When trying to find the person who has the best job in cable news, look no further than CNN's Anthony Bourdain.
Job description: Travel the world — mostly to lesser-known, less touristy parts — and educate millions on global cuisine and culture. And do so with a production team that presents each episode, each city, like a magnificent Hollywood screenplay.
Last Sunday, “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” won its fourth consecutive Emmy Award for outstanding informational series or special.
And this Sunday night, a very special guest joins the host for dinner in the capital of Vietnam: President Obama.
Unlike past one-on-one interviews with the president on the road, which are almost always in isolated rooms primarily for security purposes, Bourdain's team was able to arrange this dinner conversation at a crowded, unassuming restaurant in downtown Hanoi.
It's almost surreal to watch the leader of the free world and Bourdain eating bun cha (a Hanoi favorite that consists of dropping vermicelli rice noodles, herbs and spring rolls into a bowl of sweet yellow broth featuring charcoal-grilled pork patties and grilled pork slices) and washing it down with a bottle of beer while everyone else goes about their business.
Security was obviously a tricky proposition. But the White House and Secret Service — at first very reluctant to grant Bourdain his wish of having Obama eat a meal in a typical restaurant setting — relented and pulled the meal off without a hitch.
"There were people close but not in an obtrusive way," Bourdain tells The Hill. "And I can tell you that in arranging this, particularly this location, this was not the usual environment they are — it’s a sub-optimal environment from the Secret Service’s [point of view] as I gather from the experience. They are not used to exposing the president to a place as informal, as confined, with as few methods of egress."
"I would think they would be much more comfortable if it was done at a Western-style hotel or something," Bourdain continues, "But we were pretty steadfast in wanting to do something that was both out of the norm fun for him and representative for what we do as a matter of course on the show.”
The final check came to a grand total of $12 (including the suds), picked up by the production company.
For Bourdain, this was clearly his biggest get yet from a guest perspective. So the obvious question was: Was he nervous?
Bourdain says no, but only because the interview subject quickly brought the atmosphere down to a casual level.
"It was really eerie," Bourdain recalls. "He really put us all at ease."
"I was across the table from a man who was talking to me about fatherhood, about hot dogs, about a shared love for Southeast Asia," the host explains. "He made us calm because he seemed to be calm and enjoying himself."
With such a famous guest and such large exposure, did the restaurant alter anything about the food or setting?
"The restaurant didn’t know. CNN didn’t know. It was a real leap of faith on both parts, and there wasn’t any significant pushback at all."
“Parts Unknown” does more than win critical acclaim, it also generates tasty numbers for CNN. The show — now in its eighth season — consistently wins its time slot in the key 25–54 demographic that advertisers covet most.
So what should audiences take away from Sunday's premiere?
"I don't know and I don't really care," Bourdain deadpans. "I didn't have an agenda here."
"I wasn't there to promote a particular point of view. I got sit down and eat a working class meal in one of my favorite places on Earth — in exactly the kind of restaurant I love — with the leader of the free world. It was an awesome experience.
"It's something I'll always be grateful for, and that's enough for me."
And who was the last figure to make Bourdain feel some butterflies before joining him for a meal?
"Iggy Pop," he says without hesitation. "For me, I was nervous for eating with Iggy."
"Parts Unknown" premieres Sunday at 9:00 p.m. on CNN.