Renowned foodie Anthony Bourdain has traveled to some of the world’s most exotic places, satisfying his appetite for both great meals and savory stories. He now finds himself in unexpected territory — the airwaves of CNN.
“I was just shocked that they gave me a badge that lets me in the studio,” said Bourdain, 56, whose series, “Parts Unknown,” started last weekend on the news network. “I keep thinking I’m going to get kicked out.”
That’s an unlikely scenario considering the early numbers. Last Sunday’s premiere, in which Bourdain hopped from one curry house to the next across Myanmar, drew 747,000 viewers, a 62 percent increase from last year in that time slot. Among viewers age 25-54, he more than doubled the regular Sunday-night audience.
CNN President Jeff Zucker has not given an interview since taking over the struggling network in January, but in an address Monday to the Atlanta Press Club, he said he “completely embraces” the idea of picking up shows like “Parts,” which could easily run on A&E or Discovery Channel.
“For too long, we believed our competitors were just the news networks,” he told the group.
Bourdain is quick to dismiss the idea that he’s any sort of journalist, but many of his pieces are so steeped in history and culture they could be segments on “60 Minutes” — except with more swearing and dinner breaks.
The Myanmar episode gave viewers a rare look at the Burmese countryside and didn’t shy away from the country’s long record of human rights violations. In this Sunday’s installment, Bourdain spends more time exploring the effects of the 1992 Los Angeles riots on L.A.’s Koreatown than in searching for the best banchan.
It helps that people who may be wary of Americans with cameras seem to open up to Bourdain, whose blunt, quick-witted personality has kept him a star since the debut of his 2000 bestseller, “Kitchen Confidential.”
“We quickly found out in Beirut that it’s a huge advantage when your only agenda is finding out what makes people happy when they eat,” he said. “Maybe they open up to you in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise.”
If the new program looks more professional than Bourdain’s previous Travel Channel series, such as “No Reservations,” that’s because CNN provides better connections and production values.
Bourdain praises his former employer for its support over the years, but he didn’t leave the network under the friendliest of circumstances.
He publicly criticized Travel for editing some final episodes so it appeared he was endorsing Cadillac. He also says he was disappointed that the channel appears to be morphing into a more populist, dumbed-down destination, the same strategy adopted by competitors that have seen their ratings soar with brain-dead shows like “Duck Dynasty” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”
“In the end, I didn’t like the future of what I was seeing there,” said Bourdain, dismissing rookie series “Xtreme Waterparks” and “Insane Coaster Wars” by referring to them only as “Waterpark Wars.”
“I’m just looking for someone crazy enough to let me do what I want to do.”
Minneapolis event with Zimmern
Bourdain is keeping busy with other activities. He’s taking food-oriented trips with celebrities including Joel McHale and Aziz Ansari on “The Getaway,” a summer series that will be part of the little-known G4’s transformation into the Esquire Network.
He’s also on a nationwide speaking tour that stops May 11 at Minneapolis’ State Theatre, where he’ll be joined by local food expert and Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern.
Don’t expect an evening of light conversation in which the two chefs exchange recipes. Bourdain is known for his colorful, often controversial comments.
Here’s what he once said about Food Network’s Sandra Lee: “Pure evil. This frightening hell-spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker seems on a mission to kill her fans, one meal at a time.”
He also slammed Mario Batali for being a part of ABC’s daytime talker “The Chew.” But his friend Zimmern won’t melt like butter. In fact, he’s already given Bourdain grief for participating in ABC’s food-competition series “The Taste” after slamming Batali.
The criticism is fair game, said Bourdain, who seems to like a good fight more than winning it.
“Hey, I made fun of someone doing a big ABC show and then I did a big ABC show,” he said. “I’m OK being a walking contradiction.”