BAD BEHAVIOR

“With a bit of luck, his life was ruined forever. Always thinking that just behind some narrow door in all his favorite bars, men in red woolen shirts are getting incredible kicks from things he’ll never know.” 
—Hunter S. Thompson 

What is the promise of Las Vegas? What are people looking for in this place in the desert? What are they selling that brings people across the oceans, the mountains, the parched wasteland?

Sure. You can see Celine Dion belting out your favorite movie anthem, eat food from Bobby or Emeril or Jimmy Buffet. There’s the Cirque de Soleil thing—or the Blue dudes. And there’s money. It’s always possible—however remotely—that you’ll leave Vegas with more money than you came with. 
But that’s not why you come here is it, you filthy pig?

You came here because Las Vegas promised, with a wink and a nudge, that “What Happens In Vegas Stays in Vegas.” That’s what Vegas has ALWAYS promised, implicitly—or explicitly, as when Nick Tosches asked his hotel manager if he could smoke in his room: “Buddy, you can kill your wife in this room,” was the response. That promise of Vegas confidentiality is not true by the way. Maybe when the mob ran things, when an act of indiscretion might lead directly to a hole in the desert. When Vegas was truly a Company town.

But today, I’m guessing, if Justin Bieber found himself (hypothetically) splashing around the fountain at the Bellagio with a platoon of hookers in various states of disarray, somebody would be instagramming that shit right quick. If he (hypothetically) made a late night call down to the concierge for a band saw, a 55 gallon drum of Astro-Glide, a bucket of Hot Wings and a tarpaulin, I doubt very much he could be assured of absolute discretion. 

But that’s what they’re selling with a catch phrase like that. Dark dreams.  They’re saying, “Come! Behave badly! In fact, Behave REALLY badly! We won’t tell!” Gamble money you probably should be using to pay off your loan! Stand ankle deep in water with your shirt off, a plastic cup filled with alcohol hanging from a lanyard round your neck! Eat all you like at our groaning buffets—have MORE—it’s okay! We won’t judge you! Enjoy the services of our fine prostitutes! Make bad decisions you won’t remember!  Please! Your boss will never know. Your wife will never know. Your hideous urges, repressed all the rest of the year, your most unlovely appetites, your secrets are safe with us.

We know, or we suspect how the winners live in Vegas, the terrible things they do behind the doors of their comped suites, the alleged benefits of being a valued customer, a whale gambler. And I thought I’d take a look at that—the kind of ultra luxury available only to those who can afford a private jet into Vegas, who think nothing of leaving a few million dollars on the tables after a night of gambling.

I knew I’d need a companion, a trusted friend, for perspective—someone well known to security staff and local law enforcement. Someone for whom The Evil That Men Do holds no mystery, a man well acquainted with both the high life of the Vegas Strip—and the dank odor of a holding cell. So I reached out to Ruhlman.

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The very nice people at Caesars Palace, well acquainted, no doubt, with Ruhlman’s reckless ways at the blackjack tables,  gave us a “villa” for a week.  If you don’t know what those are—don’t worry, I didn’t either. You can’t rent them. They don’t “exist” on the web site. When my wife paid me a surprise visit in the middle of the shoot, the front desk expressed total ignorance of even the existence of such structures. But they are there. Massive, colossal maximally luxurious homes, buried right under the noses of the unwitting masses. Multiple bedrooms, living areas, game room,  screening room, outdoor fire pits, pools, hot tubs, silent butlers who appear from nowhere to inquire if the gentlemen would like a cocktail, a snack, a couple of giant porterhouses.

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Ruhlman, of course, set right to work abusing his privileges. Fine bourbons began appearing regularly. I’d wake to find a trail of spilled beluga leading to the veranda, where a hungover Ruhlman was being simultaneously massaged and manicured, an aromatherapist wafting the oils of rare Himalayan flowers under his nose. Swaddled in newly acquired Hermes bath towels, he’d lounge around the house, calling out for oysters on the halfshell, spaghetti from Raos, blender drinks, steak tartare. I found a half eaten platter of Truffled Lark’s Tongues in Aspic next to the Jacuzzi, the remote control for the giant sized television floating in the dying bubbles on the surface. Under such circumstances, I had a hard time tearing him away for purposes of television. 

