LOS ANGELES - Anthony Bourdain's television travelogue "Parts Unknown" goes to Iran to discover how people live behind the geopolitical smoke screen and to small-town Massachusetts to chronicle the heroin scourge.
But even if the fourth season of his Emmy Award-winning CNN show fosters cultural diplomacy or raises drug awareness, this outspoken New York chef insists he is on no kind of socially minded mission.
And he's not an advocate, activist, journalist or expert on anything. "There have been times I have had an agenda or developed an agenda or came back feeling very strongly about something, but I am not out to make the world a better place or inspire people to do one thing or the other," Bourdain told Reuters ahead of the Season 4 premiere on Sunday.
If, however, more Americans got passports and travelled the world and walked in other people's shoes by seeing his show, he would feel good about that.
"But I am not so pompous as to think that is any kind of a mission of mine," he said. "I am a lucky son of a bitch who gets to travel around the world and talk about it."
It's not just about telling a story for Bourdain, who broke out of the culinary world and into popular culture in 2000 with his best-selling restaurant chef memoir "Kitchen Confidential."
He puts a premium on the show's artistic elements, depicting offbeat destinations like Detroit or the Congo with cinematic flourish.
The season stars with "Shanghai." Bourdain says he and his crew take the show to new aesthetic heights, inspired by the joint work of Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle.
They used splashes of red - in flowers or a handkerchief - and varying camera speeds to mimic the atmospheric effect of films like Wong's "In the Mood for Love." The episode ponders the longing and desire that comes with China's explosive economic growth.
It took years for Bourdain to get official clearance to do an episode in Iran, but he now can think of nowhere where he has been more warmly received. "The Iran you know geopolitically and the Iran you see walking down the street, it is a very jarring difference," he said.
The lineup also includes sojourns to Paraguay, New York City's Bronx borough, Jamaica, Vietnam, Tanzania and then takes a deeply personal turn in the episode in Massachusetts, where Bourdain, himself a former heroin addict, takes stock of the drug's ravages.
"You could see the public health problem becoming a criminal justice problem in small-town America," he said.
These days, the 58-year-old Bourdain is looking rather fit thanks to his obsession with jiujitsu. And as much as he would not mind retiring to Italy to grow tomatoes and make salumi, his Italian wife won't hear of it. "I have come to the conclusion," he said, "that it is New York for me and I will keep working until I choke on a chicken wing."