Traveling can be a solitary, even a lonely pursuit—and that’s true even when you’re traveling with a host of camera people. In Parts Unknown’s seventh, uniformly strong season—all but one of these gems was in the mix when we were preparing to select our best-of roster—Anthony Bourdain visits with people longing for far-away loved ones at Christmas, looks for absent gods in Greece and mourns for a great Montanan, and somehow manages to avoid parades in not one but two cities famous for their carnival seasons. It’s a lonely world, but the beer is cold and the meat is sizzling. Let’s go.
Episode 1: Manila, The Philippines
The itinerary: Bourdain and crew visit The Philippines during the holidays—which ostensibly begins in September in this Christmas-mad country, but a typhoon rolls in and prevents them from exploring the islands. Instead, they crash an office Christmas party and have several meals with some of the country’s many cover bands, pay a visit to beloved fast-food chain Jollibee, the list goes on. To call this episode sentimental is to reduce its sense of profound respect, affection, gratitude, and compassion to a buzzword, so we won’t.
Looks delicious: No shortage of great food, but while the “chicken joy” mysteries of Jollibee prove surprisingly alluring, the most covetable meal here is easily the the roast pork lechon, which Bourdain calls “the best pig in the world.”
> Read more about “Manila, The Philippines” in our list of Parts Unknown’s most essential episodes.
Episode 2: Chicago
The itinerary: Just like a good regular at a proper Chicago dive, this episode returns again and again to its usual barstool at its favorite haunt, the Old Town Ale House. It exerts some sort of gravitational pull. There’s something both spare and theatrical about Parts Unknown’s portrait of the bar, particularly in the interviews with regulars, each of which is subtitled with the nickname that person has been granted both in life and in Elliott’s legendary blog, Geriatric Genius. You read “The Actress” or “Buzzkill” as the person bearing those names speaks, and you have the sense that this is merely meeting a cast of characters for a play long in process. These are well-worn anecdotes, some of them surprisingly violent but trotted out casually—just another page in a dusty history. That’s the most ensorcelling aspect of “Chicago.” You drop into this story and it changes not at all; you’re a blip, and life goes on.
Looks delicious: The incredible-looking fish hot pot Bourdain and Stephanie Izard devour in Chicago Chinatown’s Sze Chuan Cuisine might be the episode’s most covetable feast, though the grilled bone marrow at gastropub Longman & Eagle will almost certainly make any carnivore’s mouth water.
Episode 3: The Greek Islands
The itinerary: The goal, Bourdain tells us near the top of this episode, was to “coast gently into another season of television” with a stay on the tranquil island of Naxos. And there, he mostly stays. One of Parts Unknown’s more contemplative episodes, “The Greek Islands” combines tranquility with an undeniable darkness at odds with the azure skies and soft breezes. Director Tom Vitale’s lovely, sometimes unsettling filmmaking and the contemplative energy Bourdain puts forth makes “The Greek Islands” unusually layered and elliptical. Bourdain says he doesn’t want to talk about the Greek financial crisis, and then it’s ever-present throughout the episode. He says he’s looking forward to isolation and stillness, then he’s restless and seeking company. There are shots of incomprehensibly beautiful landscapes. All too often, those gorgeous shots reveal clouds on the horizon—literally and metaphorically. It ends with a lovely communal meal on an otherwise empty beach. They are isolated, together.
Looks delicious: Bourdain actually uses the words “food porn” here to describe some stuffed peppers, but the meal we’d most like to devour is the octopus dish he makes in his villa. (See image at top of this page.)
Episode 4: Montana
The itinerary: Bourdain’s fascination with Big Sky Country comes through loud and clear in “Montana,” which maintains a consistent sense of place—it’s as though the camera could be swiveling on the spot—despite the fact that the focus changes wildly and a number of big ideas are tackled. The episode moves from poetry to history to explosives, from a daring rodeo to wildlife conservation, from the 1985 Stream Access Law to union battles. It’s a lot, but it doesn’t feel like a lot. It just feels like Montana—and a lot like one of the great American poets and novelists, Jim Harrison.
Looks delicious: Apologies to the pheasant, the trout, and Lydia’s Supper Club, but Kennard Real Bird’s wife Diane makes a feast of buffalo steaks, fry bread, and a juneberry pudding, and it all looks incredible.
