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Tattoos, karaoke and a touch of film noir: 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 assistance with an upcoming shoot in Thailand, of course I agreed without hesitation.

No food celebrity was more widely loved than Anthony Bourdain at the time, and his posthumous fame and recognition have only grown since. In an era where chefs are the new rockstars, he was Johnny Cash, keeping it raw and real.

Playing down his history in professional kitchens, including Manhattan’s Brasserie Les Halles, he liked to describe himself as a failed chef and talked openly about past substance abuse. He sharply criticized over-hyped TV chefs and the Michelin cult, using his influence instead to praise the street vendors and line cooks who feed most of the world.

For 17 years, across four television series (“A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations”,” The Layover” and “Parts Unknown”), and in over 50 countries, Tony let us tag along as he met people from all walks of life and explored their food traditions, no matter how alien they might appear to the home audience. In fact, the more alien it was, the better, but always in a local context rather than as a critical, judging observer.

And it wasn’t just about food. His zig-zag path across the globe was strewn with rough jewels of philosophy.

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

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

I was approached by Tony’s producer Tom Vitale, who spent virtually his entire career working alongside him. Tony liked working with Lonely Planet guidebook authors, Vitale said by way of introduction, because they knew the terrain and were used to tight travel schedules.

In a series of emails, Vitale laid out his plans to shoot in Chiang Mai, and asked for my advice on locations and activities. At that point, the wildly successful series was in its third season.

It wasn’t Tony’s first on-camera visit to Thailand. In 2003, “A Cook’s Tour” added Bangkok to a Singapore shoot during a long flight layover in the Thai capital. Bangkok was showcased again in the fifth season of “No Reservations” (2008), when Tony dove deeper into street food.

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

So Tony and crew were no strangers to Thailand when they approached me about shooting “Parts Unknown” in Chiang Mai. Producer Vitale said they particularly needed spectacular locations where they could shoot rice farming, monks receiving alms at dawn and scenery along the Ping River, Chiang Mai’s main waterway.

After I sent Vitale a list of potential locations, he came back with another request.

Referring to my book “Sacred Tattoos of Thailand,” he asked whether I could arrange for Tony to get inked with a magic Thai tattoo — sak yan — somewhere in Chiang Mai. I suggested a relatively little-known (at the time) master called Ajahn Nen, who I’d first met while he was a monk at Wat Si Munruang in nearby Saraphi.
Andy Ricker, chef-owner of Portland Thai restaurant Pok Pok, took Anthony Bourdain to his favorite Chiang Mai eateries during the shoot.

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

Zero Point Zero

Now a layman with his own consecrated sak yan shrine not far from his old monastery, Ajahn Nen said he’d be happy to host the team, and so we arranged a date and time.

By this point, the production team had invited Andy Ricker, chef-owner of Portland’s famed northern Thai restaurant Pok Pok, to take Tony around to his favorite eateries in Chiang Mai and environs. Andy and I have known each other for years, and we exchanged excited emails discussing the upcoming Chiang Mai shoot.

Karaoke Cowboy

After recommending locations, and agreeing to assist during the tattoo shoot, it seemed my responsibilities were done. Then Vitale emailed again, saying Tony wondered if I could make an appearance as a karaoke singer in one scene.

With only two days’ notice, they asked me to compose a drinking song in Thai that I could sing to Tony at a Chiang Mai karaoke joint. To use an existing song might create licensing issues, he said. I agreed to give it a try — imagine how nervous I was about singing in Thai on-camera, much less having to write the song myself — and Vitale wrote back: “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 sent was a clip from the 2002 crime thriller, set in postwar Cambodia, and it showed actor James Caan singing the Khmer chestnut “‘Bong Srolanh Srolanh Tae Oun” in a seedy Cambodian singalong club.

Tony later told me that he and Vitale cooked up the Chiang Mai karaoke scene as a sly homage to one of his favorite films. Several other episodes of “Parts Unknown” contain similar cinematic Easter eggs, though they can be hard to spot.

So now I had to sing; I had to write the song; and I had to imitate a world-famous actor. Nothing like a little pressure to get the juices flowing.

The producers recorded an appropriately karaoke-cheesy background instrumental track in New York. That music was sent to me just hours before I was to meet Tony and Andy at a rustic karaoke joint in the middle of nowhere.

Just to make it a little more challenging for myself, I composed the lyrics in northern Thai dialect, since I knew most of the karaoke customers would be northerners.

On the day of the shoot, I met up with Tony and Andy at the tiny, bamboo-and-thatch roadside karaoke spot they’d found outside of town just as the sun was setting. While the crew was busy setting up lights and rewiring the karaoke machine — a massive standing jukebox with insane reverb and roof-shaking bass frequencies — Tony invited me for pre-camera drinks at a table in the corner.

Andy had brought along a few bottles of lao khao, illicit rice moonshine that packed a wicked uppercut. Off camera, Tony was every bit as charismatic and engaging as he appears on-camera, but with the volume turned down a notch or two.

He expressed admiration for my Lonely Planet work, and the three of us swapped road stories and travel trivia as travelers who meet for the first time do. The set-up took quite some time, and we polished off a bottle or two of the lao khao — straight, no chaser, and tasting more palatable with every 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 author of his moment in the karaoke spotlight.

