Author's note: I love moving images of food, people eating food, and people talking about food. But I hate commercials. Netflix Watch Instantly has a wealth of food-related shows, movies, and documentaries. Every week I'll share my currently streaming favorites in my TV column, "Watch (Food) Instantly". —Sam
Love him or hate him, antihero food personality Anthony Bourdain has become one of the most influential players in culinary television over the past decade. Following the publication of Kitchen Confidential in 2000, Bourdain entered the world of food television with two seasons of Food Network's A Cook's Tour before proceeding to revolutionize the format with his often funny, sometimes profound and always amusing series Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel in 2005.
In the program, Bourdain delivered an intelligent, Gonzo-tinged look into world cuisines and cultures that never shied away from profanity, honesty or agony (think a sweaty, painful Uzbeki massage in a dungeon-like bathhouse). The unique formula and brash style marked a significant departure from the sterile food programming of yore and paved the way for series such as Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods and even the character-centric Nadia G's Bitchin' Kitchen.
Although Bourdain will be moving his talents to CNN following the eighth (and final) season of No Reservations and the second season of The Layover. The folks at Netflix have been wise enough to let us watch six of his seasons on Watch Instantly. I realize, however, that navigating over 70 episodes can be a bit daunting for newbies and fans alike.
Thus, I've decided to list my five favorites:
This episode, though the locale may not seem like ripe food travel territory, is a personal favorite, which also happens to feature all of No Reservations' best elements. Creative narrative structure? Check. Quirky celebrity guest? Check. Food porn? Check. And, of course, Tony's frenemy Michael Ruhlman.
Bourdain's wintertime visit to the midwestern city appears in the style of guest Harvey Pekar's beloved American Splendor comic books, complete with cell-shaded panels and observant thought bubbles. Although Bourdain enjoys an extensive meal at Michael Symon's Lola with Marky Ramone, the Pekar sequences really make the episode shine. In a show highlight, Pekar, Ruhlman and Toby Radloff (a "genuine nerd" and friend of Pekar) take the host to Sokolowski's for Polish specialties like chicken paprikash and stuffed cabbage. It's scenes like these, in which Bourdain embraces the less-than-glamorous lifestyles of the everyman, that make No Reservations such a special show.
Searching for the "heart" of Japan, our host heads to the coastal city to dive head first into Osaka's vibrant society. While the boisterous opening scene at a baseball-obsessed sports bar (you can order sushi and get free beer upon a home team victory) is a loud introduction to the city's character, the episode also has one of the most notorious food crawls in the show's history. Joined by two slapstick manzai performers, Bourdain embarks on a kuidaore (which translates to "to ruin oneself by extravagance in food") and ruin himself he does.
The crawl begins innocently enough at a takoyaki (fried octopus ball) restaurant, but soon Bourdain's expression shifts from delight to anguish as he struggles to keep up with the food orgy unfolding before him: beer, curried rice, fried everything, more beer, grilled seafood, and garbage plate-like griddled pancakes. Street food enthusiasts may pass out from overload. And best of all, the binge culminates in some karaoke, the host's least favorite activity. Also featured: a wild time at a Hanshin Tigers baseball game.
Bourdain puts it best in the episode's first moments: "Food bloggers are gonna see this show and sh*t their cage." Serious eaters will, too. From the best canned seafood (in the world!) to Albert Adria's innovative desserts, the culinary wonders of Catalonia are unrelenting in this episode. The show's highlight, however, is much more humble than many of the more sophisticated stops on the tour.
Bourdain heads outside the city of Barcelona to an onion farm for a calçotada, a spring festival featuring extensive green onion consumption. Enjoying a profusion of wine and grilled onions in a red checkered bib, Bourdain embraces the delicious simplicity of a modern tradition with normal people, in a normal setting. A multicourse meal at Andoni Aduriz's Mugaritz and a sampling of obsessively intricate grilled seafood at Etxebarri follow the festival, while a family meal at Arzak rounds out the trip.
On the flip side of the delightful food tour that is the Spain episode, this installment might be considered its polar opposite: Bourdain's not-too-tasty trek around the arid African nation of Namibia. Despite a harmless-enough visit to an oyster farm and some duneboarding at the show's outset, Bourdain spends the bulk of his time roughing it with the Kalahari Bushmen, during which he submits to two of the most unappetizing dishes (if you can even call them that) in the show's history.
First, the host confronts an incredibly rubbery ostrich egg omelette cooked in hot ash for over 30 minutes (in New York editor Max's favorite sequence). Always the good sport, he takes it down with no idea what's coming next. In the "worst meal of [his] life," he must politely stomach the stomach (well...rectum) of a just-killed, unwashed warthog.
Yes, Tony dines on the end of Pumba's digestive system while trying as hard as possible not to flinch. Those Spanish delicacies? He must earn them with sooty eggs, pig tract and finally some roasted beetles. Yet his anguish is our entertainment, making this one of the more memorable episodes in the show's run.
Although Bourdain visited Vietnam during his first season (in a show framed with a kitschy James Bond theme), his sixth season return is a far superior affair. All No Reservations episodes set in Southeast Asia feature a slew of mouthwatering delicacies, but few achieve the poignancy of There's No Place Like Home. As much as any human being can love a nation in an apolitical way, Anthony Bourdain loves Vietnam.
The food—loaded, sizzling crepes, killer bowls of soup, one-of-a-kind noodles and the best looking banh mi ever—is only one of the reasons he embraces the country. He's also enamored with the society, even spending part of the episode touring real estate as he considers a move to the country. The tribute to his deceased friend Mom Gao, in a surprisingly profound moment, is a testament to Tony's special connection to Vietnam and the people in it. This break from his usual brashness makes this episode essential viewing.
So there you have 'em. My top five picks are in no way definitive and I'm certain that plenty of you have your own favorites and opinions on the show. Share them in the comments!
About the author: Sam is an intern, college student, food TV enthusiast and, like Jiro, he dreams of sushi.