Anthony Bourdain is taking food television to riskier places than diners, drive-ins or dives.
The CNN original series “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” wrapped up its fifth season Sunday with a return to war-torn Beirut for the globe-trotting author/chef/TV host.
His last visit there in 2006 while filming “No Reservations,” his previous show for the Travel Channel, ended with the dramatic evacuation of his entire crew by the Marines, a life-changing experience for the New York native and his television ambitions.
While the most dangerous part of his return visit may have been the raw lamb he consumed at the home of a Hezbollah-supporting family, Bourdain’s show has evolved beyond a food travelogue, delving deeper into the culture of far-flung locales. It is a recipe that is scoring big ratings, becoming the most-watched prime-time original series for CNN as the network itself evolves beyond 24/7 news.
The show, which aired Sundays at 8 p.m. (CDT), topped its cable news network competitors in key demographics, ranking No.1 among adults 25 to 54 and averaging 765,000 total viewers over its eight-episode season, according to Nielsen.
A former chef, Bourdain, 59, rose to prominence with his best-selling 2000 memoir, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” in which he recounted “twenty-five years of sex, drugs, bad behavior and haute cuisine.” He began hosting TV shows for the Travel Channel in 2005, and two years ago launched his latest series for CNN, where food is a platform for telling bigger stories.
Bourdain is coming to Chicago on July 30, the last stop of his 10-city “Close to the Bone Tour,” a live mix of storytelling and audience interaction (7:30 p.m., Auditorium Theatre; for tickets, $70 and up, visit anthonybourdainontour.com). In an interview with the Tribune, he discussed everything from his TV show to the Chicago culinary scene. What follows is an edited transcript.
Q: We’ve read the book and seen the TV show. What is the stage version of Bourdain?
A: It’s walk out on stage and talk and tell stories and eventually take questions from the audience for about 90 minutes to two hours, and I try to be entertaining and funny for that period of time. It’s absolutely terrifying, it’s something I’ve done a lot of over the years. It over time takes on a similarity to stand-up. It’s a skill I never imagined having to acquire but over time it’s just something I’ve gotten pretty good at, and I enjoy doing.
Q: The most incongruous scene in the Beirut episode was when you sat down for a family meal amid the destruction that has befallen the city. Was that uncomfortable?
A: I’m hosted by a family of fervent Hezbollah supporters in an exclusively Hezbollah neighborhood. These are people who are appreciably recognized as a terrorist organization. On one hand, these very nice people are cooking for you and making you a meal. And you’re hanging out with their kids and you’re seeing a family not unlike your own. On the other hand, you’re very aware of what this organization has done and could very well do again. It was a very complicated and uncomfortable moment wrapped up inside what is ostensibly a pretty simple meal scene. So it’s food for thought, as well as the stomach.
Q: What does food reveal about the diverse places you visit?
A: The food that we eat and the food that we are unable to eat, tells people a lot about where we come from and the kind of conditions we live in and the political situation. Often it’s a long and painful story, one that often ends up with delicious food. A lot of cultures learn to cook really, really well because they have no other option — they didn’t have much to work with and they learned over time to make the most of it.
Q: Do you ever politely decline to sample local delicacies?
A: No, especially if I’m at somebody’s home. Finding yourself in a home where you’re surprised with something that makes you uncomfortable or that you really are not looking forward to eating, I’m going to take one for the team. Rather than offend my host, I will eat just about anything in that situation.
Q: How is the CNN show a departure from your previous efforts on Travel Channel?
A: They’ve really given me incredible license to go to places that no other network would be able to let us go. CNN is a worldwide news organization, they have contacts and experience in places like Congo, Libya, Iran, and they’ve made it possible for us to go to those places where no other network in their right mind would have. And they’ve let us do some very difficult material, much of it having nothing to do with food, that no previous network would have allowed us to do.
Q: Your last TV tour of Chicago was in 2009. How does the city stack up as a culinary destination?
A: I think the Chicago hot dog is the finest in America. Far and away it beats New York, it beats everywhere. I’m not a fan of deep dish pizza. There are a lot of great chefs, it’s a great city with a lot of great food, and a lot of great saloons and bars. It’s just a place I love going and any excuse to go to Chicago is a good one.
By Robert Channick