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10 Essential Episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Parts Unknown’

A guide to the author/travel host’s most exciting TV adventures

This story was originally published in November 2018.


Anthony Bourdain brought TV viewers to the most interesting places around the world on his award-winning, game-changing CNN show Parts Unknown. After Bourdain’s death in June 2018, the show came to a close, and the final season of Parts Unknown wrapped up at Bourdain’s old stomping grounds — the Lower East Side of New York City — in an episode that explored the people and places that shaped Bourdain as a young adult.

Parts Unknown had a monumental impact on food and travel TV, most notably because it eschewed coverage of tourist attractions, and focused, instead, on artists, thinkers, and doers around the world, with special attention paid to disenfranchised communities and their hopes for the future. Some episodes were intense, others lighthearted, but the show was always essential viewing.

Here’s a look back at 10 episodes that defined the series, in chronological order:


Amazon Video/Parts Unknown

“Peru”

(Season 1, Episode 7; original air date June 2, 2013): Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert let their bromance blossom on camera throughout the filming of Parts Unknown, and, tragically, they were actually shooting a new episode together when the Kitchen Confidential author died in France over the summer.

The Peru episode from Season 1 sets the tone for future adventures to come: The friends eat amazing meals while discussing the great mysteries of the human experience, all the while pushing each other outside of their respective comfort zones. In this case, Bourdain brings his gentlemanly pal to an ancient erotica museum, while the chef coaxes his sarcastic friend into participating in a ceremonial blessing from a local shaman. Along the way, the friends eat Amazon-inspired cuisine at Amaz, sizzling beef hearts on the streets of Lima, and a rustic hen soup at a market in the mountains.

Bourdain and Ripert actually have a bit of business to accomplish on this trip: They hike up to the Andes to meet farmers who are harvesting the cocoa that’s used in the duo’s gourmet chocolate bars. The friends are clearly inspired by working with the farmers, but this experience only leads to more questions. “Do I wanna be in the chocolate business?” Bourdain remarks at the end. “That’s something I’m gonna have to figure out.”


Amazon Video/Parts Unknown

“Lyon”

(Season 3, Episode 3; original air date April 27, 2014): While visiting France’s second largest city, Bourdain and his pal, New York City chef Daniel Boulud, eat their way through tiny bistros, learn the art of sausage-making from a charcuterie expert, and spend a weekend in the company of a proper culinary legend.

The duo’s visit to Paul Bocuse’s eponymous restaurant, where Bourdain, Boulud, and the late Bocuse dine on the legendary French chef’s greatest creations, is arguably the best food sequence in the entire series. Tony refers to this feast as “the meal of my life,” emphasized by his reactions on camera. Later, Bourdain and his chef friends go duck hunting and enjoy a hearty lunch in Bocuse’s lodge out in the country. The episode ends with another rustic family meal, this time with Boulud’s parents at their home just south of the city.

The Lyon episode shows Tony fully enjoying himself in the company of a great friend, while also offering a concise history of the last century of French cuisine.

Read Eater’s full recap here.


Parts Unknown/CNN

“Iran”

(Season 4, Episode 6; original air date November 2, 2014): Throughout its 12 seasons, Parts Unknown often showed audiences what life was like in places that aren’t often featured on Western television: The Iran episode is arguably the most important one in that regard. “All I can tell you is, the Iran I’ve seen on TV and read about in the papers, it’s a much bigger picture,” Bourdain remarks. “Let’s put it this way: It’s complicated.”

Bourdain is immediately surprised by the warm welcome he receives everywhere he goes, and he’s delighted by the hospitality that his hosts extend toward him, especially in their homes. He visits bustling markets, centuries-old places of worship, and parts of Tehran where the locals unwind. Tony also memorably chats with married journalists Jason Rezaian and Yeganeh Salehi about the local way of life. As noted at the end of the show, Rezaian and Yeganeh were both imprisoned shortly after filming this episode in 2014; Salehi was released after a few months, but Rezaian was kept in an Iranian prison until 2016. Bourdain remained a vocal advocate for Rezaian until his release.

After the TV host died, Rezaian told CNN: “The show actually had nothing to do with us being arrested, and if anything I think our appearance there — with really one of the most beloved television personalities, and people, of our generation — raised awareness in a different kind of way that nothing else could have.”

Read Eater’s full recap here.


Amazon Video/Parts Unknown

“Massachusetts”

(Season 4, Episode 7; original air date November 9, 2014): A large chunk of this episode features Bourdain visiting his old haunts from when he was a young, aimless chef bumming around Provincetown. “[I] pretty much had my first everything on the beach,” he says while standing outside of a boarded-up seaside apartment in P-Town. But the real heart of this episode is its second half, when Tony heads west to learn about the opioid epidemic devastating small towns throughout the state.

Tony meets with an undercover narcotics division cop and one of his anonymous sources, as well as a young woman who has stepped back from the brink of heroin addiction and is constantly looking out for addicts in need of help. Tony knows these struggles all too well: One of the episode’s last scenes shows Bourdain talking to a group of recovering addicts about his own past drug use. “I’ll tell you something really shameful about myself,” Bourdain remarks. “The first time I shot up I looked at myself in the mirror with a big grin.”

Read Eater’s full recap here.


Parts Unknown/CNN

“Hanoi”

(Season 8, Episode 1; original air date September 25, 2016): Bourdain clearly loves the capitol of Vietnam, a city he says “grabs you and doesn’t let you go.”

