Going into the eighth season of No Reservations, the opening title sequence still provides a great framing for the show’s perspective: “I’m Anthony Bourdain. I write, I eat, I travel, and I’m hungry for more.” Bourdain isn’t just a former chef showing off food or a travel enthusiast showing off foreign locales. He’s more like a video-essayist, a nonfiction writer who weaves in the history of a country with his culinary experiences through travel. Though perhaps not universally beloved, and certainly outspoken and deeply opinionated, he’s less concerned with gluttonous overindulgence than he is with cataloging knowledge of good food and interesting places, which is still refreshing among the ever-growing slate of reality competition shows on every possible subgenre of baking.
Like last season’s premiere in post-earthquake Haiti, the current season kicks off in Mozambique, a similarly struggling nation, through from different root causes. A former Portuguese colony, the east African nation was a travel hub for Europeans, Indians, Arabs, and others, who combined to influence the native cuisine. But after 500 years of colonial rule enduring the slave trade and an apartheid-like grip from the Portuguese, Mozambique became independent after the Carnation Revolution broke apart the empire for good. Suddenly, a young guerilla force of idealistic Communists was in power, and as Bourdain says, they did exactly what young idealistic Communist leaders do: “They fuck everything up.” After a few decades of that disaster, and another 16 years of senseless civil war, Mozambique is now taking baby steps towards progress.
I memorized a map of Africa during a high school history class, and I had a girlfriend in college who took a class that required her to do the same. I could pick out Mozambique from memory still, but pretty much everything in that above paragraph comes directly from Bourdain’s narration. Episodes like this one are important history lessons on foreign cultures as well as a wonderful exposure to new kinds of food and travel destinations. That’s not to say that next week, when Bourdain samples barbecue in Kansas City, there won’t be something of value, but the fact that No Reservations is capable of mixing important episodes with more escapist fare with less potential for cultural exchange shows that it still has something worthwhile to say about the locations it hasn't visited yet.
Bourdain’s narration is bluntly honest about the awkwardness of having a film crew in a rural village, where meat protein other than rat is scarce. His guide accompanies him to markets, to former Portuguese settlements and rundown buildings now in shambles 50 years after the Portuguese started losing control. Meals are mixed in, with more voiceover describing the mix of spices that came from all around the world to form the basis of the cuisine, and Bourdain even gets to relax and have Piri Piri chicken on the beach with a beer. Even in a country recovering from one of the worst hands history ever dealt, there are still moments of peaceful simplicity.
Those who find Bourdain’s attitude abrasive and dismiss the man outright would be remiss not to afford a skilled personality some leeway when it comes to intermingling with cultures that have been treated extremely poorly throughout history. When visiting a slave garden with his guide, Bourdain asks how difficult it is for the man to stand at a place where one million of his ancestors left the coast of Africa, never to return again. Small moments like that one, or his observation that a meal in the capital city Maputo of tiger prawns and chima, a starchy porridge, resembles the traditional American meal of shrimp and grits, serve to balance out the eye-roll moments when Bourdain curses in ecstasy over the food he eats.
In the final segment, Bourdain muses on the inherent optimism in Mozambican culture, how nice everyone has been on his visit, even those not appearing on camera. He goes right to the edge of pushing a baptism metaphor too far, but pulls back at the exact right moment, saying that while there is hope in an unknown future, a country with a history as bad as Mozambique’s has symbols of its hardships everywhere you look. Not every episode can be like this one, but it hits one of the three major modes No Reservations can settle into: gorgeous and breathtaking set pieces, as I would expect in the upcoming Croatia episode, a fluffy American episode that champions regional cuisine, like Kansas City barbecue, and then the history lesson hours like this one. The variety, and Bourdain’s continuing sharp perspective, remain key components to the success of No Reservations, even after over 120 episodes.
- Even though it was typical Bourdain snark, I still loved the voiceover moment where he takes down proponents of a vegetarian diet. It’s a luxury for those in a culture where not eating meat and maintaining the right amount of nutrients isn’t a difficult task.