Who cleans all this shit up, I asked him? “Who is fully knowledgable of whatever it is you’re getting up to, Ruhlman? Who is in ‘the know’? And what do you plan to do to them when you’re done here? If they find out about this back in Cleveland, any plans of running for office are over.”

Noticing the steady stream of people slipping in and out of service entrances of the casinos, I began to wonder what it was like working in Vegas. What was it like dealing the cards, serving the meals, driving the town cars, pouring drinks—stripping the sheets, mopping up the spray  after all that bad behavior—in a town that invites bad behavior? What must it be like, day after day, night after night, year after year, witnessing close up the full sweep of human folly—man at his very worst?

What does that do to a person?

So, in addition to immersing myself fully in the delights of high thread count sheets, personal service from Guy Savoy, all the undeserved perks otherwise reserved for oligarchs, I thought I’d look at the Other Vegas. The Vegas people live in year round. The Vegas I’ve always loved.

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The Huntridge Tavern, The Double Down, The Peppermill, The Atomic. A nice plate of non-ironic meatballs and spaghetti in red sauce at Bootlegger. Some Northern Thai food at Lotus of Siam. Places where, over a beer or some food, you can get an honest answer to the question: “What’s it like to SEE all that you see?” and “Given what you’ve seen; how do you feel about the human race as a whole?”

Finally, I looked into the relatively new economic engine driving Vegas—one that, shockingly, often outpaces even the slot machines for revenue: I’m talking about the EDM (Electronic Dance Music) scene. I am not surprised that people spend millions of dollars betting on the turn of a few cards or the roll of a pair of dice. There is, at least, the possibility, of a return. But it stunned me to hear of the amounts spent nightly by customers at the larger clubs in Vegas. 5000 dollars simply to sit at a table by the dance floor in many cases. Bar tabs of 10, 20, 30—FIFTY thousand dollars. Oversize bottles of champagne bedazzled with glitter and sparklers sold for 50 and 100,000 dollars, to be sprayed over the heads of total strangers. Star DJ’s who get paid 250,000 dollars for a few hours work a night! (and earn out every penny by bringing in thousands and thousands of knuckleheads eager to spend crazy amounts of money for liquor they hardly touch, shared with people they often don’t know—and couldn’t hear or talk with even if they wanted to). It’s an economy that is fast outpacing gambling—and as only a DJ, a laptop and a sound system are required to pack the clubs, it’s also squeezing out Vegas’ traditional forms of entertainment. Why hire a marquee singer, a troupe of dancers, musicians, acrobats when one guy in a dark booth can generate more excitement and far more money? I wanted to know what kind of sick freaks would spend 25,000 dollars to spray champagne on strangers. I never really found out—but apparently, there are a lot of them.

I couldn’t ask such Big Questions of Ruhlman. When he wasn’t racking up room charges to CNN (he kept calling down, claiming to be Wolf Blitzer), I’d find him at the Gun Store, unloading belt after belt of high caliber projectiles at paper targets. That too, is kind of concerning.

Michael Ruhlman’s latest book: “EGG; A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient“ is available in fine bookstores everywhere. His most excellent previous works, “CHARCUTERIE”, “RUHLMAN’S TWENTY”, “RATIO”, “THE SOUL OF A CHEF” and others are also available in stores and from Amazon. 

30,364 plays

Original track by Himanshu Suri for Parts Unknown: Punjab.

IT BEGINS!!

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“He gave the impression that very many cities had rubbed him smooth.”
-Graham Greene

The pool at the Grand Hotel del Paraguay is, best as I can tell, unused. Maybe it’s the heat—and the humidity—which are considerable and relentless. Or the lack of a bar, or towels, or staff. But nobody else seems to come. I am alone, waist deep, mesmerized by the heat, torpor, and the thin, black hose that dances around the bottom like a serpent as it pumps fresh water into the deep end. There is a very large parrot in a cage nearby. Occasionally, he screeches at me. 

