There’s an astonishing moment in this season’s “Hong Kong,” when legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, ostensibly the guest for the episode, picks up one of the Parts Unknown cameras, and suddenly our perspective is his. It’s one of several such shifts in perspective this season, up to and including narration from someone who isn’t Anthony Bourdain.
Episode 1: West Virginia
The itinerary: “West Virginia” is complicated. So, as the episode makes clear, is West Virginia, sans quotation marks. It’s a state which, clearly, is accustomed to being pandered and lied to, overlooked, dismissed, and reduced to stereotypes by politicians and other outsiders. As such, any portrait of it will necessarily be somewhat political. Guns are political. Poverty is political. Coal, certainly, is political. As a reminder that no group of people is homogenous, this episode is wildly successful. It’s an hour-long check of one’s assumptions. As he always does, Bourdain asks questions. He assumes that the intent of his companions is pure. He looks for what makes this place special. And for better or worse, he rarely pushes back against even the most disingenuous ideas. What is it to meet people where they’re at, when the place they’re at has a false foundation? Only on one occasion does the series truly note the flawed, poisonous premise on which an argument is built, and it makes for an effective but upsetting sequence that underlines the times it doesn’t happen. If you’ve ever had a conversation with an internet troll, you’ll recognize the tactics.
Looks delicious: You know when you’re reading a book—this happens in fantasy novels, in historical fiction, and in “chapter books” like The Boxcar Children quite frequently—and you get to a meal that’s described with what can only be called romance? Cold glass bottles of milk glisten. Steam rises from fresh-baked, crusty bread. Tarts overflow with wild-sounding fruit. The meal Bourdain has at Lost Creek—vinegar pie, buttermilk-poached trout, paw-paw ice cream with candied wildflowers, venison with chanterelles, the list goes on—is something from a storybook. It’s one of the great Parts Unknown meals.
Programming note: This episode aired not long after the 2017 Las Vegas mass shooting. The aforementioned upsetting sequence contains cell phone footage from that event, and while not graphic, it is undeniably disturbing.
Episode 2: Uruguay
The itinerary: There’s an extended conversation in this episode between three chefs—Bourdain, Lucía Soria, and Ignacio “Nacho” Mattos, who is Bourdain’s companion for the episode—in which they debate the comparative pleasures of eating a delicious meal and cooking for someone you love. Bourdain’s enjoyment and investment in this conversation, the sort of talk you have after four or five cocktails in the wee hours, is apparent. They are amused, sincere, thoughtful, unhurried. That there’s room for it at all is indicative of the tone and pace of the episode. It’s Bourdain on vacation, returning to a place he loves because he can, smoking weed and eating meat and staring at the sea. He goes, because he wants to and he can, and also, perhaps, to spend more time convincing Uruguayans that they live in a kind of paradise. Beaches, breezes, progressive ideals, and a drive-through where you can get a gorgeous steak and some beer for the road. Sounds like heaven.
Looks delicious: That drive-thru steak is something else, but the sandwich, the sandwich. We write, of course of the chivito, a glorious pile of steak, ham, bacon, hardboiled eggs, cheese, and more. We are very serious about sandwiches ‘round these parts. This is an even more serious sandwich.
Episode 3: Newfoundland
The itinerary: The term “bro-cation” is used unironically in this episode, which sees Bourdain and a band of food bros—namely, chefs Fred Morin and David McMillan of Montreal’s Joe Beef, and Raymonds chef Jeremy Charles—eat like the hedonists they are. Call it testosterone and truffles, foie gras with the fellas, moose-meat for millionaires. Your mileage may vary, and its variance will spring from how eager you are to watch people hang a chandelier made from crystal and antlers in the wilderness before eating a meal that could be called lavish as an understatement. There’s more to the hour, however: Raymonds—considered one of the finest restaurants in Canada—enraptures Bourdain, as does much of the food elsewhere on this island province, either highbrow or low, and the final sequence, in which they all kiss a long-dead cod before throwing back a shot in hopes of becoming honorary residents of what, when we see it, makes Newfoundland seems like a fascinating place.
Looks delicious: File this one with “Copenhagen” and “Lyon” as a great episode for viewers who are really into the culinary segments. Of particular interest: the chiccharone-like fried cod swim bladders at Raymonds (the swim bladder helps fish stay afloat), as well as the chanterelles ice cream.
Episode 4: Armenia
The itinerary: “Armenia remains a dream, a subject of stories,” Bourdain says in this moving, densely packed episode. “It is still, against all odds, a place.” This is Parts Unknown in “past as present” mode; as with episodes set in places like Tbilisi, Laos, and Sri Lanka, it patiently unpacks world-altering events of which many in the West may be ignorant. In all those cases, but in this one in particular, it’s vital, not because history matters (though it does), but because events of the past remain an active part of life and the world to this very day. In this case, it’s the 1915 Armenian genocide, which saw the Ottoman government (now Republic of Turkey) execute 1.5 million Armenians and displace millions more. Armenian diaspora plays a vital role both in the episode and in the future of the country, as Armenians feel what Serj Tankian of System Of A Down describes as a pull from the earth itself. Some return to the country, the “nerd republic.” Others visit often. All express passion for the land and its people. An affecting, enlightening hour.
