Anthony Bourdain’s critically acclaimed Parts Unknown is an immersive show that allows viewers to sneak a peek at amazing cultures and foods all around the world. But what the audience doesn’t see is everything that went on behind the scenes during the series’ production, so we did some research to bring you the top ten untold truths about Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown!
10. The Dangers of Journalism
Bourdain never shied away from traveling to politically volatile destinations during the production of Parts Unknown. For an episode focusing on Iran, Bourdain explored the region and spoke to two citizens named Jason Rezaian and Yeganeh Salehi. Rezaian worked as a reporter for the Washington Post, while his wife Salehi was also in the journalism field. Bourdain connected with the couple, who spoke openly about life in the country and the joys and trials that they faced there. Only a short while after their collaboration with Bourdain, both of them were jailed by the government. Rezaian was forced to remain in jail for two years under charges of espionage, but he was adamant that he did not blame his arrest on participating with Parts Unknown. Instead, he and Salehi were grateful to Bourdain, since Bourdain was a vocal supporter of them after he heard about their arrest. The footage from Parts Unknown helped to raise awareness about the imprisonment of Rezaian, and other news outlets began to cover the story of his unfair arrest as well. Rezaian was finally released in 2016 as part of a prisoner exchange, and he remained in contact with Bourdain as he readjusted to life without bars. Bourdain valued the relationships that he made during his journeys, and he didn’t hold back from helping a friend in need even after the cameras had stopped rolling.
9. Around the World
Obviously, a show like Parts Unknown required a lot of travelling, but viewers might not know just how many days were spent on the road filming. In an average year, Bourdain and the rest of the television crew spent 250 days travelling for the show, or approximately two thirds of a full year! Throughout the series Bourdain covered a lot off ground, managing to hit 92 different regions over the course of ten seasons. In just one season Bourdain and his team could traverse a significant amount of miles, like in season nine when he covered regions from Antartica to Trinidad. Instead of keeping seasons contained to a singular country or even continent, Parts Unknown zigzagged across the world to complete a gruelling international filming schedule. When considered alongside his other shows like No Reservations, Bourdain ended up working his way through his twelfth passport after filling up his first eleven so quickly due to television shoots! Each episode was allotted ten days to be shot from start to finish, which is a quick turn around for hour long episodes. These filming periods also included all of the additional travel which took place in each region, as Bourdain was often seen rolling around in carts, floating on boats, and relaxing on trains. But he wasn’t alone on his trips!
8. Bourdain’s Dream Team
While Bourdain was the face of Parts Unknown, he also relied on a tight-knit crew of people behind the scenes. He usually traveled with seven core crew members through all of his journeys, as he needed some helping hands to take care of all the camera, sound, and lighting equipment that he traveled with from place to place. As the crew was following Bourdain into intimate places like homes, private businesses, and community gatherings, they tried to integrate themselves into the show to make their subjects as comfortable as possible. Even though the crew was not heavily featured in the episodes, they participating in all of the activities and group meals to make everyone feel more at ease amidst the cameras and strangers. This meant that the crew was treated to a lot of the local delicacies that Bourdain taste-tested, and also got to indulge in a few drinks whenever Bourdain went out to a bar. There were no formal scripts for the episodes, only planned people and places to approach. This really kept the camera crew on their toes, as they never knew exactly what Bourdain or his friends were going to throw at them to try and capture.
7. Avoiding the Alps
With its beautiful scenery, you’d think that Switzerland would be a desirable destination for anyone who loves to travel. From its mountains to its alpine lakes, to its famous chocolate, there should have been lots of tempting attractions for Bourdain to check out for an episode of Parts Unknown. However, he absolutely refused to go there! This is especially bizarre since he had no problem with traveling to regions that were difficult to get to or dangerous to explore, but would draw the line with setting foot in Switzerland. Apparently, he had a paralyzing fear of the region which stopped him from ever traveling there. Bourdain finally spoke about the strange phobia with television host Conan O’Brien, explaining that he couldn’t quite define the fear or where it came from. He joked that maybe he had forgotten a traumatic memory involving The Sound of Music, but couldn’t give much more information about his phobia’s origins. Bourdain went on to elaborate that it wasn’t just Switzerland itself that scared him – the fear extended to everything that came from Switzerland or was associated with it! This included harmless things like Swiss cheese, cuckoo clocks, and especially yodeling. Hearing the strains of a yodeller was enough to make Bourdain’s skin crawl, and he went so far as to call the music horrifying! Thankfully there were enough other countries to visit for the show, and he was never forced to confront his geographical nemesis!
6. Causal Comfort Food
Bourdain was treated to some of the best food in the world as he traveled around filming, from caviar to foie gras to meals that took literal days to assemble. He definitely had a taste for the finer foods in life, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t enjoy some more standard fare once in a while. He admitted that one of his favorite things to eat was an American classic, a hot bowl of macaroni and cheese. But not just any mac and cheese, specifically fast food mac and cheese! In between fancy restaurant visits he could swing by and pick up some fresh fast food take out to keep him happy as he traveled with his crew. During his international travels for Parts Unknown, Bourdain relied on KFC to provide him with comfort food when things got stressful. Of course, his favorite thing to order wasn’t their famous fried chicken, but was actually their mac and cheese! He just couldn’t get enough of it! When he couldn’t find the real deal, he still managed to find joints that were close enough to KFC, like Uncle Kentaki Chicken in Libya.