As I’m standing here, too tired to swim, too jet-lagged to sleep, I’m trying to put some thoughts together about Punjab—about the show I filmed months, many airports, many planes, many miles ago, my sun-baked brain, further addled, no doubt by many excellent Paraguayan beers last night, the Vietnamese pain medication I’ve been taking for my back and the anti-malarials I’ve been on since Tanzania (which I’m convinced are making me psychotic. Last night, I dreamed I was being chased by a chain saw wielding Joe Pesci through a convenience store. He was wearing a cocktail dress.) I try to shuffle through my memory file, the highlight reel, for images of India, the foothills of the Himalayas. The Golden Temple. Amritsar…The former hill station of Shimla…

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Bit by bit, it seeps back:  

First? The colors. In India— Punjab in particular, the thing you notice first, the thing that stays with you is the colors. They pop, they LEAP right out at you.  It’s like somebody, just before you got off the plane, changed the lenses in your head, turned up your color receptors from 7 to like…14. You completely understand why The Beatles would want to drop acid, come here—and stare at stuff. Because it’s beautiful and the colors…the colors, man, burn right through your eyeballs and into your brain. No Maharishi needed. 

Recognizing this, we made sure, when setting the various color balances for this show, to jack things up, make SURE that it will look for you like it looked for us. Electric. Trippy. And always beautiful. We will be forgiven, I hope, for (yet again), ripping off a favorite director in an early sequence. Call it an homage. 

I generally don’t care much what people take away from my shows. Of course, I hope people like what they see. I hope they are entertained—and interested. That they find the images beautiful or striking. It’s nice—very nice—when people notice the good technical work of the directors of photography and the editors and producers. But, I’m not much for attempting to inspire or “enlighten” or educate. That’s far, far from what I’m thinking about when I make sure my carry-on is free of liquids or gels, that my laptop is out of my bag and in the plastic tray, shoes and belt off. 

But with this episode, Punjab, it would make me very happy if a few more people out there got a clearer picture of the Sikh religion is. WHO Sikhs are and who they are not. A little about the central concepts and intent and principles of their faith. The degree to which we in the West (myself included) are ignorant of such things is pretty spectacular. 

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I’ve made much fun of vegetarians over the years and am said, frequently, to “hate” them. This is not true. I am dismissive and (okay) contemptuous of food that is made with ideology or a narrow world view as its first priority. I am made unhappy and even angry when a restaurant that claims to celebrate the vegetable in fact, utterly ignores the seasons, the conditions of ripeness that make vegetables interesting and wonderful in the first place—when such places, with determination and malice aforethought, MURDER vegetable after vegetable, sacrificing carrot after carrot, soybean after soybean to a sludgy, monochromatic, mush. 

NOT so in India.

In India, to eat vegetarian is usually a joyous and joyful thing. Bright colors, wildly varying textures, huge selections, thrilling blends of spices and assertive, delicious flavors. Accompanied always by wonderful, freshly made breads. I could happily go veg for a week—or even weeks at a time.
In India. 

Hope you enjoy the show. Our first of the new season.
And remember: EAT YOUR VEGETABLES! 

zpzproduction:

Join anthonybourdain for a live Q&A on his personal Facebook page later today at 4:30 PM ET.
HERE’S a link to his page. Hope to see you there!
#PartsUnknown

zpzproduction:

Join anthonybourdain for a live Q&A on his personal Facebook page later today at 4:30 PM ET.

HERE’S a link to his page. Hope to see you there!

#PartsUnknown

helencho:

On Wednesday, December 11th, join anthonybourdain in a conversation with Albert Maysles on food and the art of auteur filmmaking at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Introduction by Marcus Samuelsson.
Screening clips from Albert’s documentaries and Parts Unknown, including clip from the director’s cut of Tokyo episode!
Proceeds will benefit the Maysles Documentary Center, a not for profit organization dedicated to the exhibition and production of documentary films that inspire dialogue and action. 
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit brown paper tickets here.

helencho:

On Wednesday, December 11th, join anthonybourdain in a conversation with Albert Maysles on food and the art of auteur filmmaking at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Introduction by Marcus Samuelsson.

Screening clips from Albert’s documentaries and Parts Unknown, including clip from the director’s cut of Tokyo episode!

Proceeds will benefit the Maysles Documentary Center, a not for profit organization dedicated to the exhibition and production of documentary films that inspire dialogue and action.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit brown paper tickets here.

KICK OUT THE JAMS

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This is it.

The last episode of our second season of PARTS UNKNOWN.
And I’m glad it’s set in Detroit. Because Detroit, for many Americans, is an abstraction—truly, if incredibly, a part unknown.

