Anthony Bourdain was one of the most famous celebrity chefs in the game thanks to his earth shattering book, Kitchen Confidential. Because of that celebrity he was offered a ton of different television shows and when he finally did come to televisions everywhere he did so with a few different shows. Starting with A Cooks Tour in 2002, No Reservations from 2005 to 2012 and then finally to the show ‘Parts Unknown’, a show that allowed Bourdain to travel the world and taste really the best food that this planet has to offer. Instead of going to the different famous spots in places in each city he visited, he instead focused on the lesser-known restaurants or jaunts and that’s what made his show and really him as a person so special. So, let’s take a look at the top ten episodes of ‘Parts Unknown’ according to the man himself, thanks to an article on CNN.com.
10. Season One: Myanmar
‘Parts Unknown’ kicked off as a series with a splash, with Bourdain visited Myanmar, a country that was previously known as Burma. Because of the overthrow of the government of Burma, Myanmar was essentially like North Korea in that it was a place that really wasn’t open to outsiders. Because of that, Bourdain had to receive approval from the government of Myanmar, that slightly relaxed it’s policies to allow Bourdain to visit and taste the best that Myanmar/Burma had to offer. Like with all episodes, Bourdain kept notes about his visit and from those notes it’s obvious as to why he seleted the Myanmar episode as one of his favorite episodes. The notes start out with him stating, “Holy S***! Almost no one else has SEEN this!” and thanks to Bourdain that was no longer true because millions people were able to actually seen Myanmar for the first time in decades. The rest of his notes delve into his thoughts on the trip and the food, as well as his internal thoughts about the trip. Those notes show how deep and reflective he was, and it’s also something that shows why his show(s) were so special.
9. Season 1: Libya
Bourdain listed Libya as one of his favorite locations to visit which is important as after the fall of their dictator in Momar Gaddhafi, Libya has basically plunged into a depression and civil war. While Bourdain did visit after the fall of Gaddhafi a lot of the negative aspects that we know as today’s Libya had yet to really sink in but the uncertainty of what was to come was still palpable upon his visit in May of 2013. That uncertainty frames the episode as Bourdain travels around the country to sample the food and culture, that brings him to listen to Libyan hip-hop, Italian restaurants (which are pretty good and also make a lot of sense considering Libya’s proximity to Italy as well as the friendship between Gaddhafi and former prime minister of Italy, Sergio Berlusconi, who famously attended some of Gaddhafi’s “Bunga Bunga” Parties) and more. Bourdain also takes time to learn about tribal allegiances, something that a lot of Westerners should’ve done when redrawing maps of the region after World War I and II, and learned the history of the country through personal stories and food in a way that only he could. That humanity will break your heart knowing what is going on in Libya today and also knowing that with Bourdain gone there’s not a lot of people on television that can genuinely bridge the gap between cultures and food across the planet.
8. Season 1: Congo
The Final episode of his first season, Bourdain traveled to the location of his favorite book in ‘The Heart of Darkness’. In that book, the narrarator discusses a trip up the Congo River and the impact of imperialism and racism on the people there, and at the end of the day how similar people are regardless of whether or not they live in London or in the “uncivilized” Congo. That book was also the setting for one of Bourdain’s favorite films, Apocalypse Now, which was about a general during the Vietnam war who essentially went mad in the jungle and attempted to start his own small revolution. All of those themes are evident in the episode and considering what we knew then about Bourdain and his struggles with substance abuse and mental health, you could tell why. If anything, though, this episode shows that food binds us all and that Bourdain was the best at what he did, bridging that gap all over the world in places that otherwise would remain as foreign concepts as opposed to real places filled with real people.
7. Season 2: Jerusalem
Bourdain’s visit to Jerusalem was also a visit to the Gaza strip and the West Bank (which is a highly contested area of land that those in Palestine assert Israel stole from them. As he did so masterfully, Bourdain cut through a lot of the BS that has made both sides in Israel and Palestine essentially hate one another and instead looked at everyone as human and attempted to make peace the one way he knew worked for sure and that was in sharing food with one another. He delved into classic dishes and their rich history as well as the culture of the Jews and Muslims he visited while also speaking with local chefs and with a group he liked to spend time with on his show and that’s home cooks (something a lot of other travel, cooking or travel cooking show really never had done). It’s safe to say that if Bourdain couldn’t bring the two sides together with his amazing personality and food, then perhaps no one ever will. This was also the opening show for season two which meant that he thought it was very important and considering the fact that it made his list of favorite episodes ever, it appears that he still believed that up until his last few days on this earth.
6. Season 2: Copenhagen
Copenhagen, Denmark, is one of the most beautiful capitals in the world, or really just one of the most beautiful places in the world, period. Because of that, Bourdain does a lot of exploring this episode and not a ton of eating, even if Copenhagen is the cultural center of Denmark as well (and culture means food!). Beyond exploring the natural beauty of Copenhagen/Denmark, Bourdain focuses on a chef named Rene Redzepi, who has a restaurant named Noma, a restaurant with two Michelin stars. Beyond that, Noma was named the best restaurant in the world in 2010, 2011 and 2012 by Restaurant magazine which is amazing as most restaurants are usurped year to year. The menu is pure Denmark as it has offerings on it like smoke eel, cured shrimp, pickled herring, reindeer moss, quail egg and much more. While a lot of that sounds outright disgusting, clearly it’s something that tastes delicious and is presented well as Restaurant magazine doesn’t screw around. Either that or the person who decided the best restaurant in the world back during those years was a gigantic sadist. It’s a toss up and we’ll never really know.
