Our 15 Favorite Episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s TV Shows

Photo: CNN/Netflix

The late Anthony Bourdain is irreplaceable. A leading voice in the restaurant industry who rocketed to success with his 2000 book Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain played a tremendous role in not just defining the ways we ate food and talked about it, but in revealing how a TV show could use food as a gateway to explore culture, society, and the world at large. From his first series, A Cook’s Tour, to the award-winning series No Reservations and Parts Unknown, he pushed the boundaries of what a TV show about food and travel could be, always with an insatiable curiosity and an unflagging respect for the people he met along the way. Below, we look back on our 15 favorite episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s shows, and why we love each of them.

No Reservations: “Iceland” (season 1, episode 2)

I love all of the early No Rez episodes, particularly the ones in Tokyo, Paris, or with the great man’s drunken Russian sidekick, Zamir, and I’m happy to watch them again and again. Of all the classic early episodes, the one I like best is his visit to Iceland. It takes place in the depths of a flat, gray winter, and Bourdain, at his grim, dyspeptic best, wanders from one jet-lagged mishap to the next like a cursed, amused, world-weary, slightly bloated ghost. Searching vainly for anything that’s interesting to say about this supposedly idyllic destination, he and his crew drive randomly outside of Reykjavik and get marooned in a blizzard. They hang around with the members of lunatic skinhead band. They attend a local banquet centered around Iceland’s national dish, hákarl, a kind of fermented, rotten shark. Bourdain is filmed mingling among the guests, most of whom are stout burghers from the city, happily enjoying their helpings. When he finally takes a bite of the shark, a look of grim disgust comes over his face, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so heroic and hilarious in my food TV show-watching life. —Adam Platt

No Reservations, “Singapore” (season 4, episode 1)

Ever since the Singapore episode of No Reservations aired, I was obsessed. I watched it constantly. I’d watch it when I had a bad day. I’d watch when I first moved to L.A., didn’t know anyone, and didn’t know if I’d ever know anyone. I’d watch it often while eating, hoping I’d trick my brain into thinking I was experiencing whatever bone soup tasted like. I’d watch it while Googling if they had Hainanese chicken rice in the city I lived in and what buses, freeways, and/or subways I’d need to take to get it. I talked to my dad about it all the time. It is not the most cinematic or thoughtful thing he’s ever done, but it changed my life.

There’s a scene in the episode that I can recite from memory, where Bourdain is eating that chicken rice and someone tells him their preferred portions of the customary condiments. There are a lot of episodes where Bourdain parties with a local chef or fixer — drinking beer in a bar tucked in an alley, going to some punk S&M club in Tokyo — and while those were fun, it was the small stuff like this that made sense to me, where he got advice about how to eat something seemingly simple. Food can be personal, food can be a window into a culture, but you have to put the work into trying to understand it. Learn about a place before go there; listen to advice while there; don’t just consume. It feels so trite to say Bourdain deepened my appreciation of food, but it is true. Even more true is that he showed us how and why you should deepen your appreciation. He was a manifestation of a way to experience the world, who gave me and a lot of people the vocabulary to understand their own travel. Losing him feels like losing a piece of myself.

Once I had the urge and financial privilege to travel alone, I went to Singapore. And, as I think a ton of people do, I watched this episode beforehand. I wrote down the names of the things he ate and where he ate them. Most places had a sign acknowledging he was there and you could tell they appreciated that after years of cooking the same dish, they could relax a little, knowing that Bourdain would bring them business for the foreseeable future. I went to the chicken rice place, but it was closed that day. I didn’t know what to do. And then a man got up from his lunch and pointed me to a different chicken rice place across the food court. “This one’s better anyway,” he said. I took his word for it. —Jesse David Fox

Parts Unknown, “Iran” (season 4, episode 6)

“I’m so … confused,” Anthony Bourdain says as he begins his journey through the culinary pleasures of Iran. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Of all the places, of all the countries, of all the years of traveling, it’s here, in Iran, that I’m greeted most warmly by total strangers.” To hear Bourdain, arguably the embodiment of American bad boy masculinity, talking about the kindness of Iranian people, on CNN no less, a network where images of Iranians are typically devoid of any warmth — it’s hard to overstate what a big deal this was. Living as an Iranian in America, it’s impossible to escape the political narrative that’s calcified around us. So when Parts Unknown went to Iran, it was a political act in the best sense. Bourdain was unusually good at humanizing the dehumanized wherever he went, his empathy a natural extension of his curiosity. The guy made being an ally just look easy, and fun. Plus, he’s right — the rice is like nothing you’ve ever had. —Gazelle Emami

