Anthony Bourdain can be a surly guy. We doubt he’d disagree with that assessment. He’s cantankerous, a little rough around the edges — not exactly a ray of sunshine.
But his many years traveling the world on television have shown us he’s also open-minded and forward-thinking, and appears to see the value in every place he goes. He’s dry, but gracious and genuine. He’s a lot of things that wouldn’t necessarily go together but somehow work.
Perhaps that’s why he identifies with Pittsburgh, as he recently told us he does. Pittsburgh is a lot of opposing things, too, especially right now, as it transitions to something new while trying to figure out how to hold onto its identity. It’s precisely that evolution that intrigues Bourdain so much, and what brought him here to film an episode of “Parts Unknown.”
We caught up with him on the phone recently to dig deeper into his experience here.*
NEXTpittsburgh: I imagine that even five years ago, Pittsburgh wouldn’t have been a place you’d think to produce a show. What got Pittsburgh on your radar?
Anthony Bourdain: I’m increasingly interested in American cities in transition, and what happens when cities experience a “revival.” What does that mean? Who gets revived? How that gets distributed, who gets pushed out, who’s included and who’s excluded — cities like Detroit that were company towns and the company is gone. That interests me, and I’ve been thinking more and more about those things in general.
I’ve been to Pittsburgh a number of times and have fallen in love with how it looks. The architecture, to me, the countryside, just the feel of the city — I always felt it resonated with me.
And then, of course, I was reading, like everybody else, that the food scene — the restaurant scene — has really been taking off. That there are a lot of great chefs doing interesting work that is evocative of or reflective of Pittsburgh and the surrounding country. So I thought, you know, OK, we can do a good, interesting hour of television, and we can make it look really good, too.
Did you find what you expected to find here, or were you surprised by what you found?
I expected to have a really good time making the show and meet a lot of nice people in a place I like, and that’s what I experienced.
Do you think Pittsburgh and cities like it — in transition — are misunderstood?
Yeah, I think the degree to which we as Americans don’t understand — we misunderstand, we mischaracterize each other, we misrepresent ourselves — is really striking.
I’m in West Virginia right now, and loving it. And I mean really, really liking it. There’s a Holy Bible on my bedstand in my hotel, there’s no cell service, and people around here — every meal begins with someone saying grace, whether you’re in a coal mine or somebody’s home. And most of the people I’ve met sure didn’t vote like I voted, but I really, really like it here. I like the people here. I feel very powerfully about this place.
But talk to my fellow New Yorkers and you’re going to get a “Deliverance” joke and ‘oh, those people voted for Trump,’ and just a lot of willful mischaracterization and a blatant intent to disregard. From both sides. Republican and Democrat.
But being here, and experiencing it, is something very different. And that’s true of just about every place.
It’s interesting you bring up politics because in this Pittsburgh episode, your conversation with John and Gisele Fetterman [of Braddock] turned political. How much were you thinking about politics while you were here, especially given this new political climate?
I think about politics all the time because it’s everywhere. Food is very political. We’re in a real culture war being exploited by both sides. But I think mostly, literally, we’re living in times that are unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. Johnson, Nixon, the Vietnam War — these were divisive times, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Never seen a national conversation in the open like this. So yes, it’s very much on my mind.
One of the more controversial moments in the Pittsburgh episode comes when you sit down with Sonja Finn [of Dinette] and Justin Severino [of Cure and Morcilla], and the issue of gentrification comes up. When high-end restaurants go into lower-income neighborhoods, is that a good thing or a bad thing, or is it too complicated to say?
It’s a question I ask myself all the time. When a hot restaurant opens in a food desert where there’s nothing but McDonald’s and overpriced convenience stores, I’m mean, that’s gotta be good. It does bring employment. It brings people into the neighborhood and helps open other businesses.
But at the end of that process, is the neighborhood altered in a positive way or negative way? I don’t know. I really don’t know.
There’s a ‘queasifying’ ethical dimension even to what I do. I bring cameras to these beautiful, unspoiled little places, and then a lot of Americans show up. That’s good — some little business owner makes a lot more money and maybe expands his business, and maybe sends his grandkids to college. But on the other hand, I’ve fucked up the place. It’s not the same. I’ve ruined it for the locals, in some people’s eyes. And I’ve ruined it for myself when I come back!
That whole concept is brought to a micro level in Severino and Finn’s conversation, in which you have Finn saying she thinks about the neighborhood where she’s opening a business, and Severino saying ‘I opened Cure for me.’
They’re both very legitimate points of view. It’s not like Justin is opening a Walmart. Within the real world dimension, that’s a serious moral question: Is it OK to open a Walmart in a small community and drive out all the mom and pops? Opening restaurants — that’s what cooks and chefs do.
Speaking of food, in Pittsburgh, you ate a lot of good-looking food. What did you enjoy?
I’m a cheap date, honestly. Give me a pierogi and cold beer and I’m happy.
I’ve been cooking professionally for so many years and looking at food professionally, that when I can experience it emotionally — that always makes me happy.
Did the higher-end food you had here impress you? Is it worth the hype?
Yes, it was very, very, very, very good. I heard it was great, and it was.
What impression did Pittsburgh leave on you?
I think what’s struck me, what’s resonating, is the romantic attachment to the steel town past. I’m experiencing that in [West Virginia] too. Whether you’re still working in the mines or not, you define yourself always through that prism. That’s going to linger long after coal’s gone. And that romantic attachment, that pride — and it’s justifiable pride — extends some injury as well. It’s very interesting, very compelling, and very beautiful to me.
I look forward to coming back. I really do.
The Pittsburgh episode of “Parts Unknown” airs on October 22 on CNN.
*This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.