Parts Unknown, the culinary travelogue, takes celebrity chef to far flung places for authentic local cuisine.
Anthony Bourdain loves telling stories. He also loves good food and travel. In his latest TV venture Parts Unknown, Bourdain gets to do all that and more.
The culinary travelogue takes Bourdain to far off places around the world where he tastes the most authentic local cuisine and relates the stories of the people who live there.
While the destinations are familiar to many – Shanghai in China, Punjab in India, Chiang Mai in Thailand, Las Vegas in the United States and Salvador in Brazil – the perspectives through which Bourdain explores are fresh.
“We are not looking for the best restaurants in town that will appeal to the American palate. That doesn’t interest us,” he says in an hour-long phone interview from his home in New York with journalists from across Asia.
“Wherever we go, we look for the right people who live there and who, hopefully, understand what we’re looking for. We want to know where you like to eat, you know, at 2am, after you’ve been to a club. Or if you have been away from home for a while, where would you go for a taste of home. We want local, authentic favourites.”
In Parts Unknown, Bourdain isn’t merely sampling food as he travels. He’s getting a taste of the lives of everyday people whose stories often don’t get shared. He goes to their homes, visits their haunts and talks about … stuff.
“In every episode, my partners and I just try really, really hard to do something different than we’ve done before. We don’t even particularly care if people like it.
“We just try to challenge ourselves to make either smarter TV or (a) daring, more creative, more interesting, more challenging (show). Whether it’s a successful hour of television or not, it’s really of secondary interest to us. We’re trying to tell interesting stories and always in a new way,” says the 59-year-old.
One of the most eye-opening experiences for Bourdain was in Iran, featured in the fourth and latest season of Parts Unknown. Bourdain wasn’t quite prepared for the reception he got on the streets of Tehran and Isfahan.
“Iran is the most surprising and confusing place I’ve been (to). It took us five years to get permission to shoot there.
“This is a country that has very … the relationship with the United States has been very contentious. It still is contentious. But I’ve rarely been treated so well.
“We were welcomed with enormous generosity and kindness everywhere we went. That’s not the official attitude and yet, how we felt on the street was very welcomed. I think people will be very surprised. It’s a part of the world that’s not seen widely on television, not the way we are showing it. It’s a show I’m very proud of,” he says.
Bourdain was not only enthralled by the graciousness of the people he met on the streets but also the food he sampled – lamb kebabs and Persian rice, dizzy (a mix of potatoes, chickpeas and lamb) and a homemade meal comprising milk and chicken soup, fresh fish from the Persian Gulf and fesenjan (a stew of fried chicken, ground walnuts, pomegranate, onion and tomato paste).
However, along with the heart- and belly-warming experiences, the celebrity chef was made keenly aware that he was presenting only one side of a deeply complex country and culture upon his return to New York.
While in Iran, Bourdain was accompanied by Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian and his wife Yeganeh Salehi who “enriched” his understanding of the country with stories of its history and its people.
Unfortunately, Rezaian and his wife were detained weeks after the filming was completed.
In an entry on medium.com, Bourdain wrote: “During my time in Iran, I was not naive about where I was or the realities of the situation … This is not a black and white world – as much as people would like to portray it as such. That’s not an apology for anything.
“I’m just saying that the brief, narrow slice of Iran we give you on Parts Unknown is only one part of a much deeper, multi-hued very old and complicated story.”
In the last decade or so, Bourdain has travelled extensively. Prior to Parts Unknown, he starred in two other food shows, A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations, both of which saw him jet-setting to interesting locations around the world sampling food.
Still, Bourdain is constantly wowed and surprised by the new food he samples.
“It’s a big world and yes, I’m still surprised. I think the last thing that really blew me was a raw blood soup I had in Chiang Mai, Thailand. It didn’t look like a good thing at all. It looked pretty horrifying actually, but it was absolutely delicious and sort of a whole new flavour for me. Frankly, it was thrilling,” he says.
In Punjab, Bourdain discovered that he could possibly be vegetarian … for a while.
“We ate very, very well in Punjab. We shot in Amritsar and took a tiny train to the hill station in Shimla. We ate in what they call Dhaba (roadside restaurants) which are very popular there. I always eat well in India.
“I can eat vegan in India for a fairly substantial period of time because the flavours and textures are so diverse and sophisticated. There’s such an old and varied tradition of cooking vegan food in India that the vegan food there is delicious. Elsewhere, it’s torture for me. Like, it’s very difficult to do in New York,” he explains.
A love for Malaysian cuisine
While outspoken, there are some subjects Bourdain simply won’t address. Like, for example, whether he prefers Malaysian or Singaporean cuisine.
“I’m not touching that question with a 10-foot pole,” he says, with a cautious laugh. “You’re not getting me to side with one or the other. I mean, they’re both … I would like to contemplate and compare (the two) for the rest of my life because it’s really just … I love both. Nice try, though,” he says.
He offers a compromise though. “The big question on my mind is whose laksa is better, Penang or Kuching. And that is an argument I would love to be a part of because I love them both dearly.”
Bourdain’s love for Malaysian food is well-known. On his Tumblr site (anthonybourdain.tumblr.com), the chef/writer/TV-personality chronicles how Penang food “seduced and overwhelmed” him.
“The smells, the colors (sic) and flavours (sic) – the look and sound of the place, the at-times impenetrable mix of Indian, Malay and Chinese cultures. Penang is the kind of place that ruined me for an ordinary life,” he writes.
It’s been three years or more since Bourdain wrote that entry but his fondness for Penang food apparently hasn’t waned.
“I understand that (Nasi Kandar) Line Clear has been having some problems with the government and the health department, is that correct? It’s my favourite place in Penang. I hope they straighten out the problems because it’s a delicious, delicious restaurant,” he says.
When he is not off working on Parts Unknown, Bourdain loves spending time with his wife Ottavia Busia Bourdain and their daughter Ariane, who is seven.
“I am (in the midst of) writing a cookbook at the moment but mostly I am busy raising a fiesty seven-year-old,” says Bourdain.
“I’ve been eating professionally for the last 14 years, so I actually really look forward to coming home and cooking very simple things with my daughter.
“One of the great pleasures of my life is to stand in the kitchen with my daughter. She’ll stand on a chair or a little stool and we’ll cook pasta or ratatouille or something together. And this is one of the great joys of my life … to come home and to cook some simple French or Italian or American food with my little girl,” he offers.
It’s hard to reconcile this domestic picture he paints with the “bad-boy chef” the world came to know via his 1995-memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly.
The book almost instantly became a best-seller, catapulting Bourdain into the limelight (a short-lived TV show, starring Bradley Cooper was based on this book).
These days, Bourdain is recognised almost everywhere he goes – in Paraguay, a group of fans waited six hours at his hotel lobby for a photograph with him.
“You know, I never saw it coming. I don’t know how younger chefs feel … they probably grew up expecting to be famous but for (chefs of) my generation, it came as a huge surprise.
“I mean, I like chefs. I respect their work. I feel very strongly that, at the very least, chefs do something useful. Chefs feed and nurture people. They work very hard at becoming good at a craft that is useful to people. So, I think it’s far more appropriate that a chef is a celebrity than a … Kardashian.
“I obviously benefit from it very much. It feels weird and it is a bit silly. But celebrity in general is weird and silly, and I’m always happy to see chefs who I know work very, very hard actually have something like, you know, hope for a future.
“Or, at least, have a good ride. So I’m glad for it,” he concludes.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown Season Three airs every Tuesday at 10pm on TLC (Astro Ch 707).