It was the irreverent heathen, Batjay, who introduced me to Anthony Bourdain. Long before I met him in person, Batjay remarked that he could imagine me in the kitchen, cigarette dangling from my lips and swearing loudly as I stirred the pot — like Bourdain. I asked who Bourdain was and Batjay gave me a copy of Kitchen Confidential one Christmas.
It got me hooked. To this day, I am an Anthony Bourdain fan and it has nothing to do with the suggestion that he and I are quite alike. We’re not, really, although the cigarette part and the occasional swearing do sound a bit like me. I’ve enjoyed his TV shows especially the narratives — A Cook’s Tour was entertaining, No Reservations even more so, but Parts Unknown has got to be Bourdain’s finest work on television so far.
Although Bourdain has attempted to explore controversial historical and political issues in a few episodes of No Reservations (see the episodes on Vietnam and Cambodia), history and politics, as they have shaped culture — and cuisine — have become the benchmark of Parts Unknown. He was good at it in No Reservations; he’s gotten damn better at it in Parts Unknown.
Parts Unknown is not something you’d watch casually the way you would shows on, say, Food Network where you can have the TV playing in the background while you do something else. You watch Parts Unknown with the same focus and undivided attention that you’d give when watching something like Newsroom. You have to catch the words in the narrative and in the dialogue. Otherwise, you’re missing the point.
Granted, it’s not for everyone. While entertainment is still its primary objective, Parts Unknown can get deep and quite dark at times. One has to have a certain amount of interest in cultural diversity and a mind that’s open enough to accept cultural diversity, without turning judgmental, to appreciate it.
That’s what the show is about, essentially — showing people that there are ways of life we can’t even begin to imagine. Whether it’s the poverty or the excess, Bourdain tells the story. He goes to the poorest regions of Myanmar and Colombia, and enjoy the humble food cooked from the produce of the locality without turning on the messianic complex. He goes to Quebec and indulge in foie gras and expensive wines and not sound apologetic. He does not encourage the audience to look down with pity on the poor nor does he inspire shocked indignation at the excesses of the rich. Food is food, we just eat them under different circumstances and those circumstances are shaped by our history and culture.
I like that. I really do.