Bourdain in Beirut
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; 11:00 AM
Anthony Bourdain, chef, author and host of Travel Channel's "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations," and his four-person crew were trapped in Beirut while filming the series. After a week of laying low, Bourdain and his production crew landed back in the states on Friday, July 14, after an exhausting journey that included time on a military landing craft and the USS Nashville.
Bourdain was online Wednesday, July 26, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his time in the international city and his thoughts about what was once a burgeoning hotspot for international travelers.
A transcript follows.
Anthony Bourdain: Hello, glad to be back and grateful for the opportunity to talk about what I saw in Beirut.
University Place, Wash.: Can you describe what you were doing at the time when the first attacks started? How far away were you from your hotel?
Anthony Bourdain: I watched the airport being bombed about a mile from my hotel. I watched the second missile strikes on the airport fuel depot.
My crew and I were all assembled in my room emptying my minibar, nervously trying to keep a stiff upper lip, trying to follow the example of our Beirut-y contacts and friends who were still maintaining some false bravado.
Arlington, Va.: Read your book...great job, well done ...
Are the majority of the Lebanese people you spoke to more anti Israel or Hezbollah? Do they see Hezbollah as a benefit to their country?
Anthony Bourdain: I can only tell you what I saw in my limited experience. As it happened, I was standing with a Sunni, Shiite and a Christian when Hezbollah supporters started to fire automatic weapons in the air celebrating the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers as a few supporters drove by the three people I was with all instantaneously took on a look of shame and embarrassment as if a dangerous and unstable little brother had once again brought the whole family into peril. At no time during my 10 days in Beirut did I ever hear an anti-Semitic or even explicitly anti-Israeli statement. To the contrary, there was a universal sense of grim resignation and inevitability to what Israel's reaction would be. Dating to the first seconds after Hezbollah started firing in the air, we were a largely Jewish crew. The last person to leave us as Lebanese fled in droves, was the Shiite from south Beirut. We had to plead with him to leave us and join his family. His house was later destroyed.
Washington, D.C.: Big fan of the show Anthony. I know you like to live on the edge but please stay safe! What was it about Beirut that attracted you to the city? Is there a wide mix of international flavors there (like Indonesia) or is the food generally "Lebanese"?
Anthony Bourdain: I can only describe it as being like South Beach or Los Angeles. In addition to some of the best Middle Eastern food the already wonderful Lebanese classics, there was every variety of Asian fusion, European and American, that you would expect of any modern sophisticated major western city.
Lebanese contacts were effusive, bursting with pride, "enthusiastically and persistently trying to get us to come. The Lebanese food was already said to be the best in the Middle East and by all accounts Beirut was newly resurgent, shockingly tolerant in the days since the Hariri assassination, relatively peaceful between groups. By all accounts it had returned to its one-time status as the "Paris of the Orient."
Washington, D.C.: Do you think anything you filmed in Lebanon will make it onto the show?
Anthony Bourdain: We're trying to figure some way to show how beautiful and hopeful Beirut was before the bombing, how terrible a thing it is that happened, what we've lost, the pride and hopefulness and optimism that was smashed. The surprising tenderness and sensitivity of the Marines who evacuated us. We're struggling with a way to tell that story without it being about me or about us. It will not be a regular episode of No Reservations.
Washington, D.C.: I know your time there was brief, but can you recount for us your best meal in Lebanon?
Anthony Bourdain: A little neighborhood place called Le Chef. Typical Lebanese staples, hummus, kibbe, stewed lamb and arak. Everyday food.
Chicago, Ill.: When you say you watched the airport being bombed, was that from your hotel room window or the television?
Anthony Bourdain: From my balcony.
Anthony Bourdain: For the whole time I was there I was often in the bizarre and somehow shameful position of watching a country dismantled before my eyes from a relatively comfortable distance.
Annandale, Va.: So how was the food on the USS Nashville? I've always heard that US Navy food is pretty good.
Anthony Bourdain: There are times in one's life when tuna noodle casserole and macaroni and cheese speak directly to the heart.
Anthony Bourdain: I can't possibly say enough good things about the U.S. Marine Corps or enough bad things about the embassy and the State Department.
Darnestown, Md.: In your writing and program you use food and travel as media to communicate an informed world view and philosophy. How has the experience of the past week or so informed or impacted these?
