I've been a pretty big fan of Bourdain's food-centric travelogues since Food Network debuted the A Cook's Tour show and the accompanying book (A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines). From his auto-bio/expose on the restaurant business (Kitchen Confidential Updated Ed: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.)), to his unrestricted palette of taste, through to his no nonsense style of writing food inspired crime fiction, Bourdain has cut an interesting niche in the foodie world. With No Reservations, he's left behind the insanity of the Food Network and taken his travels in search of good food and culture to the Travel Channel.
What I find interesting about No Reservations is the balance he's seemingly struck between his own tendencies and the requirements of filming a network driven travel show. On A Cook's tour it came across as butting heads with the network and producers resulting in a lackluster second season filled with excursions to ridiculous destinations like the Mall of America, content that felt forced and sad. No Reservations, though occasionally still succumbing to these depths, frees Bourdain up to getting to the heart of the matter which is examining true local culture and the food that sustains and elevates it. It combines the point of view of a 70s punk rebel with a soul searching existentialist, while also ditching most of the pretension and being generally entertaining TV which is pretty darn rare.
In this fourth collection, Bourdain and crew have finally managed to find a sweet spot in the balance between network needs and a thoughtful beat poet's look at the world. The first three seasons are good, but season four is amazing. The narrative of these episodes cuts right into the truth of the various locals whether it's pretty or not, in particular the New Orleans, Jamaica, Columbia, and Saudi Arabia episodes spring to mind. In this post Katrina world the last thing I expected was a vision of Nola that was heartbreaking and raw. I expected an upbeat perspective to permeate the visit, rife with narration describing the unconquered spirit of the people and cameras that captured only the rebuilt and thriving. Though this was a part of the episode, as that is present, it's a whisper compared to the depressing reality, a truth that doesn't get as much discussion.
Most of the content that would be considered gimmicky in this season is regulated to and filtered into great content. A contest for Anthony to come to someone's town or country could have been difficult and embarrising to watch, and instead it becomes a door into Saudi Arabian life that most Americans never considered. A trip back to the kitchen at Les Halles featuring Bourdain working a double shift after almost a decade away from the hurly burly could have been done for one big high-five, "I've still got it" moment, and it's not. It's sad and honest ending with the exclamation that working the line is a young man's game. This isn't Bourdain's the Natural, it's his the Wrestler.
If you're looking for the insanity of A Cook's Tour (the swallowing of still beating cobra hearts, etc.) than you might be a bit disappointed (though armadillo, camel, and desert lizard are all happily consumed) but if the first thought when entering a new city or country is locating a good genuine meal that speaks to the local culture than this is the show for you. It's not a how-to for finding the tourist traps of the world, but a how to avoid these and eat like a local.
There are currently 3 other seasons available: Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations - Collection 1, Anthony Bourdain - No Reservations Collection 2, and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations - Collection 3.