With the passing of Anthony Bourdain last month, I thought I had to write a bit about how his work has influenced my view on “exploring experience”, as this blog’s tagline states. I want to focus on the memories he left behind with the travels he embarked on for his show Parts Unknown — a program I quite liked for how it packaged food and travel as a way to better understand the world and its people.
Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and No Reservations were both entertaining and informative shows (except for the Iceland episode, which was crap) that took people on journeys they would otherwise never have. He had always been upfront (self-deprecatingly) with how it was a self-indulgent program that strayed far from more worthwhile endeavors like curing diseases and ending world hunger. However, they played a role in expanding the horizons of people who would otherwise not have as wide a perspective of the world, even with the Internet within reach.
The way it was written and how it treated its subjects had such thought and care put into them that has become rarer in the increasingly-troubled world of television. With that in mind, especially now that he has transitioned to the next plane, I would like to talk about some of the episodes that I found most interesting.
3. Parts Unknown S01E05: Tangiers
This episode made an impression on me and had me reading The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. It connected the dots between the romantic image of Tangiers and the modernity its citizens seek.
I remember the anecdote of a flat-screen TV in a Moroccan cafe. Its presence perturbed a western tourist who did not take kindly to how it ruined the “authenticity and integrity” of the establishment, but then gets talked down by a local at the next table who just wanted to watch football matches there.
“Hey, you asshole. You have a flat-screen TV at home. I want one too. What’s wrong with that?”
Moroccans want prosperity that comes with commercialization and modernity, while expats want the cultural atmosphere maintained. Tourism and expatriates are a big part of the country’s economy, so it’s not like they wouldn’t want their main attraction—the unique Moroccan look and feel—to go away. But they also would want to be more modern and up to par with the rest of the developed world. I found this discussion rather interesting.
A friend of mine is in Morocco right now, working as an interior designer. She seems to be doing quite well for herself there.
2. Parts Unknown S08E09: Rome
This is another one of my favorite episodes, but not because of Rome itself. While exploring Benito Mussolini’s legacy in the Italian capital was indeed interesting, it was the tour guide Bourdain had with him and their resulting chemistry that really fascinated me. Asia Argento is a woman with layers, and this episode peeled some of them back for all to see.
Having watched the two converse and connect with each other throughout this episode made sure I wouldn’t be surprised when the news of them becoming a couple came out. It’s likely that they fell in love during that taping, and you can re-watch it now to see how that unfolded right in front of the camera.
Special Mention — S07E01: Manila, Philippines
It was a good enough salvage job, but it was still not the best episode ever aired. Getting stuck in Manila due to a storm while you had planned to explore more of this intriguing hellhole that is the Philippines is a pretty bad deal. They could’ve gotten stuck in Cebu or Davao instead for a more interesting show, but they had to deal with what they could.
The focus in this episode was overseas workers—specifically cover bands and domestic helpers. In this context, Filipinos either take care of your household chores or play near-perfect Bon Jovi in a Japanese bar. Other parts of the episode include the Jersey boy raised on spaghetti with meatballs in red sauce hating himself for liking Jolly Spaghetti and eating chicken adobo in someone else’s house.
For Filipinos, this episode was both endearing and not that interesting. When a travel program sticks to Metro Manila for its material, it becomes more of an anthropological study than a tour of sights and sounds. For Filipinos, the worldwide attention is welcome, even if the investigation ends up somewhat shallow.
1. Parts Unknown S08E06: Japan with Masa Takayama
There are way too many documentaries on Japan, and Bourdain’s shows are no different with five episodes of it on No Reservations and three on Parts Unknown. This is the last one he made about the country, and he had a special tour guide that made this episode a must-watch.
Being a Michelin star sushi chef, Masa Takayama was an excellent guide who shared his philosophy through his deep understanding of food. However, it wasn’t just the interaction between Masa and Bourdain that was interesting, but also how the episode itself was structured—using Masa’s life and journey to America as an outline for the story of east meeting west.
One of the themes in Bourdain’s shows I’ve noticed is the consumption of bitter foods for both culinary and philosophical appreciation. This was shown by Masa, handing Bourdain a bitter vegetable off the grill while saying, “bitterness makes you grow.” Bourdain then quipped how it was similar to Italian amaro dolce, which is similar in concept.
Things like this make me like shows such as Parts Unknown while I tend to not like most food travel shows. I don’t really like watching people eat; I prefer watching them cook. Out of all the episodes of Parts Unknown, this has to be my absolute favorite.
It must have been one hell of an early morning when he decided that his windpipe and carotid arteries needed some tightening. He was on location to shoot his show in Paris, and he must’ve thought that a hotel room in the most romantic city in the world would be an apt place to die.
He was found there lifeless like how Andre the Giant was found lifeless 25 years ago—also in a Paris hotel room. Meanwhile, rumors circulate of conspiracies related to his tweets about Hillary Clinton and sex trafficking, speculating that he was about to open a Pandora’s box of pedophile rings and a list of names that would make Harvey Weinstein look like Mr. Rogers.
I don’t put much stock in conspiracies, and this one makes too little sense. Even if there are enough dots to connect, it’s simply a coincidence that he himself had been talking about sex offenders in places of power and his girlfriend was directly involved. When you look through enough facts and figures to get a bigger picture, the assassination hypothesis looks flimsy.
Applying Hanlon’s Razor, it’s best to assume that he folded to his demons and the pressures of his work, despite the apparent nirvana of a personal life he seemed to have from the outside. He still drank a lot, despite being a former drug addict. There are plenty of variables involved that most people would never be able to understand since he seemed to have a life most would envy.
The only thing I can say about that is people who don’t know him personally don’t really know anything. All we have left from him is what he let us see, and that’s about it.
Have something to say? Do you agree or am I off-base? Did I miss a crucial detail or get something wrong? Please leave whatever reactions, questions, or suggestions you may have on the comment section below.
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Also published on Medium.