A sane voice in an insane world fell silent last Friday. Anthony Bourdain — chef, traveler, unofficial diplomat — died in France. For many of us, this is a devastating loss that’ll take a while scab over. And it will never heal completely.
But, Bourdain didn’t leave us alone. He left us with a massive catalog of ideas, words, recipes, images, and episodes. His oeuvre, if you will, is immense. It’s not enough, of course — we wish we had many years more of his passionate, funny, influential voice. But we are grateful for what he left behind, for the moments that took us to the incredible places and food that are often overlooked. So let’s take a moment to celebrate the man and his work — a work that aimed to connect us, inform us, and, most importantly, highlight the beauty of this planet and the sameness of all us living on it.
Below are 12 episodes (plus a bonus pull) of Anthony Bourdain’s TV shows that moved the meter, defined his personality, and truly changed the travel and food game on TV. Of course, picking only 12 is tough. We did our best to be comprehensive. Still, there are episodes we had to cut that we didn’t want to and, surely, there are episodes not on this list that spoke to you. So, please, feel free to tell us about your favorite episodes in the comments.
No Reservations (Why the French Don’t Suck)
This isn’t where it all started. That was a little show called A Cook’s Tour. But this is where Bourdain launched his mothership show. He’d moved from the Food Network to the Travel Channel. In that move, he’d gotten more creative control and he started making his show, not the network’s show. This is where his signature style — of using food to truly experience the people and culture of a place — started to shine.
The first salvo was an episode about France and why we really need to rethink everything we know about it. Today — in the world of instant connectivity — that may seem silly. But back in 2005, we were living in a world of “freedom fries” and intense Francophobia due to France’s refusal to support us in the Iraq War. Bourdain was having none of it and devoted his first episode to highlight the beauty that is Paris. It was with this move and Bourdain’s insistence on breaking down ugly stereotypes that’d inform the rest of his career from Mexico to Palestine and beyond — that make this a great place to start any Bourdain journey.
No Reservations (Kurdistan)
Speaking of the Iraq War, let’s jump ahead to 2011 when Bourdain and his crew actually went to Iraq. This episode feels like the culmination of Bourdain’s original thesis — we need to experience places, people, and things for ourselves before we make sweeping statements about any of it. And knowing that not everyone would make it to these places, Bourdain took on the role of guide — giving us a window into inaccessible countries and cities all over the globe.
The episode also serves as another stepping stone in Bourdain’s career. This episode foreshadows the intensely dangerous and unique places he’d go to in Parts Unknown a few short years later. It’s an in-depth, intimate look at a place we were at war with (at that point) for eight years and is still essential viewing to this day.
No Reservations (Naples)
Okay, let’s take a step back from the overtly political. Bourdain was also keenly adept at looking at the genealogy of food and why it cuts so deep into our character. What grabs us about this episode is that it doesn’t start in Naples. It starts in the red sauce houses of New York where Neapolitan immigrants ended up, set up shop, and started slinging delicious food.
Then, we get the meat of the episode as Bourdain dives deep into the origins of our favorite Italian-American dishes: spaghetti and meatballs, Sunday gravy, and an NY slice. It’s informative food porn with a meaning that makes you appreciate great comfort food all the more.
No Reservations (Beirut)
This is an episode of television unlike any other — and we don’t mean that in relation to just a travel or food show. Back in 2006, Bourdain and crew got caught in a conflagration between Israel and Lebanon that left them marooned at a hotel in Beirut. They kept the cameras rolling and created a diary of what happens when everything goes wrong. And we mean everything: The airport was bombed and they had to be evacuated by sea (courtesy of the US Navy).
What’s imperative about this episode is how mundane war can be while still being nerve-wracking and terrifying. If you ever wondered what it was like to be in-country during an active conflict, this is the episode to watch.
No Reservations (Holiday Special 2011)
One aspect of Bourdain’s shows that often gets sidelined is the comedic and sentimentally twisted chops Bourdain had. No Reservations allowed Bourdain to pull off some fun episodes with his brother at Thanksgiving or just straight up (and hilariously) indulging in 45 straight minutes of unadulterated food porn (yes, there was a whole episode of just food porn with 70s porn music).
No Reservations‘ third Christmas episode was a down and dirty stroll through Bourdain’s New York with skits and musical numbers from the likes of Norah Jones, Christopher Walken, and travel show legend Samantha Brown. It’s a must watch around every Christmas.
The Layover (Singapore)
Bourdain was always up to try anything. He liked reinventing the travel show wheel. And The Layover is a great example of his prowess.
