Anthony Bourdain certainly isn’t for everyone. His snarkiness and style of travel can be a turn-off for those used to the reverent Rick Steves or the cheerful Samantha Brown. But Bourdain’s greatest ability was and is his capacity to empathize with the local population by making a conscious effort to “do what the locals do,” something other hosts either shy away from or simply can’t pull off.
Part of the enjoyment of watching the former chef comes from his blunt honesty: Bourdain won’t sugarcoat anything. If the food sucks, he’ll call it out. He’ll also never shy away from discussing the so-called “big issues,” including a country’s corrupt government or dubious human rights standing. While he’d be the first to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers, he also wouldn’t pretend that the place he is visiting is immune to social problems either.
Other travel shows don’t usually fill you in on the socio-political issues of a country, preferring to only show the beautiful sides of a destination. Through Bourdain’s worldview, you recognize that there is ugly everywhere, even amongst the most beautiful. And that’s not a bad thing.
Before you dive into “Parts Unknown,” set to premier on CNN this Sunday, let’s take some time to look back at his most well-known show — “No Reservations.” Here are 10 essential “No Reservations” episodes that are required viewing for any Bourdain rookie.
This was originally going to be a top 5 list, but there were just too many great episodes. Even with this expansion to 10, some great ones missed the cut. All of these episodes are memorable or strong for their own separate reasons, just not good enough to crack the top 10: “Peru,” “Mexico,” “Osaka,” “Brazil,” and “Brittany.”
10 — “Montana”
While there are a few exceptions (another appears on this list), I often didn’t find the shows of U.S. cities or regions as engaging as Bourdain’s episodes abroad. When I first heard about the “Montana” episode, I remember thinking, “Of all places, why waste a show on Montana?” This episode shoved my snobbishness right back in my face as I saw for the first time just exactly what purple mountains’ majesties are, why fly fishing might be fun, and just how alluring Big Sky Country really is.
9 — “Sardinia”
Sardinia narrowly squeaked into the top 10 because this episode shows a softer side of Bourdain that rarely appears in the early shows. He travels to his wife’s homeland with their daughter, meets extended family and learns to make fresh pasta. Bourdain’s child-like wonder throughout this episode is something that doesn’t come around very often.
8 — “Namibia”
Of all the episodes of “No Reservations,” this might be the most infamous, as Bourdain would go on to call this the “worst meal of my life.” In the episode, he goes tracking with the bushmen of the Kalahari and eats, among other things, an ostrich omelette that has been cooked in dirt and the rectum of a recently killed warthog, which of course is reserved for the special guest. While he clearly struggles to keep the food down and makes jokes about all the doctor appointments he will need when he returns stateside, Bourdain teaches viewers one of the recurring rules of his show: never offend a host, no matter the cost.
7 — “Rome”
This episode’s ranking is really about style over content. Shot in black and white (except for the food, which is shown in an off-color), this episode pays homage to the films of Federico Fellini. Obviously, filming in black and white isn’t ideal for a travel show, but it’s an experiment that in the end pays off. Even in black and white, the city of Rome and its incredible cuisine look stunning.
6 — “Egypt”
Filmed before the Arab Spring, this episode is now a record, in some ways, of what Egypt used to be. While much of the food and culture is interesting, this episode is most notable for Bourdain’s uncertainty about whether he should visit the pyramids or not. On one hand, he doesn’t want to experience such an incredible achievement surrounded by lines of tourists, yet, on the other hand they are the pyramids, after all. His decision at the end of the episode is a big part of what makes Bourdain who he is.
Check back tomorrow for the second half of the list and find out which episode claimed the top spot.
Previously from Charlie Crespo:
♦ Everything Old is New Again: The Music of Dead Combo
♦ Welcome Back, Landon Donovan
♦ Lionel Messi Battles the Robot Keeper
♦ Beertopia: Rogue’s Bacon Maple Ale
♦ Kim Kardashian is Really Bad at Acting (But She Doesn’t Care)