This why a lot of food shows feel weirdly similar. They are similar. They are simulacra. They’re not designed to interrogate an audience’s assumptions about the world so much as they are to reinforce them. It doesn’t make them inherently flawed or stale (though plenty of them are), but it does make them predictable. They feel smaller and tidier than the world in which they supposedly transpire. They flatten.
Like a lot of Bourdain acolytes, we tried not to do that. We aspired, explicitly at times, to be Parts Unknown. We knew we couldn’t match Bourdain’s inimitable powers of observation, globetrotting zeal, or open-armed embrace of life’s vulgarities (to say nothing of the show’s production expertise and budget, both of which seemed to be limitless.) We weren’t delusional. But if we could just channel some of that empathy, man. If we could be on-location, roll the cameras, and try to get a stranger’s story right while we shared a meal with them — that would be a small step in the right direction (read: towards Bourdain.) I hope we took some steps in that direction. We certainly tried to.
An occasional crew ritual, after a long day of shooting, was to crack some beers together and watch Tony Bourdain in an episode of Parts Unknown. We were like Little Leaguers catching a Yankees game. Still: strictly speaking, we played the same game. So what if the field was bigger, the lights were brighter, and the skill was higher? Even just indulging that technicality (aided by exhaustion, and the beer) was electric.
I left Thrillist this past spring, after seven-plus years with the company. The brand means a lot to me, and I think Bourdain meant a lot to the brand. Over the years, Thrillist delighted in amplifying the Gospel of Bourdain. It’s not hard to see why. Practically everything the guy did was extremely our shit, to borrow from Twitter parlance. What did Bourdain say? Where did Bourdain go? Who did Bourdain interview? He represents everything this publication hopes to stand for: limitless curiosity for our world, skepticism of pretense, and an insatiable appetite. He wasn’t in our wheelhouse. We were in his, and glad to be there.