The September 22 world premiere of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” at this year’s Tribeca TV fest wasn’t a memorial. While the series won the Emmy for Outstanding Informational Series or Special just a few weeks ago, it did so under the burden of Bourdain’s recent suicide. However, the Season 12 opener, “Kenya,” was a joyful episode that focused on Bourdain and “United Shades of America” host W. Kamau Bell.
In the episode, the pair explored the country’s capital of Nairobi as well as the savannah and more rural communities, with memorable sequences in which Bell’s dining options included cow’s blood beverage and a goat’s eyeball.
At the Q&A following the premiere, director Morgan Fallon told Bell that his rookie status was an advantage: “What’s nice from, a scumbag producer point of view, is that we knew that you were going to eat anything we put in front of you.”
Said Bell said being on the show made him “feel like I won a contest,” adding, “You gotta do the whole thing or you’re not being a good guest. One thing Tony taught us was how to be a good guest.”
Fallon and executive producers Sandy Zweig, Lydia Tenaglia, and Chris Collins all noted that despite hosting 12 seasons of “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain’s interest was never in being the center of attention. “A big part of the show for him was that he was not someone who was invested in building his brand or his persona as much as he was someone interested turning the camera outward to the world,” Fallon said. “I think that was very important to him.”
David Scott Holloway
Tenaglia and Collins produced Bourdain’s shows since the beginning nearly 20 years ago. “When Chris and I met Tony, he was still working in a kitchen, and he had never really traveled before. He’d been to France as a kid and one trip to Japan for work, but he was still talking about the world in very romantic terms.”
Tenaglia and Collins shot a 10-minute test in at Les Halles, the New York restaurant where Bourdain was the executive chef, and used it to sell a 23-episode order for his first show, “No Reservations.” “He got it right away and he understood that the cameras could be another platform for his very inimitable writing,” she said. “Over 18, 19 years, he just evolved into a cultural anthropologist.”
With “Parts Unknown,” she said, “the show just exploded into the direction it had wanted to go all the long … It just took on its full expression.”
Recollections of Bourdain were heartfelt, but as direct and honest as the man presented himself. “One of the best and worst things about Tony was that he was really tough,” Zweig said. “Each show had to measure up in his mind.”
Bell said that when he returned after filming the episode, he told his creative team for “United Shades” that “we need to change everything.”
Added Collins, “The whole idea of the series from the get-go was ‘I want my words to be heard, but I want other peoples’ words and thoughts to be heard as well’… It began as a sort of ruse — ‘Someone’s going to pay me for this?’ Then it became a job. And then it became his life’s work.”
The “Parts Unknown” premiere doesn’t conclude with the sort of In Memoriam message you might expect — instead, there’s a Bourdain voiceover in which he reflects on who gets to tell your story. In this case, he said, he was the storyteller, a line that Fallon said was “almost uncanny, after everything that’s happened.”
It’s a very public-facing moment for Bourdain, but Tenaglia said, “People don’t know that, in some ways, Tony was very shy, and the show was in some ways his vehicle to connect with the world.”
The perception, she added, might have been that Bourdain was “this adventurer going through the world,” but “the moments of quiet were the ones he appreciated the most.”
“Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” premieres Sunday, September 23 at 9 p.m. on CNN. The Tribeca TV festival runs September 20-23 in New York.