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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown

Illustration for article titled iAnthony Bourdain Parts Unknown/i
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Of all things, Anthony Bourdain’s Twitter bio may actually describe him best: “enthusiast.” Whether you live for Bourdain’s dry as a bone, smirking sarcasm or want to force-feed him tofu, you can’t deny the guy’s enthusiasm. He’s passionate to the point of fanatical about his food, travel, friends, and even strangers. The beauty of his long-running Travel Channel show No Reservations, though, was that it gave him the perfect showcase for his most altruistic passion, namely finding out and sharing what makes other people light up like Bourdain does when he’s sitting in front of a smoking plate of meat. Maybe he didn’t start traveling around the world and documenting his meals with such lofty ambitions; no one could blame him if he just saw an opportunity for a never-ending vacation. Still, it quickly became clear that Bourdain’s interest in global cuisine wasn’t just about eating himself silly, but about how the wildly varied answers to “what’s for dinner?” point out our similarities rather than our differences. Every culture has its own versions of street meat and haute cuisine, family dinners and special occasion buffets, decadent desserts and guilt-inducing convenience food. Or, as every movie villain ever would say: “we’re not so different, you and I.”


So, I’m happy to report that the mission statement Parts Unknown doesn’t stray far from that of No Reservations. In fact (and predictably), Parts Unknown doesn’t stray far from No Reservations at all. The format still has Tony loping around restaurants and street markets and historical sites as he tells us about some dish or story in his trademark erudite narration. And if you weren’t a fan of No Reservations, or of anyone who would willingly use the phrase “omnidirectional experience” to describe a hurtling train ride, you may not be a fan of Parts Unknown, or magically love Bourdain. But at the very least, you may learn something new, or even exciting. When was the last time you could say that of CNN? (Zing!)

Actually, the most overt example of CNN’s impact on the show is that the premiere takes place in Myanmar, a country whose recently fraught history would almost certainly have rejected Travel Channel’s less prestigious cameras. Bourdain has long been frank about wanting to up his travel to a higher difficulty level. While he still hasn’t been able to swing his dream trip of Iran, Parts Unknown’s first season brought his cameras to Libya and the Congo for the first time. Other CNN perks featured in tonight’s episode include news footage to back up Bourdain’s sporadic history lessons, a sweeping helicopter shot at the end of tonight’s episode that’s just stunning, and the glorious privilege of saying “shit” without getting bleeped. It’s also hard not to think CNN’s name recognition helped him approach the Burmese people he hoped to speak to on camera, who may otherwise shy away from an interview so soon after the country lifted its culture of censorship.


But even if CNN got him in the door, charming strangers and discovering the country through its cuisine is entirely up to Bourdain, and he steps up to the challenge with his usual gusto. He samples Myanmar’s specialty teas with the shop’s owner like he’s catching up with an old college professor and eagerly slurps up Myanmar’s signature fermented tea leaves. He marvels at a table groaning with food and condiments with “controversial figure” Ma Thanegi, and talks about prison over steaming bowls with…well, just about everyone. He strolls through a Full Moon festival with his equally enthusiastic friend Philippe LaJunie (who now owns Bourdain’s flagship New York restaurant, Les Halles), stopping to gape at the Ferris wheels powered by boys furiously pushing the wheel like the world’s most reckless, acrobatic parents pushing their kids’ swings. He imagines riding the Ferris wheel, and subsequently recites a eulogy for himself like he’s Leslie Knope dictating a Pawnee Journal headline. He and Philippe hitch a ride on the Night Express, which is supposed to take ten hours but ends up taking nineteen; it travels along at the speed of a leisurely jog (until it doesn’t). He stares out the window at the stunning Burmese countryside (again, credit where it’s due to the crew and cinematography team). He grabs barbecue with a grinning punk rock band dressed in flannel and for a second, he could be back in Austin. Bourdain still travels and eats and interacts with people exactly as he always has, and while he doesn’t use these words to describe himself, they still apply to Parts Unknown: “relentlessly curious, without fear or prejudice.”

…as long as you’re not a vegetarian.

Stray observations:

  • Since next week’s episode is in Los Angeles, I’d like to put in some preemptive outrage that Bourdain didn’t go to my favorite taco truck, the JERK.
  • Now I wish Bourdain really did recite his eulogy like he was Leslie Knope (“Zoinks! Wheel of Misfortune Traps Testy Travel Taster Comma Leaves No Room for Seconds!”).
  • "I know, that does not sound good - but you're wrong to think that."
  • "What American bands do you hate?" "Creed."

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