Way Before Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain Took Us On A Cook's Tour

Bourdain’s earlier, scrappier A Cook’s Tour showed us who he was and who he’d become.

This past month I haven't been feeling too well for multiple reasons, so I've mainly been at home, trying to slow down the pace of life for a while. At the end of nearly every night, my fiancée and I been putting on an episode of comfort TV to keep us company. You know, the type of show that relaxes you a bit and soothes you before bed. For me, comfort TV usually involves something with food, whether it's Midnight Diner on Netflix or a clip of a cooking show we can just play in the background while we mentally filter out the noise of the day.

One night, for no apparent reason, I just wanted to hear Anthony Bourdain's larger-than-life voice again, making wisecracks on camera. I haven't had the heart to watch the final episodes of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown yet, nor have I seen Roadrunner, the documentary of his life, though I do have a copy of World Travel: An Irreverent Guide sitting next to my desk. I'm sure I'll catch up with all of that someday. But recently, I searched through YouTube and found a bootleg episode of A Cook's Tour, his series that aired on Food Network in 2002-2003 and ran for 35 episodes. It would be the beginning of a 16-year television career.

Suddenly, there he was again, on my TV. Bourdain was much younger then, and you can see some mischief in his eyes as he basically fucks off around the world, trying new food, making friends along the way—the same formula that would keep me and the rest of the world hooked for years. Even in this earliest iteration of his adventures, his charm radiates warmly through the screen. He had a remarkable talent for seeming like your friend, which is exactly what I need these days, and it's been making me feel better at the worst of times.

The footage is grainy, some jokes wildly off-color, but his cheekiness and the charm is still there in full force. Watch the scene, set in Louisiana, where Bourdain is sitting inside the house of an alligator enthusiast named Wild Bill. He makes fun of Emeril Lagasse (he poked a lot of fun at celebrity chefs during his career) while wondering if he's going to die in a grease fire. It's a marvel he didn't, because Wild Bill may be the most terrifying cook I've ever seen on television. It also turns out he hated eating iguana, especially in tamale form, and his description of the Oaxacan experience is way over the top.

Then there are bittersweet moments that have caught me massively off-guard. At the end of his episode in Saint Martin, he sits, enjoying a cheeseburger on the beach, and the voiceover says, "You wonder, especially if you're a neurotic New Yorker like me, is it possible to be happy?" Then in the moment on the beach, he says as if in reply to the question, "I think this is the first place that convinced me that I can be happy. And I can not only be happy, but I can be happy for long periods of time."

For a split second, you're there with him, sand between your toes, listening to the rhythm of waves lazily slapping on the beach. You've got a beer in one hand, a burger in the other. The entire world pauses for you, and you alone.

We all know how this story eventually ends, which is how inevitably, you come back down to earth, back to your couch, right before bed. But there's that instant where everything is okay, and if you focus on that for long enough, you can make that second last for way longer than a clip of television.