Last night marked an end of an era. The last original episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown aired over on CNN. It’s hard to get our heads around the fact that the vagabonding raconteur will no longer be showing us new slices of life, artistry, and food from around the world. It was, however, fitting that his last show was a deep look at the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the people who made it a hotbed of artist expression in the 70s and 80s, and what the neighborhood has become today.
The episode offered a great reminder of Bourdain’s attention to detail, access to celebrities, and love for New York. First and foremost, we have to give a nod to Zero Point Zero Productions — Bourdain’s production team — for their amazing camera, sound, and editing. The company, which also works with the likes of Phil Rosenthal on Somebody Feed Phil and Steve Rinella on MeatEater, nails every episode with enrapturing visual panache. This episode was so fresh and vibrant, yet it still felt like a loving homage to the era of art and music it was highlighting.
From the word go, Bourdain took us into the world of the 1970s and early 1980s Lower East Side in a way that only he could. Part of this comes from the fact that Bourdain had a Rolodex full of literal living legends. Debby Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie, Harley Flanagan of the Cro-Mags, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Lydia Lunch of the no wave scene, and Fab 5 Freddy — who helped found not only hip hop but New York’s street art community — were but a few of the guests Bourdain sat with to reminisce. As always, the show had a special reverence for the “old days” when everything was rougher, harder, and more raw. Those were days without filler (literally and metaphorically) and everything cut closer to the bone.
Of course, Bourdain, ever the realist, wasn’t content to simply look at the Lower East Side through rose-colored glasses. He also showed us the corners where he used to score and the dark alleys that he knew to avoid. It’s a fine balance — a blend of hard times on cold streets and a retrospective of those mystic few who were able to turn their suffering into art.
Then, of course, there was the food. The Lower East Side of Manhattan was where a lot of America’s early immigrants arrived and settled before moving further afield. This made it a true melting pot of cuisines, ideas, and cultures — all centered around plates, bowls, and glasses. Manhattan’s iconic egg cream is drunk. Ukrainian and Latino diner fare is savored. Huge plates of Italian-American food are revered and downed. Hard-boiled eggs are given their due. Yes, you read that right. Bourdain spent a little time with painter John Lurie who cooked hard-boiled eggs. The whole scene exemplified how Bourdain could highlight the beauty of art while still being grounded enough to enjoy the mundane.
There were only sparse snippets of narration from Bourdain in this episode. One of the last things Bourdain says of his beloved Lower East Side also offered the perfect place to say goodbye to one of TV, travel, and food’s brightest stars. “It seemed, at the time, everybody was a star. And, for a while at least, it was a golden time. But it was dangerous. If you lived down here, you had to be tough and talented — and often very quick.”