Screenshot/Parts Unknown

I might have hit the stuff a little harder than I normally would, to get “in character” as a drunken karaoke singer, but in truth to deal with stage fright. I’d been playing and singing in pub rock bands since I was 15 years old, but never dreamed I’d be thrust into a virtual international arena like this.

Finally the crew said it was time to roll tape, so I put on the white linen jacket I’d borrowed from a friend, and shifted to another table where I was to sit alone and drink lao khao until they called me up to sing. Just before the cameras rolled, Vitale ran over to me with a thick red scarf to throw around my neck, to complete the outfit James Caan had worn in “City of Ghosts.”

As I recall we did about 20 takes of the karaoke scene. By take five, I no longer had to pretend to be drunk. The country Thai clientele sitting at the other tables had no idea who these crazed farangs (foreigners) who had invaded their hidden karaoke hut were. At first stunned to see a tall white guy singing (somewhat badly, but that was part of the act) in northern Thai, they were soon loving it, and didn’t seem to mind sitting through take after take of the same song.

In the finished episode, released in June 2014, Tony delivers classic Bourdain-esque lines while I’m singing.

“This guy’s pretty good!,” followed by a cutting voiceover 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.”

Bourdain-4

Joe Cummings, front left, dines with Pok Pok chef/owner Andy Ricker, Anthony Bourdain and author Austin Bush.

Joe Cummings

After the scene wrapped, there was more lao khao at an outdoor table with Tony, Andy and Austin Bush (my successor for Lonely Planet Thailand, who came along for the shoot), and a few tall bottles of Thai beer as well.

I think back to those moments when I hear another 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 special shrine dedicated to the inking of traditional Thai tattoos. While cameras and sound were being organized, Tony and I sat cross-legged before the tattoo master as I helped them work out an appropriate sacred design.

Tony, whose arms and torso by that time already displayed plenty of ink, said he was open to absolutely anything. Explaining that Thai tattoos work something like medical prescriptions, in that they’re given to remedy a problem, I asked Tony if there was anything he lacked in life. He shrugged and said “Joe, I have more than I ever wished for. And then some.”

I translated for Ajahn Nen, who pondered this for a minute and then asked Tony, “Do you have any enemies?” Tony fixed the master with a solemn gaze, and then looked at me. “I do.”

bourdain tatt 3

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

Joe Cummings

After a quick discussion, Ajahn Nen and I decided the right magic design for Tony would be Diamond Armor (Kraw Phet), a rectangular matrix of diamond-like shapes and one-letter sigils that bestow protection from one’s enemies. The tattoo’s reflective defense is so powerful it’s thought that whatever harm your enemies wish to inflict upon you will instead turn on them.

Where to place the design was the next decision. Here again, Tony was happy to take the needle anywhere on his body. I pointed out a blank space on his right inner forearm, and the master nodded, so that’s where he targeted.

After Tony offered the master a ceremonial plate holding a white flower, three incense sticks, two candles, a pack of cigarettes and some Thai currency, Ajahn Nen began planting the ink into the delicate skin of Tony’s wrist and forearm using a sharp, bifurcated steel needle attached to a slender steel shaft.

Once the design was complete, the master chanted a series of mantras and sprinkled holy water, using a reed whisk, over his head and shoulders, to empower the tattoo. Throughout, Tony’s face showed no indication of pain, until it was time to stand up.

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

His knees were so locked after 45 minutes of sitting on the floor that it took three of us to help bring him up to a standing position.

I dined out with Tony and Andy another evening during the shoot, but without the cameras. The “real Tony”– if that’s what I saw — was much more laid back, soft spoken and introspective-sounding than the sarcastic New Yorker everyone sees onscreen.

Escape

When I heard the news that Tony had died on June 8, 2018, I was devastated. I can still hardly believe he’s gone. He was such an important trailblazer for food and travel media, and a role model for so many of us writers, not to mention cooks, restaurant staff, and lovers of life everywhere.

I recently re-watched the Bhutan episode of “Parts Unknown,” which aired as the very last segment of season 11, after Tony passed away. The show follows Bourdain and filmmaker Darren Aronofsky as they eat with traditional yak herders in the Himalayas and visit the monastery of the mythical ‘divine madman’, a 15th-century Buddhist monk named Drukpa Kunley who preached enlightenment via uninhibited sex.

In Thimphu, the nation’s capital, they share a traditional meal prepared by Kesang Choden, owner of the Folk Heritage Restaurant. The scene lovingly captures the colors, textures and unique cooking methods, but Tony isn’t seen until the dining begins.

Bourdain and Aronofsky enjoy Bhutanese cuisine with locals. Watch Parts Unknown Sundays at 9PM ET/PT on CNN.

On a whim, the other day I asked a Bhutanese friend if she could put me in touch with Choden. I was given a phone number, and after a few tries, someone finally answered. I’d seen Choden’s cherubic face already in Parts Unknown, so it was easy to picture her as we talked about her experience cooking for Tony and crew.

“The camera people were here almost all day as we cooked,” she said. “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 were ready. I was impressed how he tried every dish without reluctance, even the fried yak hide. He appreciated everything we made for him, and told me it was ‘very original’. We put lots of chilies in the food, because that’s the way we eat. He ate them all.”

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 know, it’s beautiful. I’m glad it hasn’t been f**ked up yet by the world.”

This article originally appeared here