Where do you go after sharing a beer and some food with Barack Obama? In this excellent season, the answer is: Nashville, the world’s largest stone Buddha, Nigella Lawson’s kitchen, a quinceañera, the mountains of Japan, a far-flung museum, and for ringside pasta in Rome.
The itinerary: First things first: Yes, this is the Obama episode. The season eight premiere famously sees Bourdain welcome the then-Leader Of The Free World to a small noodle shop in Hanoi for bun cha and cold beer, for a simple, unhurried conversation about childhood, tradition, nostalgia, and ketchup. But “Hanoi,” one of Parts Unknown’s most meditative chapters, has so much to offer beyond this casual yet somehow monumental conversation.
Looks delicious: The bun cha may be the single most memorable meal of the series (Obama and Bourdain’s meal even directly inspired a Chicago-area restaurant to open a restaurant serving the noodle dish), but the lure of the only dish on the menu at Bun Suon-Thit-Mong Gio-Luoi—pig knuckles and noodles in broth—is strong.
> Read more about “Hanoi” in our list of Parts Unknown’s most essential episodes.
The itinerary: Sometimes—rarely—in life, we encounter a person of almost incalculable charisma, who sweeps along and gathers others, especially the lonely, in their wake. When we are lucky, such a person is kind. From the outside, it seems Bourdain and his crew encountered such a person in Alison Mosshart of the bands The Kills and The Dead Weather. She makes room in her muscle car, throws a party with world-class rock-and-roll and tattoos in lieu of gift bags. Yes, Bourdain eats hot chicken and visits fine restaurants, but in many ways, it feels as though this episode itself met Mosshart, and before the hour knew it, it was just part of the gang, slurping down Bloody Marys and readying itself for the next bit of mischief. It is, start to finish, a very good time. And yes, the music is terrific, the cocktails wildly appetizing, and the nightlife positively tantalizing.
Looks delicious: The hot chicken from Bolton’s Spicy Chicken & Fish will be the big draw here for many—“Oh that hurts. I think I’m hallucinating,” Bourdain says upon biting in—but an early meal in the gorgeous outdoors bests it, especially the barbecue ribeye topped with fried eggs, a number of mouthwatering sides, and grits. As Bourdain says, “Grits, well, of course.”
The itinerary: Here’s Parts Unknown as a buddy comedy, which doubles as an affectionate character study, by way of a prank show, shot alternately like an action film and a drug movie. That may not seem like a simple balance, but it is. This episode shot in Sichuan—the spicy and tingly heart of Chinese gastronomy—is, plainly, an episode Bourdain and company delighted in making, gleefully torturing Le Bernadin chef Eric Ripert with the region’s notoriously hot foods, then standing back and allowing the camera to capture every kind-hearted attempt to suppress his discomfort in service of being a gracious guest and good sport. Funny, and surprisingly affecting.
Looks delicious: The rabbit heads might be the most memorable, if only for the sight of Ripert attempting to dig the “Chiclet-sized brain” from the depths of the skull with the rabbit’s own jawbone, but the extraordinary meal they share with author and Sichuan culinary authority Fuchsia Dunlop at Yu Zhilan looks like a once-in-a-lifetime-if-you’re-lucky kind of experience.
> Read more about “Sichuan with Eric Ripert” in our list of Parts Unknown’s most essential episodes.
The itinerary: Like “Cologne, Germany” in season seven, “London” isn’t just about the place and the people. It’s the place and the people in a specific moment, captured through happenstance. In this case, the moment is “post-referendum”—after the vote for Brexit. To be specific, hours after the vote for Brexit. Bourdain and director Michael Steed wisely fill each frame with sunlit pubs, traditional meals of elegant dishes in restaurants after-hours, with pigs rooting through tranquil woods and peaceful cafes. They do not ignore the chaos. Instead, they allow it to seep in via the quiet fear and confusion that flit across the faces of the people Bourdain shares meals with—Nigella Lawson, who makes a hangover breakfast for her ailing friend, among them—and every so often, across his own. They show us a London that looks perfectly fine, but is not. It’s an honest, and undeniably effective, approach.