One only need look at some of our representatives who, a while back, were actually suggesting that it might be okay to let the beleaguered auto industry fend for itself, to leave Detroit to its fate to see how blithely willing much of America would be to point the gun straight at their own heads and pull the trigger.

Detroit isn’t just a national treasure. It IS America. And wherever you may live, you wouldn’t be there—and wouldn’t be who you are in the same way—without Detroit.

Detroiters hate what they call “ruin porn.” And it’s understandable the unease and even anger that must come with seeing tourists, gawkers, (and television crews) come to your city to pose giddily in front of abandoned factories, public buildings, the symbols of former empire.

I, too, I’m afraid, am guilty of wallowing in ruin porn, of making sure we pointed our cameras, lingered even, in the waist high grass, overgrown gardens, abandoned mansions, crumbling towers, denuded neighborhoods of what was once an all powerful metropolis, the engine of capitalism. 

But there was no turning away. It’s there—everywhere you look, right in your face, taking up skyline, dead center: the things that were left after Everything Went Terribly Wrong. These aren’t just empty buildings—they’re monuments. And we shot them, illuminated them like monuments, with, I hope, the same respect as the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the remains of a magnificent—if ancient—civilization.

As much as many of our Detroit fans might have wanted this show to be about what’s going right in their city, neither is it particularly about what went wrong.

We know what went wrong.

The fall of the automobile industry, the shrinkage of population, flight of the middle class, drugs… and some of the most spectacularly, unapologetically rapacious, incompetent and corrupt leadership imaginable.

But I love Detroit. I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities in America—still. The same incompetence and neglect that led to its current state of affairs has, at least, left us with a cityscape that even now, taunts us with the memories of our once outsized dreams. Unlike most other cities who ran into trouble when steel or textiles or industry left town, Detroit didn’t (or couldn’t ) go on the usual idiot building spree, tearing down old buildings and paving over city center as “pedestrian malls”, ruining the city’s character and stripping its center in favor of the “shopping districts”, convention centers and faux “ye Olde Towne” hubs that so many places imagined would revive their fortunes and instead left their city centers empty, characterless and without heart—looking like everyplace else.

Detroit looks like nowhere else. Detroit looks like motherfuckin’ Detroit. As it should.

I’ll say it again. And again.

I love Detroit. I love Detroiters. You’ve got to have a sense of humor to live in a city so relentlessly fucked. You’ve got to be tough—and occasionally even devious. And Detroiters are funny, tough—and supreme improvisers. They are also among the best and most fun drinkers in the country.

A few years ago, for another series, we filmed a show called “The Rust Belt” but which we jokingly referred to as “The Fucked Up Cities Show. We spent time in Buffalo, Baltimore and Detroit. When the show aired, the responses from Baltimore and Buffalo were mostly outrage:

“Why didn’t you show our new symphony Hall?”
“That’s not the city I live in! Why didn’t you show the positive side? There are great craft breweries in the hipster district!”

Detroiters however, reacted differently.

“We’re WAY more fucked up than those punks,” many told me, with the straight on, confrontational, slightly injured pride that makes Detroiters so..well…awesome. “What are THEY whining about?”

Consensus seemed to be that Baltimore and Buffalo didn’t deserve to be on the same hour of television as their beloved— if deeply afflicted city—because their problems weren’t nearly as massive—and the strength, toughness and sense of humor required to stay loyal to Detroit was of another level entirely.

Looking back, if I were to compare Detroit’s mentality to any other city, I’d look to New Orleans. Both city’s hardcore, born and bred “ain’t never leaving” home teams refuse to even consider living anywhere else—no matter what happens. It takes a special breed.

So, this show is not about what went wrong. Or how bad things are. It’s about improvisers. About what it takes to dig in and stay. I hope, that even among ruins, audiences will see what I see: an extraordinarily beautiful city—unlike any other in America—still. It’s where so many of our uniquely American hopes and dreams were forged—the things that make us who we are: the automobile, the highway—the dream of mobility— for ALL Americans. Credit. Music. It’s where the American Dream was created. And it’s STILL the American Dream—if a different one that we are, all of us, together, sooner or later, going to have to figure out.

Detroit is shrinking.
And changing.
The artists and innovators, activists, and artisans who are coming in will no doubt, do much to transform the city—mostly in very positive ways.

