In May, a delightful if somewhat surreal photo appeared online of President Obama perched on a rickety blue stool, knocking back a beer across from Anthony Bourdain. The two met in a small restaurant in Hanoi to eat bun cha and discuss everything from sneaking out for beers to engaging diplomatically with hostile nations such as Cuba and Iran. Total bill for the president and his host: six dollars. Bourdain paid.
That dinner appears on the season premiere of Parts Unknown, which airs tonight. Roads & Kingdoms’ Nathan Thornburgh and Julia Barton sat down with Bourdain in Manhattan’s Chelsea District to talk about meeting Obama and what’s involved in getting the president in front of some serious Vietnamese street food.
R&K: So, basic question: How did you end up having dinner with President Obama in Vietnam?
Anthony Bourdain: They reached out to us about a year ago. It was super classified: my camera crew didn’t know until two days earlier, the network didn’t know, I don’t know that the State Department knew. It took a lot of planning because we wanted to shoot in a working-class, family-run joint that sells bun cha, a typical Hanoi speciality. Usually, the Secret Service prefers if you were in a more controllable situation like a banquet room at the Hilton, or at least an Asian-fusion place with air-conditioning and a certain number of exit routes. We had a genuinely, funky, upstairs place.
R&K: What was the response to Obama visiting a low-key bun cha joint?
Bourdain: The next day, walking around Vietnam and riding around on my scooter, people recognized me from the newspaper photographs by my tattoos, and they would literally point and say, “Mr. Bun Cha! Mr. Bun Cha!” and would sob, would burst into tears, in halting English, trying to explain how they couldn’t believe that the President of the United States didn’t choose to eat pho or spring rolls, or go to a hot-shot upscale fusion restaurant. That the President of the United States went to this particular restaurant in the Old Quarter and ate bun cha, their thing, their local food, which they really see as theirs and nobody else’s, drank a Hanoi beer out of the bottle—they were so proud and so stunned that he would do this. They were so shocked and grateful and proud that this small part of their lives, a small but vital part of their everyday lives, could be acknowledged on an international scale by the President of the United States, who, by the way, really enjoyed his meal.
R&K: You’re sitting in a restaurant in Vietnam with the President of the United States, chugging beers, and no one seems to be looking at you. That’s the most remarkable thing.
Bourdain: Yeah, I tried really hard to be cool. Right after the shooting was over, believe me, he posed for pictures with everybody. He was lovely to our crew.
R&K: What was it like for you, sitting there?
Bourdain: He’s so smooth, loosey-goosey, cool; he was lovely. At one point I asked him, “Do you ever miss just being able to go out in the afternoon and have a beer in an old man bar, just put a sad song on on the jukebox?” He looks up at me, smiles, and says, “In about six months.”
R&K: Talk about being conspicuous.
Bourdain: We all sort of freaked afterwards. We’re all looking at each other like, “Did that just happen?” We were all very comfortable. He’s one of the only guys in sixteen years of doing the show who’s ever turned to the camera crew and said, “Have you guys eaten yet? Do you guys get to eat this?” With nobody watching!
We shot with him the next day as well, in a pretty crummy, working-class area of the Hanoi suburbs in the driving rain. We stood underneath a low, corrugated tin roof next to a lady who sells cigarettes and chewing gum. And he just seems very comfortable in his own skin, just walking around, loose, relaxed. Of course, I think he was having the head of the Taliban whacked in Pakistan while we were eating. Which is kind of awesome.
R&K: The Taliban never expected it, not on bun cha night.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Cover image: President Barack Obama has a beer with Anthony Bourdain during an interview over dinner at B˙n cha Huong LiÍn restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 23, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)