As far as I’m concerned, travel TV with a good host is pretty much as good as TV gets.
And most of my favourites have been under some other pretext. In the 80s and 90s Michael Palin retraced the journey in the book Around The World In 80 Days. I love love love Andrew Graham-Dixon’s ‘the Art of…’ series for BBC4. And for Anthony Bourdain, perhaps the best travel TV host that I’ve seen in the last 5 years or so, the pretext is food. In many ways his most recent series, Parts Unknown, did with global cuisine what Jonathan Gold did with LA cuisine: showed how it can give you a different appreciation of cultures other than your own. He goes to Myanmar, Columbia, Libya, the Korean quarter of LA…
With Bourdain, who tragically died just a few months ago, I get the sense of a guy who spent lots of years trying to fit into a macho environment, but was now sick and tired of it, and serious about being a curious and compassionate human being.
A classic example of this is when he was in a (very macho) Quebec environment, and a hardcore Canadian chef gives him the local delicacy: slow-cooked beaver. Bourdain says wearily in voice-over, “I get the feeling there’s some joke I should be making here, but to be honest it just tastes too good…” I didn’t even clock the ‘eating beaver’ innuendo. (And for me, that’s saying something.)
Of the testosterone-driven chef environment, he once said:
“You know a lot of the chefs, all of the really bastard chefs, most the really oppressive ones, the old school ones, were abused children, were abused by their parents, were abused and neglected, physically, mentally, in every possible way, and then became just like their abuser, and would perpetuate the system. […]
A lot of chefs never really understood, or understood only really belatedly; they’d been powerless for much of their careers. I don’t know. For most of my career, chefs were creatures without power. To talk about power imbalance, is … in retrospect, there was one. But I think we all saw ourselves at outcasts, as weak, except in our little bubble in the kitchen.”
Current Favourite Thing:
I think this video, where he has dinner with Barrack Obama in a small family restaurant in Vietnam, shows Bourdain at his best.
Although there’s a heartbreaking moment in this, when Bourdain — despairing at the state of the world — asks the former President, “as the father of a young girl”, is it all going to be okay?
By the time this episode aired, Bourdain was dead.