Anthony Bourdain, who died Friday at 61, was about as atypical a travel show host as one could imagine: a former heroin user with an unrelenting sarcastic streak and an almost unpalatably cutting sense of humor.
And I loved him for it.
His candor and deadpanjokes were real in a way that no other travel show host has been able to pull off, a diametric opposite of the sweet all-Americanness typically required from TV personalities (sorry Samantha Brown, though I still watched all of your peppy shows).
Bourdain was a unicorn. A cool and grizzled chef who was letting you in on a secret wrapped in the moral lesson that food is the great uniter, without an air of preachiness. I and so many fans took intense satisfaction from experiencing the world through his point of view, ourselves unable to get to the remote corners of the globe he frequented but happy he was doing so and reporting back.
And it was reporting. CNN was brilliant to recognize that the chef-turned-TV-host was at his core a journalist, documenting cultures and history through food. Luckily for all of us, the network picked him up for Parts Unknown after the Travel Channel let go of No Reservations. So while his untimely death has left us heartbroken, at least his legacy lives on in a massive catalogof 20 seasons.
Here are a few of my favorites, a love letter of sorts from a forever fan. (Seasons 1-8 of Parts Unknown are available on Netflix.)
"Beirut" (No Reservations S2: E12) (Parts Unknown S5:E8)
Bourdainís first trip to Beirut in 2006 was a remarkable moment in television and a clear turning point for the host. Filming occurred as the Israel-Lebanon conflict broke out, and as Bourdain famously despaired, they had only captured a few scenes of nightclubs before being sequestered in a hotel with other expatriates and eventually evacuated by the Marine Corps. But the contrast of the early optimism by the young Lebanese interviewed with the lively nightlife as a backdrop, and the long days of fighting observed from the hotel, painted a compelling portrait of modern-day Beirut, a city not unlike Miami or New York but caught up in the conflicts of the region.
His return visit for Parts Unknown gave the experience satisfying closure. But the early episode was what marked the series as a special form of TV travel.
"Food Porn" (No Reservations S5: E6)
Before the term became ubiquitous on Instagram, Bourdain used an episode of the series to lay out all the ways that food shows have something in common with pornography. He shows, step by step, how food shows mimics the pacing of porn and the sensuous ways chefs talk about and cook the food. He riffed on the cultural phenomenon,and in a line that could only come from Bourdain he noted that there are so many "fat slabs of oozing, unctuous flesh, dripping chocolate and so many close-ups of moaning, eye-rolling, lip-smacking and oohing and aahing on basic cable right now that if you listened from another room you'd think it was a dirty shag carpet in Encino."
"Iran" (Parts Unknown S4:E6)
Reverberations of the Beirut episodes can be felt watching Bourdain visit Iran in 2014.
The episode had similarly huge socio-political implications. A long portion of the episode was spent with The Washington Postís correspondent, Jason Rezaian, and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, at a restaurant in the mountains on the outskirts of Tehran. They discussed the deep and complex history of the country, its relationship with the U.S. and lasting impact of the Persian Empire. It was an enlightening conversation, particularly from the viewpoint of two people who had lived in the States and could translate their love for Iran to American viewers.
A few weeks later, they were arrested and detained. Salehi was soon let go, but Rezaian spent 544 days imprisoned by Iranian authorities. Bourdain became an advocate for Rezaian , and wrote an op-ed for the Post eloquently summarizing the situation and calling for his release.
"Massachusetts" (Parts Unknown S4:E7)
Perhaps even more so than Bourdainís homecoming in his New Jersey episode, "Massachusetts," provides illuminating background details on the host, who spent summers in Provincetown in early adulthood. The show opened with the place he bought his first bag of heroin, and dealt with the opioid epidemic ravaging the country.
More: Our review: Anthony Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential' captured restaurants' demented glory
"Saudi Arabia," "Philippines," "Buffalo/Baltimore/Detroit," "Thailand" (No Reservations S4:E13, S5: E 7,13, 16)
Never a fan of cheesy gimmicks , Bourdain was reluctantly cajoled by Travel Channel producers to stage a contest for viewers, who made submissions vying to travel with the host to a location of their choosing. Despite Bourdainís constant snickering, the contest yielded four deserving finalists and memorable episodes.
The winner, Danya , challenged Bourdain to visit Saudi Arabia, a country she argued was misunderstood by the West and proved has much to offer.
Another finalist, Augusto, won over Bourdain and earned a trip to the Philippines with promises of lechon (roasted pork, a Bourdain weakness). The episode gave a genuine look at an American trying to connect with his cultural heritage after never living in his country of origin.
Eric, a Muay Thai and mixed martial arts fighter, didnít have a hard sell on Thailand. The episode provided an interesting look at an American trying to break into the traditional sport.
The Buffalo/Baltimore/Detroit episode, with finalist Nelson, a musician from Buffalo, was peak Bourdain. The host had a love for blue collar cities, and a knack at showcasing their hidden beauty.