The Pain and Beauty of Watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown

“There’s something very strange about you, because you look normal, but it’s all going on inside. Yes, you have got a slight pleading look in your eyes.”

Nigella Lawson to Anthony Bourdain, “London”

When Anthony Bourdain killed himself, a lot of people on traditional news outlets and social media expressed astonishment that someone so successful could commit suicide. I was stunned that they were stunned. For my part, I had long been surprised and impressed by the fact that he chose and was able to maintain functionality after heroin addiction. To me, that was the unlikelihood.

Yet on some level, I do understand other people’s reactions. It wasn’t just because Bourdain had received accolades, amassed wealth, and scored what seemed to many of us the perfect job. We know enough about suicide, or should, to grasp that it is usually not a reaction to one specific event, and even objectively good circumstances may not preclude it. I think the shock came because Bourdain was always chasing and articulating something so elemental to the human spirit. As a companion in the “Spain” episode of Parts Unknown puts it while they share tripe-spiked tapas: “Sun. Plaza. Guts.” If Bourdain couldn’t be happy with regular dosages of all three, then it seems like we’re all kind of screwed.

I was a fan of Bourdain’s No Reservations series years back but had never watched his Parts Unknown episodes. Throughout August, I watched all 64 segments currently on Netflix. (This chunk represents only two-thirds of the series.) I watched them to enjoy them, but I also viewed them to try to comprehend why Bourdain ended his life—which is, of course, impossible. Gradually, I accepted that all I could hope to understand is our inability to understand his suicide.


In the wake of his death, many of Bourdain’s offhand remarks in Parts Unknown chill and harrow. In “Rome,” in which he is guided by girlfriend Asia Argento, he inhales a prosciutto dish and declares, “I want to die here . . . I may yet.” (Eating was always a petite mort for Tony.) In “Paraguay,” he searches for an ancestor lost there in the mid-nineteenth century. In the process he admits that he’s lonely, because at 58, he has already lived a year longer than his father and is perhaps the longest-living male Bourdain ever; he died about four years later, just shy of 62. In the first-season episode, “Quebec,” he surveys a hipster restaurant in which young chefs cook on a simple four-range stove and remarks, “I couldn’t have cooked on that without wanting to kill everyone in sight and then hang myself from the nearest beam.”

That one hurts the most.

In hindsight, his mental struggles weren’t always handled gracefully in the series. In “Tangier”, he dramatizes William S. Burrough’s heroin addiction, tapping on a typewriter and voicing Burroughs’ words as we’re treated to a montage of drug-related paraphernalia. Throughout most of this episode, Bourdain acts like someone who’s never been high on anything pretending to be high, even though we know he was once high for years. Similarly, the one episode I found distasteful was “Buenos Aires.” Watching the tongue-in-cheek montage in which Bourdain visits a local psychotherapist, I bristled. Given his struggles with addiction and mental health—about which he was very open during his life—this sequence came off as condescending and insincere.

This condescension is belied by his profound understanding of loss, which is evidenced over and over in other segments. For instance, in “Detroit,” Bourdain elegizes its loss of grandeur, the collapse of its dream. In this episode, I was able to see through his eyes, and for the first time, how rapturously beautiful this city once was. And I can’t help but conclude that Bourdain understood urban disaster because he was so familiar with its emotional variety.


Bourdain was a bon vivant. I contrast the bon vivant with the figure of the flâneur made famous by Walter Benjamin. The flâneur embodies detachment, strolling through and ironically surveying the urban wonderland. By contrast, the bon vivant digs right in—and shares with others. This is what Bourdain did throughout his peripatetic travels. You feel like you are sitting down at each and every table with him, no matter where in the world he goes.

Yet he was far more vulnerable than we might expect such a bon vivant to be. I often felt a stab of protectiveness when I observed Bourdain’s Karloffian gait, his legs too long and thin for his body. He was the wounded poet-chef, his heart trailing on his rolled-up sleeves. I sensed that Bourdain was someone for whom sanity became a vocation. But that’s different than it being a predisposition, and much harder to maintain.

You can tell he thought he was okay. Or at least he pretended to be, either for himself or the cameras, or both. In “Massachusetts,” he examines the opioid crisis in a rural town in western Massachusetts, shocked at how the drug has swallowed up huge swaths of middle-class America. Sitting in on a group meeting of recovering opioid addicts, he says that he hopes to one day tell his daughter the truth: that her father screwed up but made it. I wonder if he knew that his contract with sanity was starting to fray even then. Or maybe it disintegrated much later, all at once.

Still, there are many moments of pure joy in the series, which Tony imparts to the viewer with little mediation. Witnessing the bounty of familial love and cover bands during the wet Christmas season in “Manila.” Listening to the sublime singer Youssou N’Dour, a frequent Peter Gabriel collaborator, at a Dakar restaurant in “Senegal.” Eating moss and fresh flowers at Noma in “Copenhagen.” Riding a toy-like train up into the Himalayas with adorably squealing schoolchildren in “Punjab.” And as a lifelong lover of dance, I can assure you that the belly dance in “Istanbul” is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

In “Hanoi,” when Obama tells him, hesitating just a bit, that things will turn out okay, you wish he’d been right. That they did turn out okay—for the United States as a country, and above all for Tony.