No Reservations: “Emilia Romagna” (season 8, episode 12)

By Bourdain’s standards, this episode is pretty standard fare, but it was still an extremely helpful resource when my wife and I decided to take a driving trip through Northern Italy a few years ago. Our destination was Acetaia Pedroni, a traditional balsamic-vinegar producer in Modena that also runs a tavern where you can have lunch. It was roughly 15 minutes into our drive from Parma when our G.P.S. unexpectedly broke and a truly unhinged thunderstorm rolled in. It was a Sunday, everything was closed, we didn’t sign up for a foreign data plan so our iPhones were useless, and things looked more or less hopeless. We finally found a hotel and begged them to let us print out directions before heading back out onto the non-roads of Italy’s countryside. Street signs were non-existent, we couldn’t see anything through the rain anyway, and every blast of wind threatened to blow the doors of our rundown Fiat Panda.

Against all odds, we finally did find the house … more than two hours late for our reservation, and after the tavern had closed. We walked in anyway, drenched, hungry, and defeated. We figured we could at least buy a bottle of vinegar. The family patriarch, who clearly was happy to be done with work for the week and just wanted to get on with his Sunday, nevertheless greeted us and listened as we plead our case. He asked, in Italian that I barely understood, how we’d heard about his family in the first place. When I answered, in English, he knew all he needed to: “Ah, American. An-tone-ee Bourdainnnn?” Sì, signore. Then he smiled, and brought us back into the tavern. They poured us some much-needed wine and brought out bowls of delicate, restorative tortellini en brodo, followed by guinea hens braised in wine and the family’s famous vinegar. By the time we were done, the rain had cleared and the family happily gave us directions to our next hotel. Yes, we had found this place — eventually — because of Bourdain, and our day, if not our whole trip, was better because of it. —Alan Sytsma

Parts Unknown: “Charleston” (season 6, episode 8)

I went to college in Charleston, South Carolina, so the city holds a special place in my heart. Yet, the typical portrayal often involves lovely Southern homes, kitschy Civil War reenactments, and carriage tours throughout downtown — the superficial side reserved for tourists. Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode is the only time I’ve seen the real town depicted, well, anywhere.

As the alt-weekly Charleston City Paper noted at the time, Bourdain was guilty of only showing off the touristy side of the town in an episode of his previous show, No Reservations. But he more than made up for that during this 2015 visit. He teamed up with Sean Brock and Bill Murray to take viewers to one of my favorite dive bars in town — decorated with dollar bills all over the wall — and binged on greasy breakfast foods at the very Waffle House where I’d had many a drunk meal. He had Gullah fare and explored that often ignored and extremely important aspect of the region’s African-American culture. He ate legitimate barbecue and took in a performance by Shovels & Rope, the city’s most beloved band. Bourdain’s depiction of Charleston was honest, gritty, flawed, and beautiful. That’s the city I know, love, and miss so much. —Lisa Ryan

Parts Unknown, “Miami” (season 5, episode 2)

Amid an episode stocked with hefty plates of fried fish and Cuban sandwiches, plus a bonus appearance from Questlove, Anthony Bourdain sits down for a meal with Iggy Pop. He later admitted he’d “never been more intimidated, more anxious, more starstruck” than when he met the Stooges frontman. Of course, the pair are notable survivors of the hardest of hard livin.: On what could be considered a light day, Pop did cocaine and crawled through broken glass while wearing a loincloth at Max’s Kansas City; Bourdain once desperately crawled around a filthy shag carpet, finding paint chips he knew weren’t crack but smoking them anyway. But in Miami, it’s sunny and both men are subdued; they’re fathers who slip on reading glasses to peruse the menu. What they call “healthy” food and white wine arrives at the table. For once, it seems like Bourdain is stumped, and he ask Iggy what thrills he still has, given all the drugs and swashbuckling. “Being loved, and actually appreciating the people who are giving that to me,” Pop replies, and Bourdain is genuinely awed. —Hugh Merwin

No Reservations, “Greek Islands” (season 4, episode 4)

