What it was like to work with Anthony Bourdain in Thailand

(CNN) — When crew from CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” contacted me in February 2014 to ask for help with an upcoming shoot in Thailand, after all I agreed with out hesitation.

No meals celeb was extra extensively cherished than Anthony Bourdain on the time, and his posthumous fame and recognition have solely grown since. In an period the place cooks are the brand new rockstars, he was Johnny Cash, preserving it uncooked and actual.

Playing down his historical past in skilled kitchens, together with Manhattan’s Brasserie Les Halles, he favored to describe himself as a failed chef and talked brazenly about previous substance abuse. He sharply criticized over-hyped TV cooks and the Michelin cult, utilizing his affect as a substitute to reward the road distributors and line cooks who feed many of the world.

For 17 years, throughout 4 tv collection (“A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations”,” The Layover” and “Parts Unknown”), and in over 50 nations, Tony allow us to tag alongside as he met individuals from all walks of life and explored their meals traditions, irrespective of how alien they could seem to the house viewers. In truth, the extra alien it was, the higher, however all the time in an area context relatively than as a vital, judging observer.

And it wasn’t nearly meals. His zig-zag path throughout the globe was strewn with tough jewels of philosophy.

“The more I travel,” he mentioned, “the less I know.”

Watch Anthony Bourdain eat brains and blood in Thailand on his present “Parts Unknown.”

I was approached by Tony’s producer Tom Vitale, who spent nearly his total profession working alongside him. Tony favored working with Lonely Planet guidebook authors, Vitale mentioned by means of introduction, as a result of they knew the terrain and had been used to tight journey schedules.

In a collection of emails, Vitale laid out his plans to shoot in Chiang Mai, and requested for my recommendation on places and actions. At that time, the wildly profitable collection was in its third season.

It wasn’t Tony’s first on-camera go to to Thailand. In 2003, “A Cook’s Tour” added Bangkok to a Singapore shoot throughout an extended flight layover in the Thai capital. Bangkok was showcased once more in the fifth season of “No Reservations” (2008), when Tony dove deeper into road meals.

“Why would anyone eat in a restaurant when they could eat like this?” he exclaims whereas sitting on the wood steps at Thailand’s Amphawa Floating Market, scooping shrimp muffins from a paper plate.

So Tony and crew had been no strangers to Thailand after they approached me about capturing “Parts Unknown” in Chiang Mai. Producer Vitale mentioned they notably wanted spectacular places the place they might shoot rice farming, monks receiving alms at daybreak and surroundings alongside the Ping River, Chiang Mai’s most important waterway.

After I despatched Vitale a listing of potential places, he got here again with one other request.

Referring to my e book “Sacred Tattoos of Thailand,” he requested whether or not I may organize for Tony to get inked with a magic Thai tattoo — sak yan — someplace in Chiang Mai. I steered a comparatively little-known (on the time) grasp known as Ajahn Nen, who I’d first met whereas he was a monk at Wat Si Munruang in close by Saraphi.

Andy Ricker, chef-owner of Portland Thai restaurant Pok Pok, took Anthony Bourdain to his favourite Chiang Mai eateries through the shoot.

Zero Point Zero

Now a layman with his personal consecrated sak yan shrine not removed from his previous monastery, Ajahn Nen mentioned he’d be completely satisfied to host the crew, and so we organized a date and time.

By this level, the manufacturing crew had invited Andy Ricker, chef-owner of Portland’s famed northern Thai restaurant Pok Pok, to take Tony round to his favourite eateries in Chiang Mai and environs. Andy and I’ve recognized one another for years, and we exchanged excited emails discussing the upcoming Chiang Mai shoot.

Karaoke Cowboy

After recommending places, and agreeing to help through the tattoo shoot, it appeared my tasks had been executed. Then Vitale emailed once more, saying Tony questioned if I may make an look as a karaoke singer in one scene.

With solely two days’ discover, they requested me to compose a ingesting track in Thai that I may sing to Tony at a Chiang Mai karaoke joint. To use an current track would possibly create licensing points, he mentioned. I agreed to give it a attempt — think about how nervous I was about singing in Thai on-camera, a lot much less having to write the track myself — and Vitale wrote again: “Wonderful! Do you have a white linen suit? I’m going for a bit of film noir feel with the scene. A moody undertone like in this scene from ‘City of Ghosts.'”

