By Julie Lei, Series Producer
Walking into the Bourdain office as a newcomer, was like being faced with a well-rehearsed double dutch jump rope act and told to join in. When I first started series producing this show in January of this year, the landscape was not totally foreign. I had been an editor on A Cook’s Tour many years ago, so I was familiar with the original storytelling format, and I had met Tony once before. But this time, I was entering the production at a different capacity, I was to help oversee the series which was well into its fifth season. Every show runner position is different, and my job in this instance was to retrofit myself to the rhythm of what was already in place and hope that eventually, I could make a difference.
My first task was to wrangle all the material that was shot for the Special, Food Porn, into an entertaining TV hour. I recommended an editor (and friend) who worked on such sex-tinged shows as HBO’s Katie Morgan on Sex Toys and Cathouse, The Pimpmaster General. When she just happened to be available, I thought the stars had aligned and this was meant to be. Well, it did work out, in a messy kind-of-way. After many long hours and angry, but loving, fistfights and hair-pulling temper tantrums with my editor, we managed to finish the show with no time to spare.
The next memorable rite of passage was to go on location and work with the crew and Tony. While there is nothing more I would rather be doing than produce, shoot and travel, I had sworn off field work 2 years ago so that I could focus on life at the homestead. Suffice it to say, nearly ten years of life on the road does not make for a balanced personal life. So it was with very mixed feelings that I joined the field team in Montana. The thing I remember most fondly, apart from the talents of the crew, is that the folks we met in Livingston were genuine, interesting, and down-to-earth….but I felt like my producer skills were a bit rusty and I was not altogether on top of my shooting game. Many months have since passed, and that part of the experience is all thankfully, behind me. From the very beginning, I had been told by my Exec. Producer, Lydia, that this was not your typical formatted series. I was like, huh, how can that be? Now I know better. When it comes to the details of the storytelling, it’s like starting over with each new show.
Ok, well let’s face it, the backbone of this particular job is getting to know your host and that would be Tony… getting to know his likes and dislikes, and making sure we’re creatively in synch. When we first started working together back in January, he wouldn’t give me eye contact when we talked. I thought, he doesn’t like me, hell, he doesn’t even remember me, even though he assured me that he did. We have nothing in common… I hardly drink, I was vegetarian at one point, and I do things like yoga and lemon cleanses. This does not bode well, I thought. Well since those early days, there seems to exist a copacetic working relationship. There are some things I’ve come to expect, along the way. I wouldn’t say I know his mind, but I do know that I can never anticipate his reactions, no one seems to be able to master that, not even the ABNR veterans. And so now when I get an occasional not-so-pleasant email, I don’t let it get to me. I take them as, just his no-nonsense way of making sure the series remains top-notch, and an initiation-of-sorts into the ABNR family fold. — A recipient of uncensored Bourdain emails?…that must mean I’m in!
These days, I think I’ve got the double dutch act down. Season 5 has ended and we were within budget, we didn’t miss an airdate, and the network execs seem happy with the ratings, which means the fans are still tuning in. Season 6 is already well underway…and the jump ropes continue to circle round and round, like the hands of a clock. Is it due to momentum, inertia, or Tony’s enthusiastic slew of crack-the-whip emails, I don’t know…. But lest I think I can become creatively complacent in this job, I know better. I’ve found that on No Reservations, there is room to evolve, experiment with, and yes, even subvert the creative process, like no other. So do I feel like I trip every once in awhile along the way, yes….do I start over and pick up again to try something new, sure. But I’m realizing that it’s ok. This is par for the course when it comes to working with Tony, and I’ve learned to love it.