Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown spotlighted marginalized people and tackled complex political issues

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown was a revelation: On the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning show that premiered in 2013, the late celebrity chef explored cuisines and cultures off the radar of many Americans, tackling political issues and spotlighting the plight of marginalized people.

Bourdain died in an apparent suicide Friday at age 61 while filming a Parts Unknown episode in France. Here are some of the most noteworthy things from the show and from Bourdain‘s previous show, No Reservations.

1. Iran: Political Dissidents Arrested

In the 2014 episode, Bourdain shined a light on Persian cuisine and the life of the Iranian people amidst political oppression.

His local guides include The Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian and his wife, journalist Yeganeh Salehi. Several weeks after the episode aired, both were taken into custody by the Iranian government. While Salehi was subsequently released, Rezaian was convicted and sentenced to prison in a closed-door trial on espionage charges.

After the couple was detained, Bourdain wrote in The Washington Post, “These are good people, much loved and admired all over the world. I am, unfortunately, growing used to seeing bad things happening to good people.”

2. Beirut: War Breaks Out

While filming a 2006 episode of No Reservations in the first of his two visits to the Lebanon city, Israeli forces launched an airstrike, dropping rockets on Beirut’s airport. Because of the conflict, Bourdain and his crew were stuck in the city for days.

Bourdain returned to Beirut for Parts Unknown in 2015. According to The New York Times, he loved “The Paris of the Middle East” so much he considered naming his daughter after it.

Hey New York: Meet Anthony Bourdain + Eric Ripert at Williams-Sonoma Columbus Circle
Credit: Owen Hoffmann/Patrick McMullan/Getty

“There’s no place else even remotely like it,” he says in the Parts Unknown episode. “Everything great — and all the world’s ills — all in one glorious, messed-up, magical, maddening, magnificent city.”

3. Russia: Putin Opponent Assassinated

Bourdain traveled to Russia just before the 2014 Olympic games and Sochi, and the episode pays attention to how the Russian people are dealing with the escalating control of Vladimir Putin.

During the episode, Bourdain eats at a Moscow restaurant with Boris Nemtsov, a Putin critic. Less than a year after the episode aired, Nemtsov was assassinated on a bridge near the Kremlin.

4. Hanoi: Noodles with President Obama

After President Barack Obama lifted a decades-old ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam in 2016, he dined with Bourdain at Bún chả Hương Liên, a restaurant near the capital city’s old quarter. The sit-down aired in a Parts Unknown episode later that year.

Bourdain later wrote that the meeting was kept top secret from his network: “CNN didn’t know. The producers, even the camera guys who were to shoot the scene, were not told until the day before.”

The pair dined on Bún chả, a traditional dish from the area that includes grilled pork served in a broth or dipping sauce,with by rice noodles and fresh herbs.

5. Libya: Fried Chicken Is ‘Taste of Freedom’

Amidst political uncertainty in the aftermath of the rule of strongman Muammar Gaddafi, Bourdain discovers hip-hop, Italian restaurants and optimism.

In the 2013 episode, Bourdain chronicles Libyan ex-pats who returned to fight against Gaddafi. He also stops at a fried chicken place beloved by locals: As one local says, the Western-style spot represents a “taste of freedom.”

Bourdain wrote, “I’ve made a lot of hours of television over the years, but I think I’m proudest of Sunday’s Libya episode.”

6. West Virginia: Warm Welcome for Liberal in Trump Country

Bourdain traveled to West Virginia in the 2018 season premiere, and discovers local residents struggling with rampant poverty and drug addiction.

Despite their struggles, Bourdain learns his fellow Americans are warm, proud, resourceful and relentlessly optimistic.

The politically left-leaning Bourdain narrated in the episode, “Here in the heart of every belief system I’ve ever mocked or fought against, I was welcomed with open arms by everyone.”

“I found a place both heartbreaking, and beautiful. A place that symbolizes and contains everything wrong and everything wonderful and hopeful about America.”

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7. Congo: Pride Despite Ravages of Colonial Oppression

In the opening of the 2013 episode, Bourdain narrated: “It is the most relentlessly f——over nation in the world, yet it has long been my dream to see Congo.”

On the show, Bourdain — who said he was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness — presents the country’s violent history of colonial oppression.

Despite the country’s travails, Bourdain finds the people have faith better times are on the way. He takes viewers to the bullet-ridden Kisangani train station, which hasn’t operated in decades and is overgrown with weeds. Still, the unpaid staff shows up every day to maintain the trains.

8. Haiti: Post-Earthquake Hunger and Desperation

In a 2011 episode of No Reservations, Bourdain visited Haiti after an earthquake devastated the impoverished island nation, focusing on the food but delving into the devastation.

In a heartbreaking scene, Bourdain and his crew decide to feed hungry onlookers by buying out a food stand at full price. But a fight over the food breaks out among the local people.

“What happens is both predictable and a metaphor for what’s wrong with so much well-intentioned aid effort around the world,” Bourdain said. “Hungry people anywhere behave like hungry people.”

9: Jerusalem: Intractable Conflict Despite Decent People

On his trip to Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, Bourdain examined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the prism of food.

Bourdain embraced his lack of expertise on the conflict, approaching it with an open mind and using food to find the decency in people on both sides.

“It’s easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world. And there’s no hope — none — of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off,” he says. “By the end of this episode, I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an orientalist, fascist, socialist CIA agent and worse. So here goes nothing.”