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Anthony Bourdain: 'We are food pornographers'

Brandon Griggs, CNN
Anthony Bourdain:
Anthony Bourdain: "We're always looking for unspoiled, authentic (restaurants). And then we put them on TV and ruin them."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • TV host Anthony Bourdain casually engaged with fans Tuesday at South by Southwest
  • He said he favors hole-in-the-wall eateries and "hot, messy, dysfunctional countries"
  • Bourdain says social media are "a big bathroom wall where anyone can write anything"
  • His shows often rely on local bloggers for ideas

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- Food-travel TV host Anthony Bourdain doesn't really get why people snap photos of all their meals and share them on blogs, Facebook or other social networks. He'd rather just eat his beef-tongue tacos or sea-urchin sushi than treat them like starlets on the red carpet.

But he doesn't want to be a hypocrite, either.

"We are food pornographers ourselves," he said of his popular shows, "No Reservations" and "The Layover," which follow him around the globe in search of authentic, exotic regional grub.

Bourdain seems to have mixed feelings about social media, which he called "a big bathroom wall where anyone can write anything." But he's pretty adept at it. He has almost 800,000 followers on Twitter and more than 1.4 million fans on Facebook, where he posts jokes, show plugs and ... yes, pictures of food.

"We took over the Twitter handle (in 2008) so it wouldn't suck," the ever-quotable Bourdain said with characteristic bluntness.

He and his TV crew spoke Tuesday afternoon at the South By Southwest Interactive conference, which invited them to discuss how they use digital media to engage with fans. Bourdain took the stage with a beer in hand -- a rarity even for this casual event -- and the resulting conversation was freewheeling, funny and a little profane.

Here are some of the highlights:

-- The sometime New York City chef described the formula for his TV shows in simple terms: "I go someplace, I eat a lot of food, I learn something, and I go home." He said that although he and his crew are miserable at the time, the trips where "things go terribly, terribly wrong" often make for the best television.

-- Bourdain hates it when governments or tourism officials try to choreograph his visits and steer him toward posh, shiny eateries instead of hole-in-the-wall places or street food. Nor is he a huge fan of clean, orderly countries: "I like hot, messy, dysfunctional countries that are barely keeping their s*** together."

-- His shows rely on local bloggers when trying to decide where to eat: "We pay a lot of attention to bloggers and actively recruit them as fixers (people who help arrange meals and sometimes appear on the show)."

-- When it comes to promoting his shows, social media can be a double-edged sword. Restaurants used to hear that Bourdain was coming and tweet the news to their followers; by the time he and his crew showed up, the place would be overrun with cameras. Now the places he visits must sign confidentiality agreements. Said his producer Tom Vitale: "Twitter giveth, and it taketh away, too."

-- Bourdain recognizes an unfortunate irony in what his shows do every week. "We're always looking for the unspoiled, authentic neighborhood joint. I genuinely love those places," he said. "And then we put them on TV and ruin them for all time. We destroy what we love."

-- He learns a lot about his fans through Facebook and Twitter. A photo he posted of some fish tacos got 13,000 "likes," almost as many as a photo of Bourdain with actor Christopher Walken. "No Reservations" recently filmed an episode in Finland after discovering that it had a huge fan base there. And drunken tweets always seem to produce a spike in followers, he said.

-- His crew is experimenting with other digital platforms. They have a Tumblr account. They're planning to spin music on Turntable.fm on March 22. And they want to video-chat with fans in a Google Plus hangout.

-- He likes fake-chef Twitter accounts. "I really enjoy @AngryBobbyFlay. And of the fake Paula Deen accounts, @PaulaOnTrial is the best."

-- Asked where he's planning to eat in Austin, Bourdain said, "I'm not telling you where we're going. But we went to Franklin Barbecue this morning, and it was unf***ingbelievable."

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