1: Houston (Season 8, Episode 5)
Bourdain issued an edict while planning this episode to not include any white people, and the result is a beautiful picture of the American city as a modern melting pot. From a Bollywood dance number at a South Asian grocery store to African immigrants working small farms in the city to visiting a school of largely refugee children, run by a principal who was a refugee himself, it shows what the American city of the future will look like. An insanely multicultural family meal that Bourdain visits–true fusion cuisine–will bring tears to your eyes.
2: Sichuan (Season 8, Episode 3)
This episode is the best example of Bourdain’s friendship with Le Bernandin chef Eric Ripert, who appears on multiple episodes. In this one, Bourdain forces Ripert–no fan of spicy food–to participate in endless hot pots and other mouth-numbing fare, to Ripert’s deep discomfort and Bourdain’s delight. It’s also a great window into a quickly modernizing China. The final scene, in which Bourdain and Ripert share a beer with a local outside the city, joking about Wolf Blitzer in a bikini is a prime example of the show’s main philosophy: that we are all the same when we are around a table together.
3: Congo (Season 1, Episode 8)
In this episode, Bourdain tries to recreate his favorite book, Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, by taking a boat trip down the Congo River. It features a disastrous attempt to cook meal on the boat (the knife isn’t sharp enough to kill the chickens), that highlights Bourdain’s belief that meals are more about the company and experience than the food, and also his willingness to show the reality of how animals are killed for our food. But the episode’s true focus is on the ruins of post-colonialism and the Congolese who are still–often with no pay–running the slowly decaying trains and libraries that are the vestiges of that era.[Photo: courtesy of CNN]4: Sicily (Season 2, Episode 5)
When Bourdain realizes his local fixer isn’t showing him the real Sicily, and is instead creating a faux experience for him and the show, this episode goes off the rails early. In response, Bourdain drinks, a lot. The episode is salvaged in the end, but letting people into the parts of the show that go wrong as they are filming is a wonderful example of Bourdain’s honesty.
5: Jerusalem (Season 2, Episode 1)
This nuanced episode finds Bourdain talking with people in both Israel and Palestine. It’s an unsparing look at the conditions, and also the humanity, of Palestinians living in the West Bank. One thing Bourdain was very good at doing on the show is interrogating his own ideas, and this episode examines whether the idea that people are all the same around the table is actually viable. Although food in Israel and Palestine is largely the same, what does it mean if you can’t even agree on who invented falafel?
“One can be forgiven for thinking, when you see how similar they are, that two peoples, both of whom cook with pride, eat with passion, love their kids, love the land in which they live or the land they dream of returning to, who live so close, who are locked in such an intimate, if deadly, embrace, might somehow, someday, figure out how to live with each other?” Bourdain says on the episode. “But that would be very mushy thinking. Those things, in the end, probably don’t count for much at all.”
6: Jamaica (Season 4, Episode 8)
A major theme of the show is the tension between letting places remain unknown versus the rewards (but also changes) that could result in discovery and international acclaim. This episode–which contrasts the insane wealth and mansions of some of the white residents to the poverty of many of the locals, and wonders who more tourist dollars would actually benefit–is one of the best at asking the question.
7: Quebec (Season 1, Episode 4)
Parts Unknown is not really a food show; it’s more a show using food as a lens with which to see the world. However, sometimes Bourdain can’t help but fall down a hole of delightful food porn. This episode, which features truly insane meals both eaten out of Tupperware on a train and prepared on a stove in an ice fishing cabin (among many others), is Bourdain at his decadent best.
8: Lyon (Season 3, Episode 3)
In this episode, the globe-trotting chef returns to his roots: his first job cooking in Provincetown, Massachusetts. It will be a hard, but important episode to watch at this moment, as it deals most closely with Bourdain’s history of addiction, and its portrait of the opioid crisis is one of the best glimpses into the causes and possible solutions to the crisis you can find. It’s worth it, though.
10: San Francisco (Season 6, Episode 4)
If you were just watching the show for fun, this episode would be a good one to skip, as Bourdain seems to have forgotten he’s making a television show for viewers and instead spends a good chunk of the runtime filming himself practicing jiu-jitsu in the Bay Area. His jiu-jitsu training is a recurring theme on the show, and knowing now that it must have been such an important lifeline to him makes watching it incredibly poignant. Rest in peace to a brilliant, dazzlingly talented chef and communicator.