Looks delicious: Get a load of that ghapama—a pumpkin chock full of rice, nuts, and dried fruits (here, raisins and apricots). It looks incredibly comforting and filling.
Episode 5: Hong Kong
The itinerary: “Hong Kong” isn’t the first episode of Parts Unknown in which Bourdain’s fervent admiration for the work of director Wong Kar-Wai can be seen and sensed. It is, however, the first episode of Parts Unknown in which the man responsible for how Wong’s films looked lent his eye to Bourdain’s show itself. Christopher Doyle, the cinematographer behind Chungking Express, In The Mood For Love, Happy Together, and other films (and a director in his own right), instantly becomes one of Parts Unknown’s most memorable figures: an ebullient, surprising, poetic soul whose contributions to the story being told here would be considerable, even if he never picked up a camera. But he does, and the first time that happens, one of two unforgettable scenes in the episode unfolds. Aboard a small boat in Tai O—one of the last fishing villages in Hong Kong’s urban jungle of glass, steel, and concrete—we see Doyle grab the camera, briefly struggling to get familiar with a new piece of equipment, and suddenly we’re seeing through his lens, and the whole world looks different. Later, we hear that another shot on that boat, an unforgettable image, may have not been recorded at all, and we never learn whether or not that’s the case. Perspective, loss, impermanence, futility: all explored in moments.
Looks delicious: You know it’s a good meal when Bourdain can’t stop muttering words indicating his amazement. A feast at Happy Paradise, where traditional dishes are prepared using contemporary techniques, is one such meal.
Programming note: This episode was directed by Asia Argento. It is also the last episode to have aired before Bourdain’s death in June 2018.
Episode 6: Berlin
The itinerary: One of a spare handful of episodes to feature narration, however brief, that isn’t Bourdain’s, “Berlin” spends much of its runtime with Anton Newcombe of the band Brian Jonestown Massacre, an American living Berlin who, in addition to being low-key rock-and-roll icon, also happens to be an accomplished home cook. Newcombe is one of many Berlin residents, German-born and otherwise, to attempt to articulate the liberating, dark lure of the city. A closing burlesque sequence echoes Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; the shadows of David Bowie, Christopher Isherwood, and other giants stretch tall across the pavement. Yet for all the big names, the cultural touchstones, two locals prove most memorable: a legendary bouncer, who has seen revelers come and go for decades, and a photographer, who has chronicled outsiders for a similarly long stretch. Both lend “Berlin” the sense that those who flock here for a chance to live and create freely do not go uncelebrated or unseen.
Looks delicious: Lots of gorgeous meat, but a chicken, pig’s feet, and sage sausage, accompanied by smoked potatoes and apple, appears early and steals the show—though a late-arriving doner kebab snaps at its heels.
Episode 7: Cajun Mardi Gras
The itinerary: As previously noted, both in the episodes and these recaps, Bourdain hates a parade. He goes out of his way to remind us anytime the clouds look like they might start raining celebratory masks, group singing, and audience participation. But as seen in this episode, the Mardi Gras of the Louisiana plains has more in common with a Scottish highland games than with a fete in the French Quarter. It’s raucous, but with an air of the homespun and a sense of tradition, and even at its liveliest, it never sends Bourdain running. Along the way, he finds time for conversations about culinary traditions, the origins of zydeco, the distinction between Cajun and Creole, and more. He even—impossible though it may be to believe—consents to wear a costume and a mask. It looks messy, loud, and above all, like a damned good time.
Looks delicious: This time, only two words are required: crawfish boil.
Episode 8: Bhutan
The itinerary: An astonishingly beautiful place that, as we learn, actively discourages tourism, Bhutan—high up in the Himalayas—will likely be unfamiliar to most viewers. That necessarily means it, like the episode itself, is full of surprises. Some are cultural: You don’t anticipate the countless carved and painted phalluses, for example. Some are surprises of the purest, most unpredictable kind, as with the landslide that shuts down one of Bhutan’s precarious mountain roads. Some are just Parts Unknown being Parts Unknown: Bourdain’s primary sidekick for this adventure is director Darren Aronofsky, fresh off the poor box office performance of mother!, which Bourdain calls a masterpiece (many critics agree). It is, in every respect, an adventure. They surprise each other. Bhutan surprises them. They talk candidly about altitude sickness and throw chiles in their cocktails. In short, together, the pair do exactly what it says on the show’s tin: They explore parts unknown, eager to be caught off-guard by things they could never anticipate.
Looks delicious: Yak cheese, yak meat, yak jerky, yak butter, yak tea, yak tea with yak butters… and chili cheese momos (dumplings).