The other day while writing up last week’s Top Chef, I lamented that the show hadn’t found a way to get Anthony Bourdain on every week. It later occurred to me that I should have mentioned, for those of you who didn’t know, that you can get a more regular fix of Bourdain, on his Travel Channel show, No Reservations, which is to most basic cable food and travel shows what Remembrance of Things Past is to a madeleine recipe.
No Reservations, which launched its fourth season earlier this year, is not a food show in the usual sense, in that there are no recipes or cooking segments per se, and while food is the jumping-off point for it, the show is really about Bourdain’s worldwide perambulations to different culinary hotspots and his reflections on how food is tied into culture. The show airs on Travel Channel, but it’s not really like most travel shows, either—you’re not going to get many tips on booking hotels, visiting the highest-profile tourist spots or even hitting the classiest restaurants.
What Bourdain gives, instead, are essentially trenchant and well-observed video essays about the plaaces he visits, and how each locale’s history, society, glories and troubles are reflected in its cuisine—especially in its street food and the food eaten by ordinary people. In an episode on Brazil, for instance, Bourdain made a point of bypassing Rio de Janeiro and instead going to Sao Paolo, and of skipping the Carnivale season (he went two weeks before the festival) specifically to avoid the travel-show cliches of parades, costumes and flesh.
The flesh Bourdain focused on instead was the fat-studded mortadella sold at a Sao Paolo market stall, the overstuffed hot-dog-like sausages vended on the streets (which are topped, among other things, with even more meat) and a hole-in-the-wall lunch place that specializes in deep-fried testicles. (Bourdain, who famously wrote about traveling the world to eat smake and monkey brains, has a certain extreme-eating element to his show, though he doesn’t rely on it the same way his channelmate Andrew Zimmern does.)
In No Reservations, Bourdain is big on street food and poor people’s food, even though he made his name serving up expensive plates at Les Halles in Manhattan. (Named, appropriately, after the vaunted old Parisian meat market.) But he’s out to serve up more than food porn or gross-outs. In the Brazil episode, for instance, he does a segment on one of Brazil’s most famous dishes, feijoada, explaining how the stew of beans, sausage and cheap meat cuts came—like slave food in America or shtetl cooking in Eastern Europe—from the ingenuity of people who had little money for food, in this case Brazilians in places like Minas Gerais who were far poorer than the rich Portuguese colonists who later discovered the dish.
That peasant food gets gentrified is not a brand-new observation, but Bourdain follows it up by looking at the heavy class differences that still pervade the country. Likewise, plenty of shows visiting Jamaica would tell you about jerk, but not many would interspere the food tourism with bits on Rastafarianism, the political crises of the ’70s and radical Jamaican nationalism. But while No Reservations is smart, it’s above all a good time—too much so sometimes for Bourdain, who reliably gets drunk on the local potables (caipirinhas and caipiroshkas in Brazil) and regrets it in the morning. It’s like touring the world with a reckless gonzo journalist who happened to get a job in a kitchen rather than at a magazine.
Bourdain is a rare thing in cable food TV: a writer who’s interested in food, rather than a celebrity chef who somebody taught to appear in front of a camera. And No Reservations is not, finally, a show about cooking or even eating. It’s about better understanding the world—one bite and drink at a time.