The Secrets of His Success: Anthony Bourdain on His Award-Winning ‘Parts Unknown’ Series

In a lively conversation with his cast and production crew at The Paley Center for Media, Bourdain spoke in depth about the success of his CNN show 'Parts Unknown.'
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In a lively conversation with his cast and production crew at The Paley Center for Media, Bourdain spoke in depth about the success of his CNN show 'Parts Unknown.'
Anthony Bourdain Paley Center Photo

Anthony Bourdain (Photo: Paley Center via tumblr)

This week one of television’s greatest explorers, Anthony Bourdain, returned to CNN for the fifth season premiere of Parts Unknown. We joined Bourdain on April 30th at the Paley Center in New York City as he sat down with Elvis Mitchell to discuss unconventional philosophies that turn his travels into award-winning programs. In a lively conversation with his cast and production crew, Bourdain spoke in depth about his enthusiasm for cinematography and film-like editing, how to connect with locals, and his proudest moments in making 15 years of travel television. 

Here are eight things we learned in the process:

1. Bourdain’s storytelling technique is heavily influenced by his favorite books and films. Stories are really important to Bourdain, and he is credited with bringing a place to life on screen like a great fiction writer. With a strong stance against conventional and predictable storytelling, he turns to books like The Quiet American by Graham Greene to evoke a romantic connection with certain places. Ultimately, Bourdain and his Parts Unknown team use film and video to make audiences feel an emotionally [strange] and powerful connection as well. The key: good production value, strong editing skills, and original music.

2. Bourdain’s best shows are rooted in a simple formula: “less me, more B [B-roll].” Over the last decade, Bourdain and the team have learned that with “time and alcohol,” the people that invite them into their homes and the setting they’re in start to come alive and tell the stories themselves. Each cast member is encouraged to relate to the on-air talent, build trust, and let them open up before turning on the cameras. As a result, Bourdain favors maximum B-roll with minimal voice over, even silence if possible, to make a visually-impactful moment on screen. For example, check out the two minute silence break in Parts Unknown’s Season 2 episode, Detroit.

Anthony Bourdain Paley Center Photo

Bourdain, producer Sandra Zweig, and Elvis Mitchell. (Photo: Paley Center via tumblr)

3. Bourdain’s proudest and most difficult show was the Congo. In the debut season of Parts Unknown, CNN made one of his life-long dreams come true by sending Bourdain to the Congo. Luckily, through CNN’s resources and the right “fixers” (people on the ground that connect and protect the cast and crew), Bourdain recreated Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and the classic Apocalypse Now through his own lens, despite being located “where all the world’s ills [are].” During their shoot, Bourdain and his crew were extorted, detained, and threatened daily. Miraculously, everyone walked away unharmed and fell in love with the Congo’s complicated beauty. 

4. Bourdain no longer takes photos on his trips. Except for pictures of his food on Instagram. He finds many places to be “too big, too complex” to capture in a still photograph and now leans on his camera crew to do that. He admits that social media has changed the way he experiences food travel, which he states is simultaneously “awesome and upsetting.”

WATCH THE FULL PANEL DISCUSSION HERE

5. Bourdain decides the list of places to visit every year. In his 15 years of globe-trotting for TV audiences, his approach for choosing regions has barely changed. With the support of his producer, Sandra Zweig, and CNN’s minimal interference, Bourdain makes a long list of places he wants to visit for each upcoming season. From there, Zweig edits the list down to what is possible, most diverse, and ultimately best for making television. 

Anthony Bourdain Paley Center Photo

Bourdain and his 'Parts Unknown' crew. (Photo: Paley Center via tumblr)

6. Celebrity guest stars often approach him to be on the show. In season five, Bourdain travels to Madagascar with film director Darren Aronofsky (Noah, Requiem for a Dream, The Black Swan, Pi), explores Miami with local residents Iggy Pop and Questlove, and revisits Asbury Park with famed musician Southside Johnny. Aronofsky asked Bourdain to “play” as many other guest stars have, to which Bourdain was delighted and obliged.

7. Bourdain has never watched a single episode of The Layover. Despite its popularity, the No Reservations spin-off series made him very unhappy. 

8. Bourdain believes “the misadventures are just as important as the adventures.” As an appreciator of food and beer, Bourdain is often asked for travel advice but keeps his words of wisdom simple. He believes travelers should ingrain themselves in diverse cultural experiences by waking up early and hitting the local markets. Among his (and my) favorites, Mercado de La Boqueria in Barcelona. As for worldly inspiration, he goes on to say “presumably, you’re learning something, you’re experiencing something… you’re having misadventures along the way.”

You can watch Bourdain uncover little-known destinations and diverse cultures on Parts Unknown on CNN Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.