“The door is opening in Myanmar,” Anthony Bourdain wrote of his very first episode of Parts Unknown, “—and we are very proud to show you some of what’s happening inside.” That should have been impossible to top. Bourdain headed to Myanmar because, for the first time in the better part of a century, the people who lived there wouldn’t be thrown in jail for speaking to him. That’s central to Parts Unknown in this, and every season: Bourdain brings his mic so he can hand it to someone else.
The itinerary: “Myanmar” would be an impressive episode, full of complexities, no matter where it was positioned in the series. It’s elegantly filmed, often funny, acknowledging the beauties and the dangers of this place—the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma—and above all, it pulls off that perfect Parts Unknown trick where it makes you want to pack a bag and go, not even necessarily here, but somewhere, and immediately. All that—and it’s the very first episode.
Looks delicious: There are more appetizing things consumed this episode, but as always, Bourdain exercises his knack for taking a dish that seems unfamiliar, even off-putting, and makes it seem not only palatable, but covetable. So it is with a salad of fermented tea leaves.
The itinerary: The first of two Parts Unknown trips to L.A., this one, like the equally thoughtful season nine outing to follow, concerns itself with one vital, vibrant piece of the city. But while the later episode focuses on the Mexican and Mexican-American people living in the area, Koreatown focuses on three square miles and years-deep history, much of it personal. Bourdain shares Korean barbecue (a “gateway” food) with Kogi BBQ food truck impresario Roy Choi, talking about the lingering effects of the 1992 riots, during which Koreatown was essentially left to fend for itself. He discusses what makes a “Bad Korean” with artist David Choe, who got mega-rich doing murals for Facebook HQ. The pair discuss why Choe doesn’t date Koreans (“I’m racist,” he says, noting that it’s like dating his mom), before the Bad Korean’s mom cooks for the pair. It’s evocative, playful, and despite its early placement in the series, one of the most personality-driven episodes of the series.
Looks delicious: Choi’s short rib taco is a thing of beauty, but come on: Bourdain and Choe go to the salad bar at Sizzler.
The itinerary: Like many great episodes of Parts Unknown—including this season’s opener in Myanmar—“Colombia” does a terrific job of communicating Bourdain’s obvious enthusiasm for the country with the grim realities of its past and, occasionally, its present. The aim in acknowledging Colombia’s violent past is not to stoke fear, but to paint an honest portrait. An example: Bourdain and Julio Cesar González, the mayor of Miraflores, have a straightforward conversation about the drug trade and its impact on communities and people in both countries, and Bourdain speaks briefly about his own history of addiction and experiences with cocaine. As ever, Bourdain doesn’t make it about him, but it’s valuable, honest, necessary context. Many of his conversations on this trip are like that. “Tell me something hopeful!” Bourdain says to author Héctor Abad Faciolince, who responds only with questions, not answers. Yet the episode is hopeful, all the same.
Looks delicious: Bourdain treats a case of altitude sickness, and maybe a bit of a hangover, with caldo de costilla—a breakfast soup made with beef short ribs and potatoes (“always potatoes,” says chef Tomas Rueda).
The itinerary: Dave McMillan and Fred Morin, the restaurateurs behind Montreal’s great Joe Beef, are a couple of cards. Bourdain calls them “bon vivants” and “raconteurs” without irony. They like the good life—though their definition of it changed a bit when both McMillan and Morin recently quit drinking. They like to laugh. (They will do more of this further down the road, when the show returns to Canada with “Newfoundland.”) They pop Champagne and eat off delicate vintage tableware, espousing the virtues of turning off one’s phone and coming to the table with anecdotes prepared while shaving black truffles atop unspeakably elegant dishes, all in a tiny ice-fishing shack. They just went ice-fishing, you see. There’s something delicious about the cognitive dissonance; that enjoyable tension runs throughout the episode. It’s Parts Unknown’s first true buddy comedy outing (many others will follow), and it looks like a hell of a way to live.
