The best Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown episodes
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June 25th is known by those in the culinary world and many fans alike as ‘Bourdain day’. This is the day that marks the late, great Anthony Bourdain’s birthday and it’s seen as a celebration of the chef-turned-travel-journalist / TV host’s life. In honour of this, we’ve put together a list of our most favourite episodes from one of our favourite food shows: Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. From sailing into the murky depths of Borneo where Dyak head-hunters await to dining with US President Barack Obama on the streets of Hanoi, Tony saw a few things in his time… Watch the series here.
The opener for Season 11 is perhaps the best example of how good Anthony Bourdain was at his job. Here was a man who did little to hide where his political allegiances lay, heading straight into a place that was the stronghold of everything he detested. By all logic, Trump-loving, coal-endeared West Virginia was not a place Bourdain would want to go…yet it was perfect for Parts Unknown.
This series is about meeting people at the table and listening to them. It’s about having open, honest conversations with ‘the other side’ and one could argue that it’s something large parts of a very polarised world have forgotten how to do. Few people were as good at this as Anthony Bourdain. Breaking bread with people and enjoying good food always leads to good conversation. In the prelude, he writes:
“Here in the heart of every belief system I’ve ever mocked or fought against, I was welcomed with open arms by everyone,” Bourdain remarks in the prelude to the episode. “I found a place both heartbreaking, and beautiful. A place that symbolizes and contains everything wrong and everything wonderful and hopeful about America”
Favourite meal: it has to be chowing down on bear meat deep in an underground mine system with a group of coal miners. It doesn’t get any more West Virginian than that!
This one captures the essence of travel and adventure. Going from the calm, urban streets of Kuala Lumpur (with an overwhelming variety of amazing street food), Bourdain and the crew slowly descend into what can only be described as some sort of madness. Borneo is the world’s third-largest island and to this day, the best way to travel into the inner reaches is by boat. So, that’s just what they do. The moment Bourdain jumps out of the boat to help push it through a raging torrent of water, you know it’s a real adventure.
For context, this is a journey that retraces the steps Anthony had taken some 10 years earlier. He goes in search of an elusive Iban tribe (known for head-hunting not so long ago). When he finds them, they embark on a multi-day festival and celebration that is basically just…drinking. Drinking a lot of alcohol, non-stop. As if those scenes aren’t wild enough, he also kills a pig (this is not for animal-lovers or the faint-hearted) and has his chest tattooed in the traditional local way (it looks really painful). This one is a real ride.
Favourite meal: before the madness begins, near the start of the episode Anthony can be found enjoying some deliciously authentic Laksa on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Watching hsi joy for this dish is almost as much fun as the dish is tasty! He remarks, in between huge slurps, that “the main event of this, it’s the broth. The wisdom of the ages is contained in there.” He loves it so much that he goes in for seconds (or thirds) which soon draws amused remarks from the locals.
All episodes of Parts Unknown are beautiful to look at, but some are more beautiful than others. Hong Kong may well be the best of the lot, in this respect. A lot of the cinematography is influenced by his on-screen guest Christopher Doyle – a legendary cinematographer who has made Hong Kong his adoptive home.
From the very beginning, where Tony is sitting writing away in his diary on the famous Star Ferry as it chugs over Victoria Harbour, we are transported to a beautiful, far-off world. So much of what makes Parts Unknown brilliant is in how the crew capture the essence of each place they visit and it’s safe to say, they nailed it on this one.
Not only does the episode show off the best of Hong Kongs’ visuals, Bourdain also does a great job of highlighting the transitional phase the city is currently undergoing. There is a battle between old and new here. One moment, he’s enveloped by the Manhattan-esque skyline, the next he’s in a traditional fishing village on the fringes of the city. It’s a fascinating portrait of a place that, even since the episode’s airing three years ago, has undergone huge upheaval and change.
Favourite meal: in keeping with the theme of the episode, Bourdain enjoys a series of innovative takes on old, traditional pan-Asian dishes, cooked up by chef May Chow. This is where old meets new and it looks delicious!
Parts Unknown boasts a list of guest appearances that’s pretty much unrivalled and this one tops the lot. Not only did we get to revisit Vietnam – a country that is clearly very special and dear to Anthony’s heart – we got to see him sit down and eat bún chả with then-US President Barack Obama.
This is a scene that’s one of the most memorable from the whole show (all 12 series) and it again highlights Tony’s phenomenal ability to keep things natural and get dug into a real, raw conversation, no matter who was sitting on the other side. Even though it’s the President of the United States, slurpin’ noodles is on the menu. This humble setting (they’re sat on plastic blue stools in a very small, casual storefront on the side of the street) helps in grounding the conversation and the two happily knock back beers, talking about the finer details of being president.
Tony asks the question we were all dying to know – “how often do you get to sneak out for a beer?” Obama replies: “Very rarely. First of all, I don’t get to sneak out period, but once in awhile I’ll take Michelle out on a date night. The problem is, part of enjoying a restaurant is sitting with other patrons and enjoying the atmosphere and too often we end up getting shut into one of those private rooms in the back.”
Bourdain, clearly enjoying the company of his esteemed dinner guest, raises a toast: “Well, I’m glad I could help. To many more cold beers.” It’s great fun all round and the icing on the cake of what is a very good look at the Vietnamese capital.
Favourite meal: we think you know!
While on the topic of guests, we can’t ignore Anthony’s partner in crime Eric Ripert. Chef at New York’s ‘Le Bernardin’, Eric was Bourdain’s long-time friend and featured in several episodes of the show. We think Sichuan tops the list, though. It’s hilarious.
Of course, as you may well know already (being a seasoned pioneer), Sichuan is home to some of the hottest, spiciest food on the planet. Commenting on this in the episode, Tony says “It’s the spicy, sensualist heartland of all the things I love about China… food that can burn you down to a charred, smoking little stump.” Accurate.
The episode follows their bromantic adventures through the reason, taking in the sights of the world’s largest stone buddha and generally just focusing on how much fun Tony has putting Eric through the wringer, far outside of his comfort zones. There is a lot of drink and A LOT of spice. You’ll be sweating just watching this one.
Favourite meal: when Tony and Eric sit down to eat the famous regional dish Mapo Tofu (delicious). The dish is so spicy and hot, Eric remarks, “the spiciness makes me already feel like I’m drunk”.
Rounding off our list of the very best Parts Unknown episodes, we’ve gone for Tbilisi, Georgia. While it may not be the prettiest or funniest to watch, it’s classic Parts Unknown. This show is about taking you to the lesser known places that are well off the beaten path…the parts unknown.
The Georgia episode is a classic example of this – you get to learn about what’s happening in a place you likely know little to nothing about, as well as being introduced to what is a surprisingly unique and impressive cuisine. Given Georgia’s geographical location, it turns out that the food here is amazing! A blend of everything from the Middle East to Europe, Russia, the Mediterranean and beyond.
This is a great look into a country that’s rarely featured anywhere and that’s what we always loved about this show. Whenever you put an episode on Netflix, you know you’re heading off on an adventure, learning about somewhere else in the world. In this post-pandemic era where travel has become more difficult than ever, that’s a precious thing.