Parts Unknown (all seasons) ★★★★
Celebrity deaths are always sad. Sometimes they come far too early, making us mourn for the work the artist never got to make. Sometimes they jolt us as we lose someone who we felt would be part of our world forever. And in some cases, it’s all that and more: a shuddering punch to the gut; a wave of grief as someone we never knew, but felt like we did, suddenly, shockingly, makes their exit and leaves us with the sense that a great blazing light has been extinguished.
When Anthony Bourdain took his own life in 2018, such a light went out. Maybe that seems hyperbolic, in describing a celebrity chef – and one who definitely was not to everyone’s taste. Bourdain divided opinion as big personalities tend to, especially those with a lifelong commitment to expressing their opinion loudly and unashamedly. He was certainly no average TV cook: by turns poetic and profane, he began his media career lifting the lid on the dirty secrets of the restaurant industry and went on to bring the culinary diversity of the world to Western audiences with a missionary zeal. Not many celebrity chefs would dedicate a book to the Ramones, or guest star in an episode of Archer (in the role of a psychotically abusive celebrity chef).
Parts Unknown was the final series of Bourdain’s life – he was working on an episode of the show when he died. It was also a perfect encapsulation of his approach to foodie TV-making, which the man himself summed up beautifully when describing his first show, A Cook’s Tour: “I travel around the world, eat a lot of s—, and basically do whatever the f— I want”. Doing whatever the f— he wanted was very much Bourdain’s brand – that, and standing up for other people’s right to do whatever the f— they wanted.
Parts Unknown is a show about food: an exploration of international cuisines that the average viewer of American reality TV would know little or nothing about. Over 12 seasons Bourdain walked the less-travelled roads of the world and showcased the glories of traditional food from across the globe. From yak meat in Bhutan to cow’s feet in Brazil, the intrepid chef dives with enthusiasm into a dizzying kaleidoscope of culinary delights and dangers. He also finds the unexpected and hidden treasures of places that we may wrongly have thought we knew everything about, such as Japan and Mexico.
But it’s also a show about much, much more than food. It’s a show about culture, history, politics and, above all, people. Bourdain managed to grapple with oppression and conflict in Myanmar and Jerusalem, historical scars in South Africa and Sri Lanka, degradation and renewal in Detroit and Los Angeles. In every location he hurls himself into a whirlwind tour of the beauty and beliefs of the locals, and makes the place and its people the stars – though it must be acknowledged that the show couldn’t be what it is without Bourdain’s ineffable charisma and sonorous delivery. The connection between the food that a community cooks and eats, and every other aspect of their way of life, is what he seeks, and finds.
The true magic of Parts Unknown, and of Bourdain himself, is that it is a celebration of that most underrated but magnificent of human virtues: curiosity. The passion to find out more about the world, to learn as much as you can about the people you share the planet with, to open your mind and your heart to the stunning variety of ways that humanity has found to sustain and honour itself. Early in his career, Bourdain gained a reputation for intolerance, due to his willingness to shoot his mouth off about everything that got his goat. In Parts Unknown we see the mature, thoughtful and compassionate Bourdain, who cares far more about understanding others than criticising them. Here is a man whose love of food is based on the conviction that food is the greatest path known into the mysteries of our fellow humans.