On this very special episode, Tony gets to introduce President Barack Obama to one of his favorite Hanoi activities: eating the pork and noodle dish bun cha and drinking local beer from the bottle. During their convivial meal at a small noodle shop outfitted with stools and tiny tables, Bourdain and Obama discuss the sensory elements of travel, the dining habits of their children, and whether or not it’s ever acceptable to put ketchup on hot dogs (Obama deems that it’s “not acceptable past the age of eight”).

Elsewhere in the episode, Bourdain eats streetside snails in the Old Quarter, and freshly caught squid aboard a steamer ship. The host also chats with a family in a floating fishing village about how the culture and economy in Vietnam are always changing.

Read Eater’s full recap here.


CNN/Parts Unknown

“Houston”

(Season 8, Episode 5; original air date October 30, 2016): Bourdain enters Houston with a goal of ripping up the white-washed image of the city that often finds its way on TV — the one that leans into cowboy hats, the oil industry, NASA, and football. “Close minded, prejudicial, quick to make assumptions about places different than where we grew up,” Bourdain says in the episode’s intro. “I’m talking about me and people like me who are way too comfortable thinking of Texas as a big space filled with intolerant and variably right-wing white people waddling between the fast-food outlet and the gun store.”

During his stay, Bourdain meets with the owners of the Acapulco Ballroom, a popular quinceañera venue for the local Mexican-American community. He visits high school principal and Vietnamese refugee Jonathan N. Trinh, who oversees a student body that hails from 70 different countries. He hangs out with local hip-hop star Slim Thug and learns about local “slab” car culture. And he ends his trip by visiting the Houston Indian Cricket Club, where the game day snacks involve tandoori chicken and “some spicy, tender, and totally delicious curried goat, and made-to-order potato masala dosas.”

Read Eater’s full recap here.



Parts Unknown/CNN

“Rome”

(Season 8, episode 9; original air date December 4, 2016): In a clear homage to filmmaker Pier Pasolini, the Rome episode showcases the working-class neighborhoods of the Eternal City. “This is about people, often extraordinary ones, living their lives in the Rome you don’t see much in the travel guides or TV shows,” Bourdain says at the start of the show.

It’s here, on camera, that Bourdain meets his future girlfriend, filmmaker/actress/activist Asia Argento. They go to a boxing arena where spaghetti is served to attendees during the match. Argento brings him to her home, where they enjoy a rustic meal with her family. And later, they go ambling among the Brutalist ruins of the Mussolini area. Like many of the best episodes of Parts Unknown, Bourdain seems creatively charged by the people and places he meets along the way.

“Rome is a city where you find the most extraordinary pleasures in the most ordinary things,” Bourdain says while dining in a trattoria, “like this place which I’m not ever going to tell you the name of.”

Read Eater’s full recap here.


“Los Angeles”

(Season 9, Episode 1; original air date April 30, 2017): The first Parts Unknown episode to air during the Trump administration is a passionate celebration of LA’s Latinx community, and the immigrant workers who drive so many of the city’s industries. “Los Angeles, like much of California, used to be part of Mexico,” Bourdain says in the intro. “Now Mexico, or a whole lot of Mexicans, are a vital part of us.”

Bourdain meets with community activist Elisa Sol Garcia, tattoo artist Mister Cartoon, actor Danny Trejo, and MMA fighters Nick and Nate Diaz. Throughout his LA sojourn, the host samples some of the city’s myriad Mexican specialties, from tongue tacos to traditional Oaxacan moles to Ray Garcia’s modern cuisine at Broken Spanish, all the while emphasizing the importance of Latinx chefs in the American food scene.

“I worked in French and Italian restaurants my whole career, but really, if I think about it, they were Mexican restaurants and Ecuadorian restaurants, because the majority of the cooks and the people working with me were from those countries,” Bourdain remarks. “That’s who, you know, picked me up when I fell down; who showed me what to do when I walked in and didn’t know anything and nobody knew my name.”

Read Eater’s full recap here.


“Laos”

(Season 9, Episode 4; original air date May 14, 2017): Although he eats some terrific local delicacies in this episode — including steaming bowls of khao soi and charcoal-grilled squid skewers — the majority of Bourdain’s visit focuses on the tragic story of how Laos became “the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of the world.”

Tony spends a lot of time in Hmong villages discussing the bomb clean-up from the war, and sees, first-hand, why it’s so difficult to remove the unexploded ordnances. Bourdain also explores the country’s complicated relationship with the United States, and meets the aid workers trying to help the country bounce back. “Here, on one hand, we have Americans dropping bombs that at the time blow this child up, and then there are American doctors to put them back together,” Bourdain says.

Read Eater’s full recap here.


Anthony Bourdain and W. Kamau Bell. David Scott Holloway

“Kenya”

(Season 12, Episode 1; original air date September 23, 2018): A big part of Bourdain’s appeal on Parts Unknown is that he seemingly lived an enviable life, bouncing around the world, surrounded by fascinating people and delectable things to eat. And the joy of this episode is seeing a bona fide Bourdain fan — fellow CNN host W. Kamau Bell — join him on one of his adventures for the very first time.

Tony is a benevolent traveling companion, imparting various bits of wisdom to Bell on his first trip to Africa, and the United Shades of America host seems thrilled to be rolling with Bourdain and experiencing the local culture for the first time. While sitting atop a mountain on safari, with a drink in hand, Bell turns to Bourdain and says, “The idea that I’m sitting here with you doing this now, knowing where my life and career have come, it’s pretty cool.”

The Kenya episode was the first to air since Bourdain’s death, and the last to feature his full participation. It’s a great way to remember this TV legend, particularly because Bell’s commentary highlights the reason why audiences loved Bourdain so much throughout his career: He kept exploring, never talked down to anyone, and always brought us along for the ride.

Read Eater’s full recap here.

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