“As soon as the cameras turn off,” Anthony Bourdain says in the first episode of the final season of Parts Unknown, “I fucking pinch myself. I can’t believe I get to do this.” It was a sentiment seemingly shared by everyone who worked on the show, which they recalled this past weekend during a premiere event for the show’s poignant final run of episodes.
The first episode follows Bourdain and W. Kamau Bell through Kenya. During the Tribeca TV Festival, Bell told Grub Street that working on Parts Unknown really was the fantasy job that everyone imagines. “Everybody who watches the show goes, ‘I wish I could do that,’” Bell said. “You do wish you could have done that. It lived up to everything I wanted it to and then surpassed those things.” Even in moments when Bourdain and Bell were confronted with, say, cow’s blood or a particularly chewy eyeball, Bell felt lucky to be there. “This is what you’re here for,” he said at a Q&A after the screening. “I had to really submit to the process of making the show, or else I’m not being a good guest. If there’s anything that Tony taught us, it’s how to be a good guest. For me, it was like, whatever you want me to do, man, I will do it.”
Bell, of course, only worked on one episode, but for Bourdain’s longtime collaborators, too, Parts Unknown was a creative and professional high that will be hard to match. “People tend to forget and view him as a cook or a chef,” director and producer Morgan Fallon told Grub Street, “but what Tony really was at the end of the day was an absolutely tremendous TV producer — he had his hands and his mind in every aspect of the show.” Fallon added that “not only was Tony a very powerful conduit for getting our ideas about the world out to people, he was a tremendous collaborator, a tremendous creative force.”
Executive producers Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia had worked with Bourdain since his earliest Food Network show, A Cook’s Tour. After the Parts Unknown screening, they remembered how Bourdain had blossomed over the years into a more fully formed television host, especially when he had a guest along for a trip. “You see Tony come alive in shows with companions in these sort of later episodes,” Tenaglia said. “It’s really kind of beautiful. Having traveled for so long, he was always craving that experience of like, Can I see this anew?” It was, she said, an extension of the way Bourdain had approached the show from the very beginning. “When Chris and I met Tony, he was still working in a kitchen,” Tengalia said. “He really had never traveled before … We shot this ten-minute thing at the restaurant, and he was really talking about the world in very romantic terms, things that he had seen in books and films and that was his notion of travel at the time.” It was the very beginning of what would become Bourdain’s series of shows: “He just talked about what traveling would be like for him. He managed to sell that as a 23-part series.”
“For him, it began as a ruse,” Collins added. “Someone’s going to pay me to go do this stuff. Over time, it turned into a job. Then it turned into a profession. Then it turned into a life’s work.”
Tengalia continued, “I think people don’t know that Tony was actually, in some ways, very shy. He really was, and the show was this vehicle for him to connect.”
Indeed, along with those who worked on the show, its viewers, too, understood that food was only a starting point, and that each episode of Parts Unknown was a new piece in a much larger conversation. “It was a very rare opportunity to have creative freedom, a very powerful platform to talk about how awesome and wonderful the world really is,” Fallon said. “I think we tend to have an understandably myopic view of what’s out there because we only get exposed to certain elements of the world, but the truth is, when you go out there, there [are] primarily only good things to report.” He then summed up what he hoped the show would continue to mean, even after it ends: “What I’d like to report to everyone is that the world is a good place. Go without fear.”