Looks delicious: A lot of beautiful meals are eaten in this episode, and at one point hunk of Stilton shows up that’s so big it’s likely to haunt your dreams in the best possible way. That ice-fishing meal, though, might just make you question all your life choices.
The itinerary: “I’ve always wanted to get as far away as possible from the place that I was born,” Bourdain says as the episode opens. “Far both geographically and spiritually. To leave it all behind.” That’s where it starts. Bourdain is here chasing writers he idolized as a young man, and maybe as a not-so-young-man—Paul Bowles, William S. Burroughs, others. On a lesser show, that’s where things would stay. But he’s not just looking for the “Interzone” Burroughs wrote about. He’s looking for the Tangier that actually exists, too. That’s not to say that the whole trip-on-a-trip vibe is totally abandoned; Bourdain’s language is a little extra freewheeling and colorful, for example. But as always, the show looks for opportunities to dismantle preconceptions and to find what’s authentic and unforgettable.
This is also the first true glimpse of the fuck-it-why-not visual energy that would eventually define some of the series’ most accomplished episodes. Just wait for the guys in masks to show up.
Looks delicious: Of course, Bourdain assures us, he would never sample majoun, a handful-sized sweet that commonly contains cannabis. But those guys in masks demonstrate how it’s made, and it looks delicious.
The itinerary: “Gadhafi stole the identity of Libya,” Michel Cousins tells Bourdain early in this episode. He adds: “Those of us who knew Libya… We would talk about it as you talk about a dead person.” The aim of this episode is, essentially, to help the ongoing effort to steal Libya back. While the dictator’s name is uttered with some frequency, it’s all context, painful though it may be, for the new Libya that was emerging, and Parts Unknown captures that Libya by talking to the people who helped to wrest it from a tyrant’s grasp and resurrect it. That’s not hyperbole. Many of Bourdain’s companions in this episode are former rebel fighters, now moving on with their lives in the country they helped to liberate. There’s food, of course, and music, and fireworks. The fireworks seem pretty dangerous, in a refreshingly mundane way.
Looks delicious: Doughnut with an egg on top... game-changer?
Programming note: Bourdain’s field notes are always an engaging read, and occasionally indispensable. This is one such occasion, particularly for anyone curious about what it’s like to make TV in a place where the risks are far from inconsiderable.
The itinerary: And now, we meet Eric Ripert. As mentioned above in the entry for the Québec episode, Parts Unknown episodes occasionally blend travelogue with buddy comedy. Bourdain travels with many memorable people, so installments that achieve that blend are not infrequent, but his adventures with Ripert—chef of New York’s Le Bernardin—are the best of them. Here, after eating some incredible dishes in Lima, they set out in search of the cacao beans used to make the high-end chocolate bar they released together; while both the exquisite feasts and the beautiful chocolates look like once-in-a-lifetime experiences, it’s the friendship that makes this episode (and those that would follow) sing. Even with the incredible meals and the charming banter, there’s room for more complicated questions, as Bourdain and Ripert seek out an honest picture of the product they’re selling. The pair takes an unflinching look at whether or not they themselves are the kind of ethical producers they seek out in their own lives.
Looks delicious: Whether you most covet the flounder ceviche, the beef hearts, or the traditional hot chocolate will likely depend on whichever you saw most recently.
The itinerary: In one of Parts Unknown’s best-known episodes, Bourdain describes the experience as “the most chaotic, difficult, yet amazing trip of my life.” “I wanted to see the Congo,” he intones, “and for my sins, they let me.” It’s an incredibly evocative piece of television, containing some of Bourdain’s best writing for the show, some of the series’ most exquisite filmmaking, and several scenes likely to among those we first think of when the words Parts Unknown are uttered in years to come. “Welcome to the jungle,” he says, with equal parts wryness and sincerity, and it all begins.
Looks delicious: Bourdain famously makes coq au vin for the crew as they travel the river; Spam-and-egg sandwiches are also on the menu.