And lo, erudite chef slash world traveler Anthony Bourdain decided to say farewell to his cult hit Travel Channel series No Reservations, which inspired praise for its ruminations on love, life, the stupidity of vegetarianism, and the virtues of everything from home-cooked meals to gourmet grilled chicken testicles. It was also lauded for Bourdain’s alternatively pithy and elegiac voiceover, which at the end of the day may be a little too much fun for critics to imitate in reviews with no word limits.
Luckily, Bourdain’s move from the Travel Channel to CNN in no way means the end of No Reservations as we know it. In fact, his upcoming CNN show will likely be closer to No Reservations’ fraternal twin than anything else. Bourdain has been open about the fact that he decided to defect to CNN simply because it has clout where the Travel Channel doesn’t. In other words, get ready for a season of crossing countries off Bourdain’s Middle Eastern bucket list.
In the meantime, though, we have one last season on the Travel Channel to go. This ninth season may be abbreviated at just seven episodes, but if the première in Austin is anything to go by, we’re in for an even more concentrated version of No Reservations than usual.
The première opens in Austin, that liberal enclave of Texas your college friends dream about moving to via their breakfast taco truck. Given Austin’s reputation for being gastronomically adventurous (or as Austin would put it, weird), it seems absurd that its only No Reservations appearance before now was a brief stop during an episode on the American heartland back in season six. Austin’s delayed appearance makes even less sense when you consider that a city with an apparently infinite supply of charred meats is a city in which Anthony Bourdain would feel comfortable campaigning for sainthood.
In fact, Austin residents may be the only people whose passion for all things barbecued can hold a candle to Bourdain’s. An Austinite standing in the three-hour long queue for Franklin Barbecue (supposedly the best barbecue in the country, a claim Bourdain doesn’t challenge after trying it), sums up his city’s obsession with food perfectly: “If there’s a line for food, I'm going to stand in it.”
Launching this last season in Austin where Bourdain could play to his strengths was a canny decision. Sending him there during Austin’s film/new media/music/Twitter (probably) festival South By Southwest, though, was downright genius. SXSW’s buzzy energy not only exemplifies the relentlessly cool vibe Austin has become famous for, but matches Bourdain’s enthusiasm to a tee. He can call SXSW an overwhelming “hipster apocalypse” all he wants, but he’s clearly thrilled to be there at a time when getting dinner means getting dinner and a show.
(Of course, Bourdain’s tendency towards self-deprecation means we still get a monologue where he concludes he’s a “cranky old fart” crashing Austin’s party. Meanwhile, he spends his time hitting up food trucks, drinking avocado margaritas with Sleigh Bells and getting an impromptu wrist tattoo. What a square.)
Also thrilled with SXSW is the No Reservations production crew, which may at this point be immune to the power of the close-up brisket shot (a problem I can’t and won’t relate to; seriously, just looking at this brisket made me drool on my keyboard). After nine seasons of taping meal after meal in country after country, they clearly relish stretching their legs in other areas. The editing between Bourdain’s interviews and SXSW sets is smart without being showy, and the cinematography for Sleigh Bells’ and Neon Indian’s sets in particular is nothing short of gorgeous.
Ultimately, this première is the perfect No Reservations primer, whether you’re a longstanding fan or someone who got lost looking for Man Vs. Food. Bourdain has a knack for using food to capture the spirit of an unfamiliar place, educate on both haute cuisine and everyday gems, and highlight the unexpected in people through their food preferences (see: Sleigh Bells’ surprising suburban crawfish bake). Somewhat unexpectedly, too, is that Bourdain’s infamous love for all things carnivorous doesn’t devolve into an anti-vegetarian rant even when he’s gleefully peeling the skin off a slow-roasted pig. It’s impressive self-restraint from a guy whose voiceover just asked if one of these bright-eyed musicians might actually be the product of one of his early blackouts.
No Reservations playing to its strengths makes this season première a fascinating, beautifully shot hour of travel television that could easily be mistaken for a series première. Anthony Bourdain landed the best job in the world; nine seasons later, he still knows it.
- Next week: Sydney! Finally, the Anthony Bourdain vs. Great White Sharks showdown we didn't know we needed until right this very moment!
- For more insight on the episode and the jump to CNN, definitely check out Anthony Bourdain’s Tumblr (or as I like to call it, the hipster apocalypse).