Netflix announced today that although Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain’s travel show on CNN had been scheduled to leave the streaming service on June 16, in the wake of his death last week, they would keep the episodes indefinitely.
Currently there are eight seasons, each with eight one-hour episodes available. That’s a lot of binge watching to contemplate. There are two ways to choose, if you don’t want to plow straight through. The first is to pick based on places you would most like to visit, or return to. The other is to watch what are arguably the series’ greatest hits. These episodes evoke a deep sense of place, explored with Bourdain’s particular style of ferocious curiosity and desultory cool. They’ll all leave you hungry for more of everything, but especially Bourdain himself.
Watching Bourdain stride through Beirut speaking earnestly with locals, swiping hummus, it’s tempting to see the city as a proxy for the man. It’s riddled with contradiction and contrast—devout Christians and Muslims from many different sects, young people puffing away in hookah bars and grinding at nightclubs, metal bands, and refugees, mainly Palestinian and Syrian, all call this place home. He clearly loves it there, because, not in spite of the layers of revelry and conflict. Some Beirut residents took issue with the episode as a kind of disaster capitalism, showing off all the parts of the city that are war torn, broken and quite literally bombed out, in typical American fashion. It’s possible that this was Bourdain’s personal fascination with struggle, rather than broadly American one, asserting itself. It’s an hour that argues that we should visit difficult places and not fear what we find there.
“You’ve been to Brooklyn,” Bourdain says near the beginning of this episode, “maybe it’s time you took a look at the Bronx.” He’s right, even the most intrepid New York City foodie-types who make it a point to trek deep into Queens to seek out specific restaurants and dishes don’t tend to make it up to the Bronx.
Sometimes Parts Unknown feels more like a geopolitical travel show than a food show, and that is not the case when Bourdain visits the Bronx. He eats his weight in cuchifritos—a traditional Puerto Rican pork preparation that roasts and fries pretty much every piece of the pig. He chats with members of the Garifuna community in Van Cortlandt Park, slurping up blue fish and coconut stew, mashed plantains, and next bones. He digs in to curried goat and stewed oxtails. He declares the Bronx the center of the pork universe. He doesn’t shy away from delving into the deep cultural significance of the borough, either. It could have been a little cringey to think about Bourdain, as a punk rock fan and white dude of a particular age, interviewing hip hop luminaries, but it works. He even gets hip-hop legend Melle Mel talking about how much he loved watching Hee Haw growing up.
Bourdain loved traveling and eating in Asia. And Asia loved him back. One of the most notable elements of the outpouring of appreciation for him and his work in the days following his death was how many people from South Korean, the Philippines, Myanmar, and Vietnam took to social media to express just how much it meant to them that Bourdain visited their country and treated it with respect. As Anne Quito wrote for Quartz, he loved Asian food and culture, without fetishizing it.
He starts the episode in Hanoi on a scooter, navigating the city’s thrumming tangle like he lives there—which is to say, barely avoiding collision from moment to moment. Along the way he stops to get noodles with a fan and fellow American, Barack Obama. This scene is a reminder of what America looked like to world before 2016, two tall, gangly, dudes with their long legs sprawling out from either side of low plastic stools in a working class restaurant, enjoying cold beers, spicy noodles, and a wide ranging, free-flowing conversation. It might hurt your heart a little to watch.
The show’s second season brought Bourdain to Sicily, a place he admitted he had never been able to enjoy, despite many visits. Sicily’s attempts to change his mind might have been humorous, if they weren’t so pathetic—and the result was his audience’s clear conviction that this guy was neither going to suffer fools or allow us to. When a chef took him on a memorable snorkeling trip to catch seafood, Bourdain pointed out to both the audience and the chef himself that he could clearly see the man’s associate throwing frozen cuttlefish and octopus into the water. The palpable discomfort may have made for an unpleasant trip for the cast and crew, but it also built a measure of trust between him and us. If the chef wasn’t going to make good on that trust, Bourdain sure would—”I’m no marine biologist, but I know dead octopus when I see one,” he said without humor.
And that night, in classic style, he had a few too many drinks and told the man exactly what he thought. If we wanted some sort of redemptive story arc, we didn’t get it. Instead, we got something much more valuable—the promise that if this man recommended a place, an experience, or a dish to a viewer, he would back it up with his whole heart.
Korean food culture is remarkably rich and varied, from delicate royal court dishes to barbecue to Seoul’s intense drink, snack, and karaoke scene. Most travel shows that visit South Korea focus on a couple of dishes that are likely foreign to Western viewers and make a big deal over them—silkworm pupae, ferment skate wing, and of course, dog. Bourdain instead focuses on Korean people, what, where, how they like to eat.
He visits Choi Ji-hwan, a Korean food blogger of sorts who broadcasts an internet cooking and eating show, a genre called mokbang in Korea, in which he creates, and eats, dishes from his time in the army, service in which is mandatory for all South Korean men. Choi and Bourdain make bundae-jjigae, also known as Army base stew, a post war concoction of hot dogs, rice cakes, ground meat, onions, Spam, kimchi, gochujang, and noodles. As Bourdain happily slurps the mess down (a recipe is in his most recent cookbook, Appetites,) Choi looks on approvingly and says, ”Tony when you eat it, it looks delicious.” What more is there to say?