The host of No Reservations takes care of unfinished business in Lebanon's capital and talks organic food and the best kibbeh he's ever had.
Nicole Dow: During your first visit to Beirut in 2006, the war between Hezbollah and Israel started. It’s now been four years. How did you find Beirut on this second trip?
Anthony Bourdain: Fantastic, we did the show that we hoped to do in 2006 - a happy show highlighting the aspects of Beirut that enchanted us the minute we arrived. I was dismayed to see that Hezbollah is more powerful than they were in 2006. If anything, they seem to be the beneficiaries of the conflict. Public opinion-wise, politically, far more influential now than when I was there in 2006.
The Beirut I hoped to find is still there, largely back to the way it was, to a large degree. The food was fantastic. We were treated well everywhere.
Bourdain: We went to Baalbeck [a major city in northeast Lebanon, famous for its Roman ruins], and made a few stops along the way. As much as I loved the ruins, some of the food along the way was almost as awesome.
ND: Where did you go? What did you eat?
Bourdain: First order of business, we went back to Le Chef. We made a point of going back with the exact same camera crew and producer, who were stuck with me in 2006. And we met with largely the same people, even went to the places we didn’t get the opportunity to visit last time, and we met with people from the previous episode.
Met with Kamal [Mouzawak], the guy who runs Souk el Tayeb [Beirut’s first farmer’s market], went to the restaurant that showcases regional produce and specialties [Tawlet]. We had a meal at his [Kamal’s] house. Ate seafood along the coast, falafel at a famous place run by two brothers who don’t talk to one another [Falafel Sahyoun].
Had sfiha near Baalbeck, went to a vineyard where they make traditional arak [a clear, aniseed flavored alcoholic beverage] and wine. Try to eat around high and low. Had traditional Armenian food at a restaurant in the Armenian district.
[Sfiha are meat pies, and are a specialty of Baalbeck. Sfiha is traditionally made with ground lamb, spices, diced tomatoes and onions, and baked in a brick oven.]
ND: When it comes to Lebanese food, most people think of the commonly known staples like hummus and tabbouleh. What discoveries did you make about Lebanese food on this trip? What surprised you?
Bourdain: I know a great chef in Melbourne Australia, who made me sensational Lebanese food way before I went to Lebanon. I ate decent Lebanese specialties in New York at the little joint around the corner. I had very high expectations, already well aware of how good the food could be. If I was surprised, it was at what Kamal is doing at Souk el Tayeb, bringing cooks from different social, political, and regional, sectors. Always sounds like the beginning of something good. And the degree to which people [in Lebanon] are going organic.
ND: Out of all the specialties you tried, which one(s) do you recommend?
Bourdain: The fresh sfiha was amazing. The butcher ground up the meat in front of you and then bakes it. Delicious. Some people from out in the mountains were making kibbeh like I’ve never had before, Incredibly fresh, amazing, made a real impression.
ND: What meal did you enjoy most?
Bourdain: A home cooked meal at Kamal’s house up the coast: he brought in a number of specialties, it’s a blur at this point. It was like the greatest hits of Lebanese classics and regional specialties.
ND: What do you appreciate most about Lebanese cuisine? And how do you think it is different from its Arab and Mediterranean counterparts?
Bourdain: Interesting. There seems to be an abundance, a variety, there’s a brightness to the colors, flavors, textures that I haven’t seen in other places in the Arab world. Highly sophisticated desserts, I am not a dessert guy, but the desserts are interesting. The attitude as well. Eating in Lebanon is fun.
[in 2006] Pulling out on the landing craft, I was already determined to come back. It was the great unfinished business of the show.
[On Beirut] How vibrant, exciting, a magnet for creative people. Beirut is always better than I expected. The environment, the mentality of Beirutis is far more lively and exciting than one has any right to expect for a place considering what it’s been through.
ND: What is it like to have the best food and travel gig on the planet?
Bourdain: (laughs) I also have the best television gig on the planet, operate with total creative freedom, largely free of any interference from the network. It’s nice, I’m very grateful for that.
Working in a kitchen 14 hours a day, is a still recent memory, every day I’m reminded of how lucky I am.
No Reservations airs on the Travel Channel on Monday nights at 10 ET
Tomorrow – Anthony Bourdain talks family dinners, eating oysters with his 3-year-old and the last dish that made him cry.