We don't quite have the words to describe the overwhelming mark Bourdain left on the travel industry and world. But we will say that he helped change the conversation about what traveling should look like, what we should get out of it, and how we should feed ourselves along the way.
This Sunday’s special episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” might be difficult viewing for some of the late TV host and personality’s long-time fans. The show will include highlights of Bourdain in his element over the years, such as talking to groups of marginalized people, gorging on street food and delicacies, and connecting food to the history and current reality of a place. While the episode will reinforce that Bourdain’s show will soon come to an end, his impact on food, travel television, and trends isn’t going away.
Bourdain died on June 8 at age 61 while filming a “Parts Unknown” episode in Strasbourg, France. Bourdain, who started out as a chef, would go on to write his 2000 book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” and contribute to many other publications. He later had a 15-year TV career including 12 seasons of “Parts Unknown,” which premiered in 2013. The show won nine Primetime Emmy Awards and received 29 Emmy nominations, and also won a Peabody Award in 2013.
Sunday’s episode on CNN, titled “Bourdain’s Impact,” will take viewers back to some of Bourdain’s most memorable “Parts Unknown” destinations including Iran, Cuba, Lebanon, and Russia while also touching on historic moments such as his interview and dinner with President Obama in Hanoi, Vietnam in 2016. The show will also include behind-the-scenes interviews with Bourdain about the making of “Parts Unknown” and his philosophy on food and travel storytelling.
The 12th and final season of “Parts Unknown” began airing on September 23 with its Kenya episode (watch clip below) and other episodes will take viewers to Spain, Indonesia, and Texas.
Before he passed away, Bourdain said he considered himself a storyteller rather than a chef or writer.
“I would describe myself as a lucky cook who gets to tell stories,” he said while taping “Parts Unknown.” “I’m certainly not a journalist, and I’m not a chef anymore. I’d like to flatter myself by saying I’m an essayist. But I’m a storyteller. I see stuff and talk about that, and talk about how it made me feel at the time. If you can do that honestly, that’s about the best you can hope for I think.”
In a 2016 interview with Skift, Bourdain explained why he felt food is an important way to connect with people. “As I said, it’s not the answer to world peace, but it’s a start,” said Bourdain. “It’s the beginning of a conversation, and if you don’t eat what’s offered, if you’re unwilling to try people’s food, if you’re unwilling to eat out of your comfort zone in order to be a good guest, that’s the end of a conversation. It’s the end of any possible relationship, so all it is is a start. It’s a good start.”
“The willingness to sit down and experience a little slice of life outside of and different than your own,” said Bourdain. “Usually, that’s a very rewarding experience. Obviously, I love it, but, as I’ve found over the years, it’s opened up the world for me in really unexpected ways. I think it’s just a beginning of a conversation.”
At the inaugural Skift Restaurants Forum in September, Lydia Tenaglia, co-founder and chief creative officer at Zero Point Zero Production, which produces “Parts Unknown,” discussed Bourdain’s unique storytelling ability. “That ability to be able to quietly observe and then quietly insert and then quietly retreat and just capture became I think the sort of fundamental building blocks to that style of travel food television,” she said. “You know, at the time, I think people thought it was very revolutionary, what Bourdain was doing. It really did emanate out of that style of small format producer-shooter construct. And then you couple it with him and his sort of inimitable way of phrasing things and I think we had a sort of synergy going on.”
Tenaglia said she and her team were initially nervous about Bourdain while filming the first few “Parts Unknown” episodes in 2013 as he found his footing, but that the nerves quickly subsided.
“He was a huge reader of Vietnam history, war, politics,” she said. “And then going into that airport, which is the airport you see in all the photographs from the 1960s of body bags coming out. Suddenly something clicked that there are cameras here, and he suddenly began to understand his relationship to the cameras and how the camera could really become an extension for how he saw and thought about things. It was a clicking point, it was the second episode, and then things just pivoted, and then we were kind of off to the races.”
Bourdain made every person feel like they were his friend from the time that they were together, said Andy Greenwald, author and podcaster, who is interviewed in Sunday’s episode.
Greenwald pointed to Bourdain’s friendship with chef Eric Ripert, who appeared in a handful of “Parts Unknown” episodes, to demonstrate how Bourdain could put people at ease. “I think that’s probably the best way to understand Tony Bourdain on television is that he was not only the host of these shows, he really was the ultimate guest,” said Greenwald. “To eat the food of the world you don’t have to have a lot of frequent flier miles or a lot of money.”
Bourdain was also curious, said Greenwald. “He put people on camera who would otherwise never be on camera so he could show us something, not just him seeing something,” he said.
The show often mirrored real-life challenges various destinations were facing, such as the opioid epidemic, and touched on risqué subjects such as tentacle porn in Japan.
“He wasn’t worried about protecting a boxed image of who he was,” said Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post journalist who was formerly the newspaper’s Iran correspondent. Rezaian and his wife, Iranian journalist Yeganeh Salehi, appeared in “Parts Unknown’s” Iran episode in 2014. Shortly after they taped the episode Rezaian and Salehi were arrested and detained for 544 days and 72 days, respectively. Both were also interviewed for the “Bourdain’s Impact” episode.
“He was like ‘I’m going to put myself in this experience, and it’s going to be what it is,’ said Rezaian.
“He’s going to tell the truth no matter what,” said Salehi.
Bourdain once said that often the ugliest dishes are the ones that are the most hauntingly delicious.
He could convey what food tasted like even though viewers couldn’t taste it along with him, said Andrew Friedman, an author and friend of Bourdain’s. “The title of his book ‘Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,’ underbelly is a bit of a dark word but that’s sort of what his shows were,” said Friedman. “He gave you the full 360-degree experience of this stuff.”
Bourdain’s words from a past interview, “it’s nice if you really liked last week’s show, but I’m not going to do that one again,” seem eerie given his passing. But it was also part of Bourdain’s mission to convince his viewers to always be open-minded and explore new frontiers and dining rooms, and many travelers’ approaches to trips and food have certainly been influenced by Bourdain’s show and character.
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Photo credit: Journalists Jason Rezaian and Yeganeh Salehi (at left) with Anthony Bourdain during "Parts Unknown's" Iran episode in 2014. CNN