myanmar and the changing atmosphere of Cuba. He often features journalists. In Iran, he met with Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian mere weeks before Rezaian was arrested and detained for more than a year.
Dispatches on food are mixed into every episode. At lunch with Cooper, Bourdain talks about his favorite meals of the season as the two dine on hand-sliced Kobe beef tartare served with quail egg, sea urchin wrapped in seaweed and calf’s brain cream served with blinis and caviar. (”It’s actually really good. Wow, I like brain,” Cooper says, almost to himself.)
Season 8 goes all over the map: Bourdain details the hot chicken that almost “destroyed” him in Nashville and his spicy adventures in Sichuan. He was eating roasted bone marrow in London during the time of Brexit and found the city in “a collective mental breakdown.”
As Bourdain and Cooper dive into the chef’s selection, which includes various barbecued organs and sweetbreads, Cooper balks at the aorta. “I didn’t know you could eat aorta,” he says doubtfully.
“You can eat anything, Andy,” Bourdain responds.
High profile guests
Bourdain’s food fearlessness is famous enough to be a punch line. During the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, host and “Saturday Night Live” star Cecily Strong joked that “it’s just comforting to know that whenever a big story breaks, I can turn to CNN and watch Anthony Bourdain eat a cricket.”
CNN president Jeff Zucker – who came to the network just a few months before “Parts Unknown” launched – says that over the past four years, CNN has proved it can “walk and chew gum at the same time” in terms of content. When there’s breaking news, Bourdain’s show gets pulled: The Season 7 finale featuring Buenos Aires was pre-empted for coverage of the Orlando nightclub shooting in June. (The episode will air as part of Season 8 on Nov. 27.)
“I think that the beauty of CNN today is that we have evolved to a place where we can juggle both original series and films and documentaries with our coverage of news and politics and breaking news,” Zucker says. “There are people who criticize us for doing too much coverage of certain stories, and there are people who want to talk about our original series. So the bottom line is everyone’s talking about CNN, and that’s a good place to be.”
Next year, CNN will have 13 original series on the air. Ratings-wise, “Parts Unknown” has stayed fairly steady over the years, averaging 880,000 viewers on Sunday nights in the first season and 828,000 in the seventh season. News of the Obama appearance got plenty of attention when it was leaked over the summer; Zucker says he wasn’t surprised that the show gets such high-profile guest stars.
“We get requests left and right from people who want to be in it. Almost none of those are honored or done,” Zucker says. “But the president was in Vietnam and wanted to be part of the show. ... I thought it was just another sign of just how deeply the program has become a part of American popular culture now.”
Two guys at dinner
After the filming at Takashi wraps and Cooper departs, Bourdain sits at another table while a downpour continues outside. A passerby suddenly taps loudly on the window and dashes into the restaurant, even though it’s closed. “I just have to tell you how much I love your show,” she gushes. “I am, like, obsessed with you.” Bourdain smiles politely and says thanks.
Although Bourdain can cause a commotion in public, thanks to fans who have watched his shows for years and/or plan their vacations inspired by his travels, he doesn’t ruminate on his success – even about his presidential visitor, as he emphasizes that he and Obama just talked like two everyday guys having dinner.
“I did not wander outside my area of expertise, let’s put it that way,” Bourdain says. “I spoke to him as a fellow father, as somebody who loves Asia, as a guy who likes food and cold beer, and that’s it.”
Airs: 9 p.m. Sunday, CNN
Preview: 8 p.m. Friday on “Anderson Cooper,” CNN