Bourdain recalled on a very early episode of the Joe Rogan Experience that The Layover was a sort of a counterpoint to No Reservations. To paraphrase, Bourdain thought that No Reservations was too “out of reach” for the common traveler or food lover. So he wanted to make a show that actually was a travel and food guide that everyone could go and experience for themselves.
While the show only lasted two seasons, it was a fantastic, hip, and local-driven travel and food show that any of us can recreate to this day. The first episode in Singapore is a great entry point and highlights some seriously amazing haunts in one of the world’s greatest food cities.
Parts Unknown (Iran)
Parts Unknown was the culmination of a decade of learning and contemplating for Bourdain and his core crew. When they moved to CNN, Bourdain was officially off the leash and able to travel to places he’d only dreamt of in the past.
His episode in Iran is a crucial hour of television. Like with his first No Reservations in France, Bourdain was able to take a people, country, and culture and show them as they are … human beings living, eating, and loving just like everyone else. There are few episodes more humanizing and important than this when it comes to building bridges between disparate cultures.
Parts Unknown (Rome)
This is a tough one. Bourdain went to Italy a lot. Every time it was a wonderful slice of culinary Elysium. But, this one stands out as being the show where he fell in love and started a new chapter of his life with actress and director Asia Argento.
Though, admittedly, it may be a bit hard right now to watch Argento and Bourdain flirt their way through fascist monuments and bowl after bowl of pasta. Still, it’s a magnificently shot episode that takes you deep into the non-touristy corners of the Eternal City. Just keep the tissues close by.
Parts Unknown (Mexico)
Bourdain had a special relationship with Mexico. His decades in the bowels of sweaty kitchens with largely Hispanic crews created a great affinity for Mexico, its cuisine, and especially its people. That love shone through in all of his episodes about the country.
In season three of Parts Unknown, Bourdain toured Mexico City, Oaxaca, and Cuernavaca and experienced a vivid Mexico that cut to the heart of the place. Bourdain loved tracing great food back to its source and this installment is rife with that genealogical bent of the foods we all love up north. It’s also a connective look at the people and families that are an integral part of everyday American life. In essence, this is an episode we need now more than ever.
Parts Unknown (Massachusetts)
Bourdain had a knack for turning the camera on Americans every now-and-then. His recent episode in West Virginia is a shining example. And this is another deeply cutting look at America. The episode starts off innocuously enough with Bourdain retracing his early days as a kitchen grunt in New England. Then, Bourdain takes a drastic turn and addresses the malicious opioid crisis malling the American working class in Massachusetts (and around the country).
Bourdain goes to an addict’s meeting and shares his own stories of dark lamentations and speaks with people struggling to get off opioids throughout working-class Massachusetts. Again, this may feel like a bit of a no-brainer to talk about today. But this was over four years ago when the idea of a nationwide opioid “crisis” was barely a blip on the national radar.
Parts Unknown (Vietnam)
This episode feels like the mountaintop for Bourdain. He’d been obsessing with Vietnam since his first show and always took time to highlight the brilliance that is Vietnam throughout the years. Then, he got the chance to eat a bowl of noodles and knock back a cold beer with President Barrack Obama right on the streets.
Like Obama or not, this was a watershed moment for Bourdain, Vietnam, and America. It showed us that life can take us to places we’d never dreamt possible and that there’d likely be amazing food on offer when we got there.
A Cook’s Tour (A Taste of Tokyo)
Lastly, we have to end where it all started for Anthony Bourdain with the pilot episode of A Cook’s Tour. Back in 2001, Bourdain was still working at Les Halles in Manhattan. He took time off for his book tour and went back to the kitchen. It shows here. He’s young, constantly smoking, and had “nothing to lose.”
It’s always worth going all the way back and watching where the whole thing started. The fundamental elements of Bourdain’s future are there waiting to be whittled and sanded down to the fine shows and the bitting raconteur we would come to know and love so much. So, take a moment, go back and see just how far he really did come.
BONUS: Raw Craft with Anthony Bourdain – Bob Kramer
For the Bourdain fan who feels like they’ve already seen it all, this series of short online episodes from Balvenie is a delight. Each installment finds Bourdain with a different master craftsperson creating something amazing. Our favorite installment is with knifesmith Bob Kramer.
It’s a fun 12 minutes that highlights master Bob Kramer and his amazing knives and ends with a nice meal of local Pacific Northwest salmon washed down with plenty of whisky. It’s breezy, intriguing, and dope.