5. Season 2: Tokyo
Tokyo is the busiest place on the planet in terms of people per square mile and it’s also home to some of the strangest people on the planet. Despite it’s reputation as a country and people that conform (something that was taken advantage of during World War II as the soldiers would fly planes into US Warships as dying on the battlefield for the emperor’s benefit was the greatest thing a man could do), Tokyo and Japan have a lot of strange subcultures and television shows (and adult movies, as well). Bourdain had been to Japan a few times on his show and this time he wanted to delve into some of those subcultures, or the seedy underbelly of Tokyo itself, something that CNN explained as Bourdain attempting to visit the “dark, extreme and bizarrely fetishistic underside” of Tokyo. It appears that he got his wish as he was able to meet with a whole group of strange Tokyo-ians… Tokyoans and taste their food. Considering that Bourdain was also a non-conformist and was dating one in Asia Argento, it’s not hard to see why this episode made it so high on his list of favorites.
4. Season 3: Punjab
Punjab is a northern state in India that forms the larger Punjab region and is bordered by Kashmir as well as the Pakistani province of Punjab, because that’s not confusing. A relatively small area compared to the rest of India, Punjab only covers 1.53% of India’s total geographical area. The region has amazing food which is why Bourdain opened season two there, from the city of Amritsar to the gurpurb festival. Because the state of Punjab is always changing thanks to the on-again-off-again hostilities that the Indian Punjabi’s have had with the Pakistani ones, which means that the version of Punjab that Bourdain visited may not be the same Punjab that exists as of the writing of this article (or as of the recording of this video). The gurpurb festival, which was a Sikh festival, with Sikh’s being an ethnic and religious minority there. That has historically lead to some issues also and if there’s one constant with oppressed groups around the world it’s that they maintain an amazing culture that survives regardless of what happens to the people themselves. Food is a large aspect of one’s religious and ethnic culture and so it’s pretty neat to see Bourdain learn more about the culture and food of the Sikhs. He also visited the Chapslee Estate, which is a free community vegetarian restaurant, something that is extremely normal in Indiia (as they don’t eat beef).
3. Season 3: Lyon
While Bourdain is known as a chef, obviously, his show wasn’t completely about food. While episodes always contained some sort of food and/or eating, there was always some history or exploring involved in each episode as well. The Lyon episode was different in that it was mainly about food, perhaps the greatest food in the world (depending on who you ask), as Bourdain met up with world-famous/renowned and restaurant entrepeneur Daniel Boulud and traveled to the “mecca of food” in Lyon, France. That’s actually the hometown of Boulud and Bourdain and Boulud traveled there to meet with another famous chef in Paul Bocuse, who is known as a “nouvelle innovator”. Nouvelle cuisine is a style of cooking that is relatively modern and that avoid rich, heavy food and instead emphasizes the freshness of ingredients and the presentation of dishes. You could tell how happy these meals made Bourdain and it’s really heart warming to see him enjoying himself. It also really makes you want to find a restaurant that focuses on nouvelle cuisine (or a cookbook online that you could use to make some meals yourself).
2. Season 4: Shanghai
One of the places that was literally unknown up until the 1970’s (with then President Richard Nixon’s famous visit) is/was China. Now, with the reforms they’ve made to their communist policies, China is not only an open place for people in the West to visit but also the fastest growing economy in the world (that is set to overtake the United States in about thirty years). Bourdain visited Shanghai and took note of the booming economy while also exploring parts of Chinese culture and history and how it still resonated in modern China. Any fans of Bourdain knew that he’d be a lot happier eating some street food than five-star food in a stuffy restaurant and the Shanghai episode is a great example of that and probably why Bourdain selected it as his second favorite episode, since most of the episode is about his experience with that street food. Considering how a lot of that street food is made, with grease from the sewer (look it up) and less than clean and safe, it makes sense that a guy who lived on the edge would eat that food (because gutter grease is so cool?).
1. Season 4: Iran
As this list has shown, Anthony Bourdain loved to go to areas of the world that are restricted, meaning that they’re hard to travel to and thus, for the most part, parts unknown. Iran is the best example of that as the former “democracy” (long story) was overthrown by far-right religious fundamentalists in the 1970’s, one that loves one of their slogans which is “Death to America”, rolls right off the tongue. Because of that and especially after former President George W. Bush named Iran as part of the “Axis of Evil”. If you want any proof that it’s still a bad idea to visit Iran, two employees of CNN that were there as part of filming ‘Parts Unknown’ were detained and released by the Iranian government while there. Bourdain feared very little and showed that in the episode as he attempted to expose what it was like to live under an oppressive regime like Iran’s government. He stopped and ate at a few homes in the capital of Iran, which is Tehran. He also showed what the night life is like in Iran. It’s surprising to hear that Iran even has a nightlife but it’s been said that outside of the hardline leaders, a lot of people in Iran are actually quite liberal and normalized and that’s something that is encouraging and sad at the same time as they basically don’t agree with what their government is doing but have no choice but to sit around and abide… And in this case, some of them also cook amazing classic Iranian dishes.