There’s a reason people are drawn to Anthony Bourdain. Even standing on the red carpet surrounded by press flashbulbs at the 2014 Peabody Awards, the guy just seems…real. He makes eye contact. He listens intently to questions. And although he’s amassed millions of fans for his food writing and travel shows (he’s here because his CNN show Parts Unknown took home a Peabody), Bourdain simply isn’t interested in taking credit.
“It was kind of an accident,” he says of his success. “Food is a really personal thing. I started out making a food show about me shoving food and liquor into my face, and over time it’s morphed into something else.”
There’s no nepotistic Hollywood connection here, no random lucky break that catapulted Bourdain into the limelight. In August 2000, after years working as a line cook (sometimes successfully, sometimes not), Bourdain wrote a semiautobiographical book that blew open the nation’s restaurant industry with raw, honest (and wildly funny) talk about what really goes on behind those swinging kitchen doors.
Bourdain capitalized on the attention Kitchen Confidential garnered, forming solid friendships with some of the food world’s biggest stars, from Eric Ripert to Michael Ruhlman, all while maintaining his “I’m just a cook who likes to write” narrative. But his magnetism attracted television execs, and after a flirtation with the Food Network, No Reservations, the show that launched Bourdain into stardom, premiered on the Travel Channel in 2005.
Though his star rose quickly, it’s the people he spends time with in the many countries he visits that deserve the attention, he argues. “Our focus has largely been led by the ever-wider scope of things that people have started to talk about and show us,” he says. “Most of those things are directly related to the fact that I just showed up witless and reasonably open-minded asking what’s for dinner.”
No Reservations might not have pioneered the idea of using food to tell larger cultural and political stories, but Bourdain made it an art form, developing a rapport with a wide swath of society in dozens of countries. On air, his rakish charm and obvious delight in new ideas, new landscapes—and new reasons to throw back a few drinks—resonated with viewers.
Over the years, he’s developed a sense of sophistication, taking increasing interest in complex, hard-to-boil-down conflicts and cultural clashes. Parts Unknown has covered everything from the hip-hip movement in Libya to the legacy of apartheid in South Africa. “Food allows connection,” he says. “What we choose to do with that connection is another thing. Is it going to lead to world peace? It can’t hurt.”
What began as a food show now serves as a sort of cultural bridge, an idea Bourdain hesitantly embraces. “Clearly, from what I’ve seen, the way people have reacted to some of the shows we’ve done, people have begun to at least entertain the possibility that they have something in common with people they might not have thought they’d have something in common with,” he says. “Frankly, that’s enough for me. It was never the agenda to create a political show, though it ends up being very political. We’re kind of making it up as we go along, honestly.”