Episode 3 of this season's Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown finds our fearless leader in Sichuan province, roaming around Southwest China, and entering into a veritable culinary pissing contest with his French doppelganger, celebrity chef and owner of the prestigious Le Bernardin, Eric Ripert. The daring duo are on a quest to sample all of Sichuan's spiciest, moving from fiery peppercorns to scorching hot chili and back again at every opportunity. Here are the highlights.
This ain't no Chinese takeout
The episode kicks off with classic Bourdain snark. Tony tells his audience he's excited to bring Ripert, who's never been to China, along for the ride, if for no other reason than because he enjoys torturing the poor gourmand. "His discomfort," Bourdain says with a flourish, "can be exquisite."
Aside from telling the impossibly polite Ripert that expecting Chengdu to look more like New York's Chinatown than a posher-than-thou 5th Ave was "some racist shit, right there," the boys appear to be getting along swimmingly. Their first stop: Noodletown (OK, it's not called Noodletown, but there sure are tons of noodles, and they all look delicious). Ripert falls even farther down on Bourdain's shit list by admitting that he's not good with chopsticks, but then redeems himself by suggesting they wash their breakfast bowls down with cold beer… at 10am.
The men are apparently on a mission to kill themselves, and as they walk through a lively outdoor market, they discuss the joys of MSG (who knew there was MSG in breast milk??). Bourdain chalks up the chemical's bad rep to plain racism, an evocative and pretty spot-on point.
Ripert gets his fill
Next up is is a dinner with Go Sa, the curator of the local Sichuan Cuisine Museum. The three guzzle lager and down pickled chicken feet with gusto as Ripert's spice tolerance takes a serious beating.
"The dish, in practical terms, is a game of finding the bits of chicken in the mountain of ass-burning goodness," relishes Bourdain, describing an overflowing plate of lazi ji (literally, "spicy chicken"). "It's fun for the whole family."
This scenario is repeated many times over. Course after course, restaurant after restaurant, food cart after food cart, endurance is tested and spice-induced hallucinations become second nature. Bourdain bullies his buddy into hotter and hotter dishes like a sadistic version of Andrew Zimmern, upping the ante with each stop.
We also learn that the people in Sichuan like to eat bunny heads. Yes, bunny heads. Bourdain also happens to enjoy this street-food delicacy, going into detail about how great rabbit brains taste while singing a perverted version of "Peter Cottontail" and threatening to make the dish next Easter. After, there's more offal, more spice, and more friends. Bourdain, Ripert, and their dinner-mates crowd around a hot pot and indulge family-style as, once again, Ripert quietly wants to die. Even Bourdain's drowning himself in lager and gasping for breath. And, unfortunately for their gastrointestinal tracts, the episode's barely 20 minutes in.
The fancy stuff
The section opens with Bourdain ditching the selfie-happy Ripert for a solo noodle adventure while Ripert continues to happily get mistaken for Tony around town. Then we get a super-cool cooking montage that moves from a kid selling prawns in the street to a chef rolling out noodles old school-style in a gorgeous, wood-laden kitchen. A fine-dining restaurant changing the face of Sichuan cuisine serves as the episode's highbrow nod and the food -- hand-cut noodles with duck egg yolk, delicate ribbons of marinated carrots, braised beef shank with chili oil, all plated and served with a sense of elegant simplicity -- looks incredible. For once, Ripert's right at home.
The weird stuff
Just like the previous episode's bizarre dive into a Nashville cryotherapy clinic, the guys decide to hit up a professional ear cleaner at a nearby park. Then Bourdain forces Ripert to attend a cooking seminar at a nearby culinary school. After class, the guys go head to head in a hard-hitting, techno music-fueled cooking duel. The unimpressed instructor reports that Tony's meat is overdone and Eric's is cut too thick, which Bourdain, of course, parlays into yet another dick joke.
Drinking like the locals
"Drinking culture is very important here," Bourdain tells his companion. "If we go to a formal meal, your ability to drink leads to a number of assumptions about you: your general manliness, penis size, your worth as a human being…"
"I'm comfortable with my size," Ripert fires back with confidence. Touche, Frenchie.
Later on, sweeping views of a Sichuan distillery take over the screen while Bourdain explains the importance of the region's signature beverage: baijiu, a spirit routinely imbibed at formal occasions. At dinner, the drinking rituals commence and the baijiu flows freer than the Yangtze River. Several minutes of continuous shot-taking commence and Tony and Eric have a brotherly toast. It seems with a little liquor, even a heat-happy sicko like Bourdain can be forgiven.
Our journey ends with the guys headed into the countryside, bickering over train bathroom etiquette and elitism. Once at their host's house, more stiff liquor and sauteed meat are in order, this time enjoyed while overlooking Sichuan's serene farmlands. The chefs utterly confuse their poor friend by playing a strange version of "Bang/Marry/Kill" involving Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer, and Dr. Sanjay Gupta wearing Speedos. And then, of course, they have a beer-chugging contest.
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