The YouTube link he despatched was a clip from the 2002 crime thriller, set in postwar Cambodia, and it confirmed actor James Caan singing the Khmer chestnut “‘Bong Srolanh Srolanh Tae Oun” in a seedy Cambodian singalong membership.

Tony later advised me that he and Vitale cooked up the Chiang Mai karaoke scene as a sly homage to one in all his favourite movies. Several different episodes of “Parts Unknown” include related cinematic Easter eggs, although they are often onerous to spot.

So now I had to sing; I had to write the track; and I had to imitate a world-famous actor. Nothing like a bit of strain to get the juices flowing.

The producers recorded an appropriately karaoke-cheesy background instrumental monitor in New York. That music was despatched to me simply hours earlier than I was to meet Tony and Andy at a country karaoke joint in the center of nowhere.

Just to make it a bit of tougher for myself, I composed the lyrics in northern Thai dialect, since I knew many of the karaoke prospects could be northerners.

On the day of the shoot, I met up with Tony and Andy on the tiny, bamboo-and-thatch roadside karaoke spot they’d discovered exterior of city simply because the solar was setting. While the crew was busy establishing lights and rewiring the karaoke machine — a large standing jukebox with insane reverb and roof-shaking bass frequencies — Tony invited me for pre-camera drinks at a desk in the nook.

Andy had introduced alongside just a few bottles of lao khao, illicit rice moonshine that packed a depraved uppercut. Off digicam, Tony was each bit as charismatic and fascinating as he seems on-camera, however with the amount turned down a notch or two.

He expressed admiration for my Lonely Planet work, and the three of us swapped street tales and journey trivia as vacationers who meet for the primary time do. The set-up took fairly a while, and we polished off a bottle or two of the lao khao — straight, no chaser, and tasting extra palatable with each glass.

"By take five, I no longer had to pretend to be drunk," says the author of his moment in the karaoke spotlight.

“By take five, I no longer had to pretend to be drunk,” says the creator of his second in the karaoke highlight.

Screenshot/Parts Unknown

I may need hit the stuff a bit of tougher than I usually would, to get “in character” as a drunken karaoke singer, however in fact to deal with stage fright. I’d been enjoying and singing in pub rock bands since I was 15 years previous, however by no means dreamed I’d be thrust right into a digital worldwide area like this.

Finally the crew mentioned it was time to roll tape, so I placed on the white linen jacket I’d borrowed from a buddy, and shifted to one other desk the place I was to sit alone and drink lao khao till they known as me up to sing. Just earlier than the cameras rolled, Vitale ran over to me with a thick purple scarf to throw round my neck, to full the outfit James Caan had worn in “City of Ghosts.”

As I recall we did about 20 takes of the karaoke scene. By take 5, I not had to faux to be drunk. The nation Thai clientele sitting on the different tables had no thought who these crazed farangs (foreigners) who had invaded their hidden karaoke hut had been. At first surprised to see a tall white man singing (considerably badly, however that was a part of the act) in northern Thai, they had been quickly loving it, and did not appear to thoughts sitting by take after take of the identical track.

In the completed episode, launched in June 2014, Tony delivers basic Bourdain-esque strains whereas I’m singing.

“This guy’s pretty good!,” adopted by a slicing voiceover just a few moments later: “That could be me someday, I’m thinking. Things go just a little wrong, I go off the rails, this would be all too attractive. I can well see myself singing happy birthday in German to tourists in a hotel bar in Jakarta or Bangkok.”


Joe Cummings, entrance left, dines with Pok Pok chef/proprietor Andy Ricker, Anthony Bourdain and creator Austin Bush.

Joe Cummings

After the scene wrapped, there was extra lao khao at an out of doors desk with Tony, Andy and Austin Bush (my successor for Lonely Planet Thailand, who got here alongside for the shoot), and some tall bottles of Thai beer as effectively.

I believe again to these moments once I hear one other voiceover Tony added to the karaoke scene: “This may surprise you, but I am not an alcoholic. I don’t drink at home ever. There’s no beer in my fridge. If I’m not working, I’m not hanging out in bars. But if I was an alcoholic, and I did hang in bars, I’d hang here.”

Diamond Armor Protection

For the tattoo scene, I took the crew to Ajahn Nen’s samnak sak yan, a particular shrine devoted to the inking of conventional Thai tattoos. While cameras and sound had been being organized, Tony and I sat cross-legged earlier than the tattoo grasp as I helped them work out an acceptable sacred design.