Looks delicious: Anyone still doubting the potential of British gastronomy should seek out this episode and watch it, with or without sound. The hypnotic swirls of Guinness! The perfect green peas from the pod! Yet it’s the pig’s head and potato pie from St. John—one of the progenitors of the snout-to-tail dining movement—that makes the biggest impression. To paraphrase the episode, it looks like something from a storybook.
The itinerary: In his field notes for the startlingly packed “Houston,” Bourdain explains why there are no trips to Tex-Mex restaurants or big hat stores. “Yes, I took subversive pleasure in opening the show with an American flag,” he writes, “and then spending an entire episode in an America that is nonwhite, non-Anglo-Saxon, non-cowboy and entirely devoid of the usual tropes.” In one of the show’s most compassionate installments, Bourdain takes in a cricket match and a quinceañera, boards a shrimping boat and watches a teenager learn Bollywood dance moves in a grocery store, learns about the city’s car culture and eats a remarkable range of cuisines. It ends with the moving reminder that this land is our land, and that “our” contains multitudes.
Looks delicious: The meals Bourdain encounters are as surprising (to outsiders) and complex as the city itself: Cajun-Congolese stew, “Viet-bayou style” crawdads, “Texas-Desi style” green curry chicken, tandoori chicken cooked like you might cook a hot dog after a ball game.
> Read more about “Houston” in our list of Parts Unknown’s most essential episodes.
The itinerary: This season’s “Sichuan” episode allows us to see something true about chef Eric Ripert—his spirit, his essence, something—by placing him in an unfamiliar landscape. “Japan With Masa” is nearly as intimate, but instead, it allows us to see Japan by seeing the effects both personal and professional it had on one of the world’s great chefs, Masa Takayama. It’s as much a portrait of the person as of the place, the two inextricably linked; the camera’s gaze is respectful, almost reverent, and there’s something about its approach (and Bourdain’s writing) that communicates what a privilege it is to see this man working in this way. It’s not stuffy, nor restrained, just somehow rarified. Gentleness and quiet are not unusual qualities for an episode of Parts Unknown, but that near-reverence is new; never has the series seemed more keenly aware of its debt to those who open their doors and their lives to outlanders.
Looks delicious: Let’s put it this way: In the episode’s earliest moments, we see Masa take a sushi knife to what we’re told is some of the finest tuna in the world, in a restaurant that’s one of the best on the planet—and it never dips below that level. Watch Bourdain and Masa eat raw oysters “as big as clown shoes” in an open market and you’ll see what we mean.
The itinerary: Parts Unknown sometimes ventures to places which are unknown, at least to most Western viewers, because it was/is difficult to get to those places. Cuba. Iran. Congo. Myanmar. Antarctica, for crying out loud. Minas Gerais, like Tbilisi, is just sort of off-the-radar, and as the episode makes clear, that’s our loss. A hotbed for next-level culinary talent, the cuisine of Minas Gerais—in southeast Brazil between Rio de Janiero and Brasilia—elicits so many effusions of pleasure from Bourdain that the episode actually begins with a supercut of him blurting out things like “delicious” through a mouth full of food. Yet Bourdain doesn’t let the extraordinary meals distract him from the rest of Minas Gerais, both good—an extraordinary contemporary art museum on an epic scale, for example—and bad, as with the country’s deep-rooted racial and economic tensions.
Looks delicious: Another long chain of mouthwatering meals, crowned with a meal of smoked pig’s head, roasted vegetables and chilies, rice, and chicken with brown sauce flavored with the blood of chickens “fresh killed this morning.”
The itinerary: One of the best episodes of Parts Unknown is also now one of its most difficult to watch, many of its charms turned sour by allegations of sexual assault made against episode co-star (and eventual Bourdain partner) Asia Argento long after it aired. Yet none of that diminishes the remarkable technical achievements of director Tom Vitale, cinematographers Zach Zamboni and Todd Liebler, composer Michael Ruffino, and editor Hunter Gross.
Looks delicious: It’s Rome, there’s an endless parade of delicious food, but those first, gorgeous widescreen shots of Bourdain’s fork spearing prosciutto, artichoke hearts, and ravioli are irresistible.
Programming note: See this New York Times report for more on the Argento allegations.