The more segments I watched, the more I grieved that Bourdain couldn’t have known what we all felt watching him. How he reminded us that an embrace of life and a fascination with death often trip along each other’s edges.

In “Marseille,” he ribbed his friend, the lovable chef Éric Ripert, by predicting that his next life would be a nightmare. (This sequence becomes all the more poignant when one knows that Ripert was destined to bear witness to Tony’s death; he was traveling with Bourdain and grew concerned when he didn’t show up for breakfast on that fateful morning.) Ripert, who is a practicing Buddhist, replies that he’s living the good life because of the karma he’s built up. Yet Bourdain’s existence attests to the fact that extremely privileged external circumstances, however attained, do not exempt us from suffering.

Over the course of many hours with him, I decided that what was most heartbreaking was that he died alone. On the coast of Grenada, he tells a friend who joins him in an outdoor spread of food and wine, “When my time comes, I pretty much want to die at a table like this.” In “Lyon,” the death wish tunnels further inward: He expresses the longing to die like the chicken he just ate, surrounded by foie gras, truffles, and fine wine. Unlike Ripert, Tony didn’t believe in reincarnation. He seemed to feel that the good life was all we know we have, so we should enjoy it right up to the end.

Maybe he did. The night before, he savored a good meal with his friend Éric in a charming French town. Maybe that is as close to a death with truffles and foie gras as any of us will get. Still, it feels like he got cheated. And because we survivors don’t know why he left us so abruptly, we feel cheated too.


But great cuisine is a cheat in itself. Michelin-starred meals represent a taut act of control that tries to mask the extreme messiness of life. Three times a day, we descend on food, charged with desperation. When we slow down for a special meal, we consume it, but what we are really trying to internalize is a sense of order. A stroke of the clock, a closed passage of this life, in the form of satisfied hunger. If we can master this need as art, we can pretend that we have mastered life. But we never, ever can.

Bourdain proved this by dying amidst the art of food and the pretense of design. He proved that meals punctuate rather than transcend our humanity. Maybe what is so discomfiting is that Bourdain’s suicide speaks to the limitations of food and thus culture. It shows that our most civilized orchestrations can’t console completely for the brutality of human lives.

His body of work also testifies to the fact that we can never understand anything completely, whether it is a country, a culture, or another human being. In this sense, the “Tokyo” episode seems important for trying to understand Bourdain. I got lost in that city so many times. I’m not sure I was ever found there. That’s what makes it unique among cities: It is not a closed circuit. You can get lost in and leave it without ever finding closure or even sense. Bourdain says of Tokyo, “Every chef I know wants to die here. . .because we, all of us, understand that we don’t understand anything about Japan.” Tony revealed and reveled in the numinous power not just of great cuisine, but of not knowing. Of wandering confused through the BDSM-fueled underside of Tokyo. Of landing in a country like South Africa and being floored by how little you grasp of its past and present.

Above all, he demonstrated that the darkest continent is the one inside of us. In “Thailand,” he makes an offhand remark, during a well-earned hangover, that his doctor says everything he loves is killing him. But the deeper, graver truth is that none of us knows what will kill us. And if we attempt to die by our own hand, the reason we do it is not obvious to ourselves, much less to others. I speak from experience.

A table companion in “Brazil,” over poisonous blowfish, assures him, “We were not born to die.” But the truth is that Tony, like all of us, was by nature born to die. It’s just that he was also born to enjoy himself to the fullest and to publicly express the tension between an acceptance of (and even a yearning for) death and a lust for life. His epitaph could be drawn from the words he speaks at the end of “Mexico”: “As I have come to know from my own life, drugs, even drug addiction, can be a survivable event. Death is not.”

In “Minas Gerais,” set in interior Brazil, Bourdain remarks that he doesn’t believe in a legacy. Whether he believed in it or not, though, he has one. Tony taught all of us that mental illness is not predicated on nor eased by career success or anything else that can be controlled. Like the spines in Brazilian fruit that cut your tongue to shreds, it’s the demon within.


My Top Ten Parts Unknown Episodes (in no particular order):

  1. Copenhagen – Foraged food as high art
  2. Detroit – Until I watched this segment, I didn’t know what a beautiful city it had been
  3. Hanoi – Two words: Barack Obama
  4. Punjab – A magical train ride into the Himalayas
  5. Houston – A glorious fuck-you to the Trump Administration, this episode spotlights how immigrants have transformed the food and culture of this city
  6. Sichuan with Éric Ripert – Watching Tony mess with his friend Eric is delightful
  7. Beirut – An incredible place
  8. Quebec – If you’ve ever dreamt of shaving truffles onto your food while shivering in an ice fishing cabin and drinking the best wine in the world, this episode is for you. Come to think of it, this entire series is for you.
  9. Tbilisi – Sexy locals and the irrepressible Zamir Gotta.
  10. Rome – A window into Bourdain’s relationship with Asia Argento, who has had a very hard year, plus some stunning fascist architecture

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2018