Bourdain is rightfully praised for championing marginalized communities and sharing their full humanity, particularly as his career progressed, and some of my favorite episodes put that empathy and generosity into sharp relief. Like when he went to Greek islands including Crete, where he drinks too much raki (the local moonshine), eats meat cooked over fire, and shoots a shotgun. (This is what I remembered most from the episode, even if it was motivated by the supposed benefits of the Cretan diet.) The islanders aren’t treated as props in Bourdain’s country experience. At the sheep roast, there’s live fire, guitar playing, a pickup truck, more booze, and offal stuffed with more offal. Even when he talks about an experience working for Greek restaurateurs that left him “deeply averse to the food,” he never is disrespectful about the food. While battling a hangover before going to the sheep roast, he says, “Here we are in the town of Anogeia, famous for its … lamb?’” Which is also why this episode is so great: Here was this guy hanging out in a not particularly notable town, appreciating it on its terms. Listening, learning, and treating the people with respect. —Chris Crowley

Parks Unknown, “Cuba” (season 6, episode 1)

As a food and travel nut who was enthralled by all of Anthony Bourdain’s adventures, it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite episode, so I’m choosing one that is most personally important instead: his Parts Unknown visit to Cuba. Bourdain had visited my parents’ homeland for No Reservations in 2011, but when he returned four years later, after President Obama normalized relations with Cuba, Bourdain emphasized how the “seductive, enchanting” nature of the island could be on the cusp of dark change. “Havana still looks like you want it to look. Or maybe, how I want it to look,” he noted. He was worried. “There will be wealthy hipsters, women in tiny black dresses drinking ironic riffs on the mojito in the lobby of a spanking-new W Hotel with untz untz untz in the background. And that’s within five years,” he predicted. To assuage his concerns, Bourdain did what he always did on his trips — he made the most of it. He ate flan cooked in a cut-down beer can, he tried Cuban sushi (!), and he ate “a Sichuan chicken dish that’s about as Sichuan as, well, I am.” My favorite line from the episode says it all: “Cuba’s been sitting here for what, 55 years. Half an hour away, basically giving the biggest superpower in the world the stiff middle finger … What’s next for Cuba? Something is coming. It will come, from out there, but also from within Cuba. It’s already happening, but what is it? Everybody knows, everybody can feel it, it smells like freedom. But will it be victory?” —Maria Elena Fernandez

Parts Unknown, “The Bronx” (season 4, episode 3)

It took 14 seasons of TV for Bourdain to devote an episode to the Bronx, the borough just north of where he lived in uptown Manhattan. But Bourdain doesn’t bust in like a savior letting you in on the secret: He admits that he, too, has overlooked it. The episode centers on the people of the Bronx, ones who have made it great, but whom the mainstream infrequently give opportunities to share their stories. At the Bronx Academy of Letters (a school Bourdain supported), he eats chopped cheese with students, and deep-fried pork and Garifuna food with the borough’s delightfully strange culinary ambassador Baron Ambrosia. He visits a record store with hip-hop godfather DJ Kool Herc and talks with other hip-hop originators like Melle Mel. While in a Jamaican dive, he listens to Desus Nice talk about getting stopped and frisked 15 times in one summer. Bourdain manages to both raise long-standing historical injustices against the borough — one with a Hispanic majority and the lowest percentage of whites of any in New York City — while showing all the beautiful things that have come out of it. —Chris Crowley

A Cook’s Tour: “Vietnam” (season 2, episode 12)

One of the first times I watched Anthony Bourdain was during his time on the Food Network. Clicking through the channels, I saw this white man perched on a rickety plastic stool, enthusiastically slurping up pho with chopsticks. Here was a Westerner, in Vietnam, who was deeply respectful and enthusiastic about Asian food. He didn’t exoticize it or patronize the audience by dumbing down the cuisine. He prized a $2 bowl of noodles, perhaps even more so than fine dining.

Choosing one episode is hard, though. I was discussing his impact with my Asian-American friends and we threw out his travels to Hong Kong, Japan, Myanmar, and Singapore as other favorites. Here was someone who actually spotlighted Asian culture, which remains a rarity in the American media landscape. He understood its value and meaning, and made us feel like we were a part of the pop-culture conversation. Bourdain shared traditions and gave others a chance to have their voices heard. —Diana Tsui

Parts Unknown: “Sicily” (season 2, episode 6)

Bobbing along the choppy Mediterranean in a tiny motor boat with a local Italian chef, Bourdain asks a question that will soon come back to haunt him: “How hard can it freaking be to make a good show in Sicily? How low impact could it be?” As the two begin snorkeling to catch some dinner, however, another man in the boat starts tossing dead, half-frozen octopi into the water, expecting the footage to be edited so as to appear as if Bourdain caught the creatures himself.

