Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations returned on Travel Channel last night with a moving, sometimes discomfiting visit to post-earthquake Haiti. I’ve always liked No Reservations, not just for Bourdain’s foulmouthed sense of humor but because it approaches food and travel as more than entertainments. It starts from the premise that what people eat is an expression of their culture, their history, how they live—and sometimes, how they have to live. Bourdain has taken the show to familiar and unfamiliar countries, but in the past couple seasons, he’s focused more on more posh destinations like Paris and Rome.
With the seventh season, Bourdain told me earlier, he’s making a deliberate effort to avoid complacency and take the show to places tourists don’t seek out—physically, and in some cases mentally.
The Haiti episode, which contrasted his tour of the country’s culinary highlights with scenes of its continued blight and poverty, was less a travel show than a kind of multilayered essay on Haiti’s political history, the ethics of tourism, the morality of journalism/voyeurism and the wisdom of well-intentioned efforts. In an early scene, Bourdain and crew guiltily buy out a food stand to feed hungry onlookers, and fights break out among the too-large crowd. “Simple!” he narrates. “Fill the bellies of some cute kids! A goodhearted expression of kindness! We all go back to our hotel feeling really good about ourselves, right? … Because we thought with our hearts and not our heads, it all turned to sh-t.”
Introducing the episode, Bourdain notes that—unlike many countries the show has visited—people in Haiti tend to avoid cameras because they’ve paraded their suffering for too many Western cameramen for the promise of help that didn’t materialize. “Are we part of the problem?” he asks.
Anthony Bourdain, of course, is a cook and TV host, not a foreign-aid expert, but he offers some hope toward the end, meeting with Sean Penn and the aid group that Penn relocated to Haiti to assist. Characteristically, though, Bourdain ends on a note of bitter realism: “Not a very happy show, I know. No happy horsesh-t soothing assurances to be made about the elections either. … These are long-view, big picture longterm efforts thst will take time, persistence, patience and infinitely good hearts. It’s easy to push the bad stuff out of our consciousness, try and forget, move on, but it always seems to come back.”
No Reservations is not a news documentary (though it was nominated for a news Emmy a few years ago for an episode on Beirut), but in a way, this was one of the most thoughtful pieces of cultural journalism I’ve watched in a while. A couple of other episodes I’ve seen from this season—from Cambodia and Nicaragua—are similarly rewarding. It’s worth the return trip.