Tony, whose arms and torso by that point already displayed loads of ink, mentioned he was open to completely something. Explaining that Thai tattoos work one thing like medical prescriptions, in that they are given to treatment an issue, I requested Tony if there was something he lacked in life. He shrugged and mentioned “Joe, I have more than I ever wished for. And then some.”

I translated for Ajahn Nen, who contemplated this for a minute after which requested Tony, “Do you have any enemies?” Tony mounted the grasp with a solemn gaze, after which checked out me. “I do.”

bourdain tatt 3

Joe Cummings took Bourdain to get a sacred sak yan tattoo.

Joe Cummings

After a fast dialogue, Ajahn Nen and I made a decision the proper magic design for Tony could be Diamond Armor (Kraw Phet), an oblong matrix of diamond-like shapes and one-letter sigils that bestow safety from one’s enemies. The tattoo’s reflective protection is so highly effective it’s thought that no matter hurt your enemies want to inflict upon you’ll as a substitute activate them.

Where to place the design was the following choice. Here once more, Tony was completely satisfied to take the needle wherever on his physique. I identified a clean area on his proper internal forearm, and the grasp nodded, in order that’s the place he focused.

After Tony provided the grasp a ceremonial plate holding a white flower, three incense sticks, two candles, a pack of cigarettes and a few Thai foreign money, Ajahn Nen started planting the ink into the fragile pores and skin of Tony’s wrist and forearm utilizing a pointy, bifurcated metal needle connected to a slender metal shaft.

Once the design was full, the grasp chanted a collection of mantras and sprinkled holy water, utilizing a reed whisk, over his head and shoulders, to empower the tattoo. Throughout, Tony’s face confirmed no indication of ache, till it was time to get up.

Bourdain says his “previous life just isn’t adequate” after sampling bitter soup with buffalo tendon, spiked with bile.

His knees had been so locked after 45 minutes of sitting on the ground that it took three of us to assist carry him up to a standing place.

I dined out with Tony and Andy one other night through the shoot, however with out the cameras. The “real Tony”– if that is what I noticed — was way more laid again, smooth spoken and introspective-sounding than the sarcastic New Yorker everybody sees onscreen.


When I heard the information that Tony had died on June 8, 2018, I was devastated. I can nonetheless hardly consider he is gone. He was such an essential trailblazer for meals and journey media, and a job mannequin for thus many people writers, not to point out cooks, restaurant workers, and lovers of life in every single place.

I lately re-watched the Bhutan episode of “Parts Unknown,” which aired because the final section of season 11, after Tony handed away. The present follows Bourdain and filmmaker Darren Aronofsky as they eat with conventional yak herders in the Himalayas and go to the monastery of the legendary ‘divine madman’, a 15th-century Buddhist monk named Drukpa Kunley who preached enlightenment through uninhibited intercourse.

In Thimphu, the nation’s capital, they share a conventional meal ready by Kesang Choden, proprietor of the Folk Heritage Restaurant. The scene lovingly captures the colours, textures and distinctive cooking strategies, however Tony is not seen till the eating begins.

Bourdain and Aronofsky take pleasure in Bhutanese delicacies with locals. Watch Parts Unknown Sundays at 9PM ET/PT on CNN.

On a whim, the opposite day I requested a Bhutanese buddy if she may put me in contact with Choden. I was given a telephone quantity, and after just a few tries, somebody lastly answered. I’d seen Choden’s cherubic face already in Parts Unknown, so it was straightforward to image her as we talked about her expertise cooking for Tony and crew.

“The camera people were here almost all day as we cooked,” she mentioned. “They asked that I make everything in a very traditional way, the way we Bhutanese eat, not the way we usually cook for tourists.

“Mr. Bourdain arrived when the dishes had been prepared. I was impressed how he tried each dish with out reluctance, even the fried yak disguise. He appreciated every thing we made for him, and advised me it was ‘very unique’. We put plenty of chilies in the meals, as a result of that is the way in which we eat. He ate all of them.”

Ever since the episode aired in June 2018, Choden says her Folk Heritage restaurant has received a steady stream of visitors asking to eat what Tony ate.

Temple bells, thickly forested valleys and snow-capped peaks fill the background for the episode. Tony notes the total absence of Starbucks and KFC. There are several verbal and visual references expressing how climate change is affecting even one of earth’s remotest locations.

Towards the very end of the Bhutan show, as Aronofsky and he are placing small terracotta votive stupas in sheltered crevices on a secluded cliffside, Tony says, rather wearily, “I do know, it’s lovely. I’m glad it hasn’t been f**ked up but by the world.”

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