Anthony Bourdain: Great question. I don't know yet. I suspect the answer to be a depressing one. Where once I believed that the meal was a leveling experience, a thing that could make a difference, that over food and drink in some small way people could make a difference ... I'm not so sure anymore. It seems now that whatever we eat, however proud we may be, good and bad alike are crushed under the same wheel. Obviously, I'm feeling a little pessimistic about the world these days.
Pittsburgh, Pa.: I hate to change the subject from this serious discussion, but I'd really like to read a bit about what you ate before (or even during) things unraveled over there.
Anthony Bourdain: Sushi, an enormous selection of mezze (an assortment of pickles, dips, essentially Lebanese taps). To my eternal regret I saw and experienced so little and had the opportunity to show so little of how good and how delicious things were in Beirut.
Anthony Bourdain: I had some great late night shwarma (like a gyro).
Alexandria, Va.: So what's to eat in the Middle East besides hummus and tabouleh? I'm not a fan of either.
Anthony Bourdain: Incredible lamb and rice dishes, pickles, breads, the desserts in particular are subtle, sophisticated and unlike any other. That's just for starters.
Anthony Bourdain: Sushi was very big in Beirut. Also, one should keep in mind that when I arrived the city was filled with Lebanese Americans, Lebanese who'd emigrated to Europe and America during the civil war and who had recently returned and expected the same kind of nightclubs, restaurants and to a great extent lifestyle as they'd enjoyed elsewhere.
New York, N.Y.: Which county that you have visited has the best and worst bathrooms? Why?
Anthony Bourdain: The best bathrooms, Japan, far and away. Worst bathrooms, if you can call them that? Uzbekistan. Toilets in Uzbekistan make the one in Trainspotting look like an operating room.
Washington, D.C.: Is there anything that you will not eat? Of all the things that you have ingested what would you say was the most amazing, and why?
Anthony Bourdain: I will never eat rat under any circumstances. No monkey brain. Best single thing I've ever eaten? Tough call between roasted bone marrow and high test o-toro tuna.
Frederick, Md.: Tony, thank you for being on Live Online today. With the dominance of mainstream, popular, primetime media, how hard is it for you to stay true to your roots and beliefs about food and avoid selling your soul?
P.S. When are you going to be at Les Halles in D.C.?
Anthony Bourdain: Travel Channel remarkably have indulged me in every conceivable way. They knew what they were getting into, I guess, and have allowed me near total freedom to go where I want, do what I want, say what I want and make the television shows that me and my partners want to make. I couldn't possibly hope for a better arrangement.
As far as selling my soul, fortunately that's not necessary at the moment but it could be Suntory Time anytime now. Never say never. Who knows what next year will bring.
I travel about 10 months out of the year making this show. It is a rare occurrence that you would find me a the D.C. Les Halles. I hope they're gettin the frites rights.
Seattle, Wash.: Were you aware of all of the U.S. State Department warnings against travel to Lebanon before you went?
Anthony Bourdain: Yes. But they say that about Oakland too, don't they?
LeDroit Park, Washington, D.C.: I'm a big fan and I am looking forward to seeing you speak next month at the ASAE Conference in Boston. What are your favorite restaurants in Boston that I should be sure to visit?
Anthony Bourdain: I'm embarrassed to say I'm clueless as to where to eat in Boston. It's been a long time since I've had the opportunity to eat around there.
One place I won't be eating is Fenway Park.
Trinidad: When do you plan to come to the Caribbean to do a NR show? Have you ever been to Trinidad and Tobago or know about the food here?
Anthony Bourdain: I've eaten food from Trinidad elsewhere in the Caribbean. Haven't been there, might well visit. Generally I escape to the Caribbean, blissfully free of cameras. That's where I go to hide out.
Rockville, Md.: Looking back at all the places you've traveled and meals you've had, what would be your dream menu and who would you invite?
Anthony Bourdain: I would eat at the St. John restaurant in London. An all offal meal prepared by Fergus Henderson. Attending would be a young Ava Gardner, Louise Brooks, Kim Philby, Orson Welles, Richard Helms, Iggy Pop, Graham Greene and Martin Scorsese.
Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Bourdain: First off, let me say I am glad that you are safe, and I love your work. My question is not about Beirut, but it has been on my mind for some time. In "Kitchen Confidential", you detailed your disdain for Emeril Lagasse, calling him most memorably "an Ewok" and a hack. Yet I have recently seen pictures of you hanging out with Emeril and appearing on friendly terms. What gives? Is Emeril no longer an Ewok?
Anthony Bourdain: I still hate his show and will continue to say so. Emeril the man, however, I have come to know, deserves a lot more respect than I've given him. He's an accomplished chef and businessman in spite of what you see on TV. He has a sense of humor and given the current crop of talentless, cabbage patch kids, bobbleheads and dimwits on the Food Network, Emeril now looks like Escoffier by comparison.
Alexandria, Va.: Is there any part of the world you have not seen? Where do you call home?
Anthony Bourdain: I call New York City home though I spend very little time there. I've been on every continent except Antarctica. Asia's a big place. I could easily spend the rest of my life just eating around China and barely scratch the surface, for instance. Plenty of place yet to go.
Bowie, Md.: I have a Vietnamese co-worker who says there's no way that you could have eaten "raw Balut (Filipino name)" when you toured Vietnam. When I watched the show, I could have sworn you ate the raw embryo. Was it raw or cooked?
Anthony Bourdain: Balut (half-term fetal duck egg) known in Vietnam as "hot vinlon" as I ate it can best be described as soft-boiled -- very soft-boiled. I found it disturbingly feathery, though the crunchy notes were not unpleasant.
Arlington, Va.: Why the bad impression of the State Department?
Anthony Bourdain: The total lack of information or response from the Beirut Embassy for nearly a week, the assembly point where evacuees were to meet and be processed was run in so shamefully disorganized fashion that any nightclub promoter, any concert organizer could easily have put to shame. The Marines of the USS Nashville, in a virtually last-minute operation for which they had been neither trained nor experienced, performed brilliantly with a kindness, a thoughtfulness, a sensitivity, a level of efficiency and humanity, sorely missing from what I saw at State and Embassy operations.
At the assembly point the simple addition of a few hand-printed signs, a couple of bull horns, a few smiles and maybe eight more bodies would've made all the difference in the world. It was a cluster_ _ _ _.
Pasadena, Calif: Which country has the spiciest food of all time?
Anthony Bourdain: Sichuan Province in China would certainly be a contender. Eating sichuan hotpot opens up whole new dimensions in the pleasure/pain spectrum. A delightfully sado-masochistic experience, yet curiously addictive. You're sweating, doubled over with pain and yet you want more.
Springfield, Va.: Tony,
I love watching your show on the Travel Channel. I was really looking forward to seeing you in the Middle East and enjoying some of their dishes.
However, my question is regarding your weight. How do you stay so slim after eating all that food? Do you work out?
Anthony Bourdain: I do not work out. I have a healthy regimen of cigarettes, alcohol, red meat and runny cheese.
Anthony Bourdain: I call that Keith Richard diet.
Potomac, Md.: Is there anything comparable to a hamburger?
Anthony Bourdain: Under certain circumstances a hamburger is the best thing on earth but get real. The Chinese have been cooking for 6,000 years and cooking well. I think it's pretty fair to say there are better food items in this world.
Alexandria, Va.: In all your travels around the globe, please name your favorite beer and spirit?
Anthony Bourdain: Guinness. A pint of Guinness in Dublin. Must be consumed in Dublin. Favorite spirit? I'm into Negroni's lately. Three liquors I hate: gin, sweet vermouth and Compari, yet together they're wonderful. I blame the evil Mario Batali for introducing me to this lethal habit-forming concoction. He will surely burn in hell. His red plastic clogs melting over his cloven hooves for what he's done to me.
Trinidad : Food here is very spicy you have not tasted a good Scotch Bonnet pepper as yet!
Anthony Bourdain: I have had a good Scotch bonnet pepper. They burned my head down to a smoldering stump. You're right, those are damn spicy peppers. World's hottest.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think being in a war zone changed you?
Anthony Bourdain: Yes. And in ways I don't yet understand. I'm sure it's changed my world view, probably not for the better.
Anthony Bourdain: Thanks to everybody for their questions, their kind words. Keep watching and eat without fear.
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