Editor’s Note: Watch seven of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite “Parts Unknown” episodes starting Saturday at 9 p.m. ET and 6 p.m. PT on CNN.
Anthony Bourdain wasn’t just the host of the award-winning CNN series “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” He was the core and the heart.
He was its modest star, skilled producer, inevitable crew mentor and passionate creator. It was well-known among the production staff Tony wouldn’t settle for mediocre. He challenged the people behind the series, and he challenged himself, too.
Bourdain didn’t travel primarily to trendy spots around the world. Nor did he seek luxury or fancy meals in the wealthiest cities on the planet. What he sought was something far less tangible and much deeper. Bourdain longed to know and understand other cultures, people and places.
This desire led the intrepid traveler to Iran in 2014, a place he says it took years of trying before being “allowed into” and one where he witnessed an extreme disconnect “between what one sees and feels from the people and what one sees and hears from the government.”
His thirst for knowledge and understanding also led him to West Virginia, a place that ended up enchanting him.
“Like any other episode of ‘Parts Unknown,’ whether in Vietnam or Nigeria or any city in the United States, this West Virginia episode is a plea for understanding of the people whose personal histories, sense of pride, independence and daunting challenges deserve respect. It’s a walk in somebody else’s shoes,” wrote Bourdain in the field notes for this episode.
Anthony Bourdain had a way with people – and he had a way with words. Read on for excerpts from some of his most iconic show notes.
Bourdain’s best episodes
Marseille, Season 6, Episode 3
A fair number of French people will tell you in unguarded moments that “Marseille is not France,” and what they mean by that is that it’s too Arab, too Italian, too Corsican, too mixed up with foreignness to be truly and adequately French.
But anybody who knows me knows that’s exactly the kind of mixed-up gene pool I like to swim in and eat in. It is a glorious stew of a city, smelling of Middle Eastern spices, garlic, saffron and the sea.
Jerusalem, Season 2, Episode 2
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. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to come here, a place where even the names of ordinary things are ferociously disputed.
Where does falafel come from? Who makes the best hummus? Is it a fence or a wall? 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, socialist, fascist, CIA agent and worse. So here goes nothing.
Iran, Season 4, Episode 7
One of the reasons this episode is deeply confusing might be because the vibe in Iran, the general feeling of walking down the streets, through the markets, the way we were received everywhere by total strangers and passersby was overwhelmingly friendly …
… This is not a black-and-white world, as much as people would like to portray it as such. That’s not an apology for anything. I’m just saying that the brief, narrow slice of Iran we give you in this episode of “Parts Unknown” is only one part of a much deeper, multihued, very old and very complicated story. Like anything as ancient and as beautiful as the Persian Empire, it’s worth, I think, looking further. But it’s also a place that can warm your heart one day and break it the next.
Hanoi, Season 8, Episode 2
What can I tell you about what it’s like to sit across from the President of the United States and drink beer from the bottle?
I can tell you that Barack Obama was, in spite of having had a high-ranking leader of the Taliban whacked in Pakistan a few days previous, very relaxed and at ease. He seemed to enjoy himself sitting on a low plastic stool eating noodles and pork bits with chopsticks.
Masa’s Japan, Season 8, Episode 7
Masayoshi “Masa” Takayama was raised a “country boy” in the rural farming community of Nasushiobara, Japan.
… He could – like his brother, like many of his friends from school – have easily remained in the town of his birth. But he chose to go to Tokyo, where he apprenticed at the legendary Ginza Sushiko. Then on to Kanazawa, where he appears to have learned much about the world …
… So I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to go all the way back with him, tracking his education, his influences to the beginning. In doing that, I gained a truly different view of Japan than on any previous visits. I ate spectacularly well – from family meals with the Takayamas and kaiseki in Kanazawa to some of the best sushi at Ginza Sushiko and mountain sukiyaki with Masa’s old friends from high school. It is food porn at its finest, but first and foremost a portrait of an artist and his journey.
West Virginia, Season 11, Episode 1
The hills of West Virginia are breathtakingly beautiful. The people I met there were unfailingly kind and forgiving of my liberal tendencies.
Though the culture, landscape, attitudes, voting tendencies and religious beliefs were about as far from my own as they are from Saudi Arabia’s, I felt at home. I was enchanted, both by the people I met and by McDowell County’s mist-covered small towns.
Lower East Side, Season 12, Episode 7
The Lower East Side was in many ways the cradle of New York: where new arrivals first settled, built communities and later moved on to be replaced by others. In the New York City of the ’70s, nearly bankrupt and riddled with corruption, the Lower East Side – particularly Alphabet City – was left to fend for itself. Huge swaths of it were abandoned, ruined or simply empty.
Much of it became an open-air supermarket for drugs. Whole blocks were taken over by organized drug gangs. Rents were cheap, and the neighborhood started to attract a newer, highly energized and creative group of people who wanted to make things: music, poetry, movies and art.