5. Liaising With the Government
Throughout the show, Bourdain tackled numerous countries with diverse governmental and military presences. While some countries were completely open to being featured in Parts Unknown and gave Bourdain and his crew free reign, other regimes were less relaxed. This was especially true for regions like Vietnam and China. When Bourdain filmed in Vietnam he was assigned a minder. Minders are government assigned escorts that are responsible for maintaining a region’s image by stopping people like Bourdain from straying into places that they don’t want people to see. They help to present the country or state in a specific way, particularly when the country is going to be televised on a show like Parts Unknown. Therefore the show’s producers had to collaborate with the local governments to see what exactly they were and were not allowed to do or film, in order to avoid awkward showdowns with their minders. The minders helped to censor the footage before it was even shot, but sometimes the producers didn’t have to worry about them. In Burma, they had expected to be saddled with a strict minder due to the oppressive government, but they were shockingly never assigned one. Instead, Bourdain was able to wander around on his own, talking to whoever he wanted about politics and food, and no one stopped him. The locals were also surprisingly open with him, and he was able to dig deep into the culture without the government looking over his shoulder at all times. Maybe the government was just a huge fan of Bourdain’s!
4. Airplanes and Thunderstorms
To film a show like Parts Unknown, Bourdain and the rest of his crew got very used to flying from place to place. However, that didn’t mean that everyone loved the experience. Some of the crew members were actually afraid of flying, especially in less than ideal conditions. A lot of the time the crew found themselves in small, off the beaten track regions that did not have large airports or safe flying records. This was the situation that the crew was stuck in when they were filming an episode in the Congo. According to the organizers of Parts Unknown, commercial flights in the Congo have a track record of running into dangerous problems, and no one wanted to risk getting on a commercial airplane when they were ready to switch filming locations. One of their other options was to drive, but that was equally unsafe as it would have been a multi day journey through politically unstable and hazardous regions. They ended up settling on a private plane, which was a tiny bush plane that was extremely old and questionable. To make things even scarier, the crew and Bourdain had to deal with intense thunderstorm conditions at the same time, which probably did not help morale! Luckily the flight ended up going smoothly, and the Parts Unknown crew were eager to get out of the air and back to filming!
3. International Illnesses
Unfortunately, one of the downsides of traveling around the world is that people can get sick. Parts Unknown traveled to a plethora of diverse destinations with varying diseases and hygienic standards, and it was only natural that the crew suffered from the conditions at certain points. During a trip through Madagascar, the crew and Bourdain had to take a 22-hour train ride to the coast. Apparently, the train wasn’t the best environment to travel in, and after the trip three of the crew members were diagnosed with acute bronchitis. Bourdain was adamant however that when it came to eating food internationally, it was easy to avoid getting sick. In all of his many years of filming the show, he was only ill for three days of shooting. He attributed this to his eating strategy, which was to go where the locals went and to order the local food. Bourdain’s theory was that the more locals frequented a spot, the less likely the food was rotten or contaminated. He also avoided ordering western food at all costs when he was abroad because that was the stuff that was purely there to draw in tourists who wouldn’t be repeat customers, so it didn’t matter if the food was low quality. After seeing some of the intense things that Bourdain ate on the show, it’s possible that he just had a superhuman stomach!
2. The Wrath of the Alcohol Snobs
People who are familiar with Parts Unknown know that Bourdain was a huge fan of his alcohol, often matching his meals with a local drink wherever he went. He didn’t seem to care too much about how fancy or upscale the liquor was, but would just accept whatever was on hand. As the show is popular particularly amongst viewers who have an interest in food and drink, some people were irritated that Bourdain was not showing off the best alcohol from each region that he visited. They wanted him to dissect drinks like a true specialist, especially when it came to types of beer. Bourdain hated this idea of only drinking the best of the best. He wanted to experience what the locals were experiencing, and integrate himself in the popular bars and watering holes of the area. Also, his main criteria on choosing what beer to drink was simple – he just wanted whatever was available at that moment, and whatever was cold! The idea of analyzing his drinks or beers was ridiculous to Bourdain. He thought that would ruin the whole fun of going to a bar and drinking with his pals. His fans couldn’t sway him into turning the show into more of an alcohol lover’s dream, and Bourdain kept drinking whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted!
1. Bourdain’s Travel Bug
Bourdain had a genuine love for exploring international places, and he was given a huge amount of freedom when it came to deciding where he and the crew would travel each season. The show’s producers did not dictate destinations to Bourdain, and he was able to brainstorm with his crew about interesting places that they wanted to see. Bourdain said that a lot of his travel inspiration for the show came from films and novels that he loved, or even musical influences. He kept a list on his phone of places that he wanted to go, and the producers would refer to his list when it came time to plan out a new season. They would then create a complimentary mix of destinations, and ensure that there was diversity in terms of locations, guests, and themes. Bourdain’s brainstorming sessions were never done in a typical business scenario. There were no official meetings in offices, but rather his brainstorming happened in small cafes and diners as he wound down after a day of shooting with his crew. Throughout the series of Parts Unknown Bourdain’s excitement about the world around him was evident, and it’s clear to see that he was truly passionate about his globe-trotting job.