What happens next is emblematic of the fearless, warts-and-all truth telling Bourdain made his life’s mission. Seething about the “hideous sham” being perpetrated, the host experiences what he describes as an existential crisis. “For some reason, I feel something snap and I slide quickly into a near-hysterical depression,” he says in the episode. “Complicit in a shameful, shameful incident of fakery, but there I was bobbing listlessly in the water with dead sea life sinking to the bottom all around me. You’ve got to be pretty immune to the world to not see the obvious metaphor here.” He continues: “I’ve never had a nervous breakdown before, but I tell you from the bottom of my heart, something fell apart down there. And it took a long, long time after this damn episode to recover.”

Bourdain’s recourse? He escapes to an outdoor cafe and pounds one Negroni after another for three hours before meeting with the town’s mayor — an interview the host admits on camera to remembering not at all. “I must have sulked back to bed somehow, collapsed into a sodden, drunken heap of self-loathing. I would have ordinarily turned on the porn channel and loaded up on prescription meds. But there’s no TV at agriturismo.” —Chris Lee

No Reservations: “Mexico” (season 5, episode 1)

My favorite episode is the one where Bourdain goes to Puebla with his successor at Les Halles, Carlos Llaguno (who passed away in 2015). He spends a lot of the episode connecting the restaurant scene in New York City back to the people of Puebla, but there’s one scene in particular that stands out, when he has dinner with Carlos’ family. I swear it’s the first time I remember seeing an American show highlighting a family that looked so much like mine. I spent most of my childhood summers in Mexico — my mother and father’s towns are really close to Puebla — and my father worked in the restaurant industry. Bourdain sits down for a meal of things that were strange to my American friends, but were so common in my life: mole, refried beans and tamales. There’s something beautiful about the way he just allowed himself to be absorbed by Carlos’ family. I think of this episode every time I convince yet another friend to go to Mexico with me. —Fritzie Andrade

Parts Unknown, “Rome” (season 8, episode 9)

In the Parts Unknown season eight finale, Bourdain takes us to Rome with actress and his soon-to-be partner Asia Argento. It’s the first episode shot completely in widescreen, letterbox anamorphic format, and the result is downright cinematic. As Bourdain later reflected, the episode would have been impossible without Argento, who was responsible for its most memorable moments: the “batshit crazy boxing club,” filmmaker Abel Ferrara’s appearance, and the local restaurant that Argento’s family has been going to her whole life, which Bourdain outright refused to share the name of out of respect for their secret. “It’s a very beautiful show,” he wrote. “The most beautiful we’ve ever made, I think.” —Trupti Rami

Parts Unknown: “Detroit” (season 2, episode 8)

I love the Rome episode, but my favorite is his episode in Detroit. Bourdain loved the city at a time when so many people did not, and that was really meaningful to watch at a time when Detroit was attempting to come back from strife, bankruptcy, and what seemed like an all-around shunning by the general public. Although he did show the “ruin porn” that Detroit became known for, he didn’t glorify it or exoticize it. Rather, he told the real story of Detroit. I loved him for that. —Rebecca Ramsey

Parts Unknown, “Massachusetts” (season 4, episode 7)

Every episode of Parts Unknown inspires me to be inquisitive, seek compassion, and live life adventurously. One episode in particular, though, has always stuck with me, and it’s not one in which Bourdain explores the unknown. It’s the one where he goes back to Provincetown, where he spent his post-high-school years washing dishes. It’s an interesting deviation. Instead of speaking with other people about their experiences, Bourdain looks inward and mulls over his past in Provincetown, including his descent into a heroin addiction. He even dives deep into the heroin epidemic ravaging other small New England towns. I love watching Bourdain treat his own life experiences with the same kind of curiosity and intrigue that he treated others. Discussing his troubling past so candidly, including all the circumstances that cultivated it, was the truest portrayal of how raw and honest he was as a person. —Alexia LaFata

Our 15 Favorite Episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s TV Shows