• Michael Randall

Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown and Kitchen Confidential

One piece of advice I would give to students is to learn how to cook a few basic meals from scratch. This often gets dismissed, but it is important – it is part of growing up, you eat more nutritious food, you save a bit of money (batch cooking a chilli that gives you 5 portions is more cost-efficient than a ready meal one for £2-3), and for me, putting a radio on in the background, take your time making a chicken and chorizo stew is an incredibly satisfying 45 minutes.

I really like my food. Many a split pair of trousers will confirm this. One of my finest recent achievements was finishing the sodium bomb that was the 'Six Nations Burger' at the Howgait Pub as my colleague, Jonathan, was becoming increasingly fraught at his impending PhD viva. Yet I’ve always liked cooking, watching programmes about food, and finding out tips/tricks/theories to apply to my cooking. For example, now, if I’ve had a bit of a stodgy week, I’ll be sure to cram all of the vegetables I can into a stir fry, and make it taste really good, if I do say so myself.

At one stage in my life, I wanted to be a chef/cook. The closest I came was completing a GCSE in Home Economics (or Food Tech). From what I remember of the class, it was not a ‘cool’ subject to do. The only other boy in the class was an absolute hazard unto everyone – I mean properly dangerous (poor Mrs Norman was a nervous wreck watching him with hot oil). I also remember the coursework assignment was to go through product development and refinement of party food. I am much better at baking, so for about 6 weeks, we had muffins galore at home to eat – there are worse subjects that I’ve studied, for sure (ahem, property law…although if you got to keep a house at the end, I’d change my mind).

This has also translated into my book collection. I’ve done a quick count of the cookbooks I could find in my flat – there are 91 of them. I have a couple out on loan to colleagues, too. I clearly hoard them. I still have my very first cookbook – Gary Rhodes’ ‘Short Cut Rhodes’, which I bought for £7 using the book tokens I won at our school prize giving for ‘Best overall effort’ for my tutorial group. Mum wrote a little note in the front of it. I was genuinely quite taken aback when Gary passed away, and it wasn’t until then that I realised how much of an impact that book had in getting me started.

This is an unfortunate/slightly clunky segue into the main recommendation from this blog post – reviewing some of Anthony Bourdain’s work. For those unaware, Anthony Bourdain was an American chef, author and presenter whose CV is far too long to list here. He is someone who, until relatively recently, I was unaware of. I’d seen a few interviews with him on American late-night shows, and he has a cameo in the absolutely superb film The Big Short (indulge me - I teach banking law, it's superb). However, in 2018, at the age of 61, he committed suicide whilst filming one of his shows, Parts Unknown, in France. And the reaction that I saw online was, for want of a better way of saying this, different to the usual response to a celebrity passing. My frame of reference, being principally British TV chefs/programmes, meant that I knew the circumstances were sad, but I didn’t fully grasp what his work was.

Recently, I stumbled upon the clip from Parts Unknown of him heading up the University Café in Glasgow, and eating a meal of deep fried, grease-soaked food. And there’s something delightful about seeing someone who you know should be more haute cuisine, just delighting at eating something you might reasonably eat out and about. So, given that I had finished watching Queer Eye: We’re in Japan, and wanting something else to watch, I decided to start watching Parts Unknown, which is available on Netflix.

I am only a handful of episodes in, but already, it stands out as being a cultural show, which just happens to have a lot of food in it. It’s a sort of bite-size escapism. Whenever I’ve seen any old British cooking shows, where a chef goes abroad, it usually consists of them showing you around a fish market, and then cooking to camera on a clifftop/in a rented villa. Don’t get me wrong, there is great delight in watching Keith Floyd finish off his 4th glass of white wine, whilst getting sunburned on a cliff top in the Mediterranean, but I don’t feel I learn much about where he is.

The very first episode of Parts Unknown sees him travel to Myanmar (or, Burma – there is a point at which he double checks with a local which term he should be using). In the space of 50 minutes you get an explanation of historical colonial rule, the subsequent government regime and free speech, travel on a rickety old train to an ancient capital, a discussion on slave labour and a recognition that they are only seeing certain authorised parts of the country. And he eats some good-looking food along the way.

Episode 2 sees him in Koreatown in Los Angeles – I am too young to know/understand the Rodney King riots, and the consequence of the actions/inactions of the Los Angeles Police Department on a community, but I have a better understanding having watched the episode. In another episode, he travels to Libya post-Gaddafi, and speaks to those who fought to end his rule.

They are never presented in an exploitative way. It is very respectful – he tries to highlight the points for optimism, but doesn’t shy away from discussing controversial topics. In Colombia, as someone who was a regular drug taker, he travels to a remote part of the country, and has a discussion about supply and demand, musing as to how he contributed to the predicament.

Off the back of this, I decided to buy his book – Kitchen Confidential – in essence, a write-up/memoir of his experiences as a line cook. It is a warts and all explanation as to the type of characters that you can expect to encounter. First released in 2000, I have bought a later edition, which has some annotations from Bourdain on the work. Some parts of it are very funny. Some parts are not exactly surprising. Some parts are “ok, I hadn’t thought of that” (why you shouldn’t eat fish at a restaurant on a Monday). I think the more shocking and outlandish tales are later on in the book (give me a break, I’m only about 1/3 of the way through it). Some parts are very quotable, though – I know I’ve seen the line about your body not being a temple, it’s a roller coaster, so enjoy the ride on some inspirational poster/Instagram post before.

What you get from this is someone who really took great enjoyment in food, and discovering more about people. I’ve only dipped in to/scratched the surface – I know he has a tonne of other books and TV programmes/episodes for me to watch, but I can already tell it is the sort of show that I could quite easily sit down and watch 3 episodes of back-to-back, and feel like I’ve actually learned something about a place he’s visited. I’d contrast this with a Gordon Ramsay show that I caught in passing on the telly, in which he went to Cambodia and ate a fertilised egg, and then after the advertising break was going to “hunt for tarantulas” (as an arachnophobe, I switched off). To me, that’s the difference between this being a travel and culture show, which has food as a backdrop, vs a food show in which the travelling is the backdrop. And I know which I prefer. It’s just a shame it took me so long to start watching it.

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