Last year, Anthony Bourdain was cruising along with two shows on the Travel Channel when Atlanta-based CNN gave him a call.
“It was a very surprising and flattering call,” said Bourdain earlier this week in a phone interview.
What was CNN able to offer that Travel Channel couldn’t? Executives enticed him by providing him access to places rarely visited by American TV cameras such as the Congo and Libya.
“I’m pretty sure if I said I wanted to do a show in Kabul [in Afghanistan], they could work it out,” he said.
Dubbed “Parts Unknown” and debuting Sunday night at 9 p.m., his show is structured loosely, with the ever curious, sharply witty Bourdain exploring local customs and people, with food as his focal point.
“Our rule No. 1,” Bourdain said, “is ‘How do we do something different from what we did last time, even if it’s wildly successful?’ Sowing confusion is our primary objective.”
The first episode is in Myanmar, where the country’s military leadership has loosened the reins recently.
“If we had come a year earlier,” Bourdain said, ” we would have been deported. Almost overnight, people there were free to say what they want. Press restrictions had been lifted. That was an extraordinary thing to witness.
The second episode set to air April 21 is much closer to home: Koreatown, a three-square-mile neighborhood in Los Angeles. He’s friends with Roy Choi, who helped launch the food truck revolution, and graffiti artist David Choe. Both guide him throughout the episode. They told him how the 1992 L.A. riots decimated Koreatown and how the area has evolved since in not necessarily predictable ways.
Bourdain, who began his career as a chef and broke through the pop culture consciousness with his best-selling 2000 book “Kitchen Confidential,” has became a TV fixture, appearing as a guest judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef” and a regular judge on ABC’s “The Taste” earlier this year. His Travel Channel show “No Reservations” won two Emmys.
“I’m absolutely not a journalist,” he said. “That would be delusional. It’s also constraining. I’m an essayist. These are very personal stories. They are very subjective. I have no need to be fair and balanced.”
His shoot in Libya was especially difficult, given dicey security issues. “We couldn’t let anyone know we were coming ahead of time,” he said. “You could only spend so much time outside your car. We had to be a moving target.”
The show is also CNN’s effort to stretch its wings.
“Parts Unknown” is created by an outside production company and not CNN staff, which had not been a common occurrence. CNN last year, before new president Jeff Zucker came along, began competing for shows with networks such as NatGeo, History and A&E to bolster weekend programming. (MSNBC already does so with its “Lockup” series.)
Bourdain last year visited Atlanta for his Travel Channel show “The Layover,” checking out places such as Fat Matt’s Rib Shack in Morningside, Holeman & Finch Public House in Buckhead and Buford Highway Farmers Market in Doraville. But his proudest moment? “Convincing [Food Network star and Marietta resident] Alton Brown to go to the Clermont Lounge with me,” he said.
How did Bourdain ply Brown to the popular strip club?
"Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown"
9 p.m., Sunday, April 14, CNN