> Read more about “Montana” in our list of Parts Unknown’s most essential episodes.
Episode 5: Tbilisi, Georgia
The itinerary: If you stopped this episode at random, there’s a decent chance you’d land on a scene in which someone is telling Bourdain a certain dish or drink works as a hangover cure. That’s in part because he’s often hungover, and when he’s not, he’s starting on a new one. It’s just how things are done. But it’s not just the booze that’s potent. The political reality in the Republic Of Georgia is complex, to the point that the borders sometimes move in the middle of the night, and the stories and ideas presented are as dense as the food. And goodness, the food! The steam rises, and it’s easy to imagine the scent in those kitchens—rich, heavy, and almost overwhelming, like the episode itself. But it’s not all fraught: Parts Unknown regular Zamir shows up to cover for a delayed Bourdain and winds up pole-dancing with his shirt off.
Looks delicious: It all looks delicious, but kharcho—in this instance, slow-cooked spiced chicken served in a great big pumpkin with ajika chili sauce—takes the cake. Gorgeous and delicious-looking. Also appetizing is khinkali (meat dumplings that resemble xiao long bao) at Sofia Belnikova’s, a café known for the dish.
Episode 6: Senegal
The itinerary: One of the best Bourdain “modes” is when he’s somewhere you can tell has really captured his imagination. Senegal is one such place. Like Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR’s West Africa correspondent, who now makes Senegal her home, Bourdain seems almost enraptured with Senegal: with the food, in which he senses echoes of southern American cuisine; with the people, who embrace complexity and diversity; with the language, culture, landscape, the list goes on.
Looks delicious: Dibi, a popular Senegalese street food of roasted meats, typically lamb, that looks so good you can imagine how it smells—all oniony and mustardy.
Episode 7: Cologne, Germany
The itinerary: If “Cologne” had a subtitle, it would be something like “Nice people, kolsch, and the refugee crisis.” Perhaps that creates a little cognitive dissonance? That’s the idea. Bourdain begins by telling us that Cologne is charming, “in the least patronizing sense of the word… It takes you in. It makes you feel welcome.” That’s why Parts Unknown wanted to go there: To visit a nice place with nice people and do a nice episode with lots of beer and sausages. This episode is that, for sure, but not long before they set out, this happened—reports of mass sexual assaults carried out by as much as 2,000 men, about half described as “foreign nationals who had only recently arrived in Germany.”
One of the people Bourdain meets here calls the city “the San Francisco of Germany;” residents proudly discuss its tolerance and the value placed on kindness and compassion. The horror of that night led many opposed to welcoming refugees into Germany to use it as a nightmarish “I told you so,” but what Bourdain found was much more nuanced than that. The crew may not have anticipated being in the city at this fraught moment, and the city itself was obviously unprepared for such an event. Yet they all rise to it.
Looks delicious: Bourdain describes schnitzel as “surfboard-sized slabs of veal and pork filled with many wonderful things, dredged in breadcrumbs and fried in magical, magical deep fat,” and it looks as good as the double-“magicals” make it sound. We’re still mad we’re not eating it ourselves.
Episode 8: Buenos Aires
(While originally intended for season seven, this episode’s initial airdate was preempted by breaking news and aired during Parts Unknown’s eighth season. This episode appears on streaming services as part of its seventh season.)
The itinerary: In “Cologne,” Bourdain talks somewhat at length about his apprehension regarding over-the-top bacchanalia. No parades, no clowns, no silly costumes. So of course, he headed right for Argentina, home of a massive and colorful Carnival festival every February and March. “Buenos Aires” is a curious, sometimes daring episode of Parts Unknown, allowing Bourdain to play at digging into his own psyche in “therapy sessions” that feel somehow like pastiche and confession at once. It’s a stylistic flourish unusual for the series, but this isn’t a typical episode of Parts Unknown.
Looks delicious: “Do you have any vegetables in this country at all?” Bourdain asks at one point. Coming from an outspoken, devoted carnivore, that’s saying something—and Argentina does not disappoint with its regard for beef and other red meats. The empanadas, blood sausage, and other assorted dishes at Don Carlitos sit at the top of the meat-heap in that regard.
> Read more about “Buenos Aires” in our list of Parts Unknown’s most essential episodes.