But who will live in the Detroit of 25 years in the future?
It will still be beautiful. That’s for sure.
It will certainly be smaller.

But will all the tough bastards who stuck it out for so long—against ridiculous odds—who fought and continue to fight for their neighborhoods and their homes—will they still be there?

Those who watch this show, smugly thinking, “that could never happen to my city” are dreaming. Detroit’s problems are America’s problems.

One only need look at New York’s Lower East Side, or Meat District to see what’s possibly coming down the pike for Detroit when it inevitably “recovers”. What’s coming down the pike for all of us.

Empty lots and burned out buildings are bad. But are cupcake shops, galleries and artisanal baristas necessarily better?
Maybe, probably, but maybe not.
And we better ask ourselves if that’s what we want.

Oh. And before I forget. Every time I visit Detroit, somebody asks me if I’ve had a good Coney yet.

Apparently, I never had a great one.

I finally got one.

I understand now.

Parental Advisory. This Program is for Mature Adults. NOT for kiddies!

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I love Tokyo. If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it. Most chefs I know would agree with me.
For those with restless, curious minds, fascinated by layer upon layer of things, flavors, tastes and customs, which we will never fully be able to understand, Tokyo is deliciously unknowable. I’m sure I could spend the rest of my life there, learn the language, and still die happily ignorant.
It’s that densely packed, impenetrable layer cake of the strange, wonderful and awful that thrills. It’s mesmerizing. Intimidating. Disorienting. Upsetting. Poignant. And yes, beautiful.

Like many of our shows, our Tokyo episode is really not about Tokyo, though it takes place there. It tells two, very different stories:

Naomichi Yasuda is my master, my mentor as far as all things related to sushi, and my friend. For almost two decades, he was the man around whom the eponymous Sushi Yasuda in NewYork City revolved; one of the first, greatest and most important sushi chefs in America. Over many epically delicious meals at his restaurant, he taught me everything I know about sushi. How to eat it. Where it comes from. Which is more important, the fish or the rice? Is fresher necessarily better? Everything. He is also a fan of classic cinema, an intellectual, a deep thinker, and a lifelong practitioner of and competitor in bare knuckle (Kyokushin) karate, both sanctioned fights—and underground matches. His massive fists, enlarged knuckles (from years of pounding cinderblock walls) and terrifying forearms are, to say the least, unusual for a sushi chef.

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He is unusual in other ways as well. He was among the first to employ female sushi chefs at his restaurant, a diversion from accepted practice once unthinkable. (Women’s hands were believed, by old school dudes, to be “too hot” to handle sushi without “ruining” it). He was among the first real masters to employ Westerners behind the bar. He was certainly the first acclaimed sushi chef I know of who not only admitted, but proudly boasted of freezing some of his fish, (much of the fish you eat in sushi bars is, in fact, at one point, frozen), giving the dates or “vintage” of each fish he’d blast frozen in a medical freezer to “cure” it in a desirable way. Many varieties of fish, Yasuda taught me, are in fact, improved by freezing.

Perhaps the most unconventional thing he did was disappear. A few years ago, at the top of his game, his always-packed restaurant considered among the best—if not THE best—sushi bar in New York, he announced he would, in his fifties, be leaving for Japan, to start all over again, at the bottom, opening a tiny, modest, low overhead sushi bar in Tokyo, where he could prove himself anew, show Japanese that what he had done in America, he could do in Japan. Sushi Yasuda still runs quite nicely in New York. It still bears his name. It is still excellent. Naomichi Yasuda, incredibly enough, though, says he has nothing to do with it.
He is a fascinating subject and a great chef—with an engrossing story. In this episode, we get to know him a bit, and explore where his unique style comes from. Can the very different disciplines of fighting and sushi making be said to connect? You will be surprised, I think, at the answer.

Like a lot of non-Japanese, obsessed with Japan, Japanese food and Japanese culture, I’ve always been amused, occasionally appalled, and always befuddled by the more lurid aspects of Japanese fantasy, pop culture and expressions of fetishistic desire. Popular comic books, (manga), toys, films, advertisements and entertainments are loaded with images of bondage (shibari), hyper-sexualized schoolgirls, rape, homoeroticism, violation by demons and tentacles—and more (all generally referred to as “hentai”). The honky tonk Shinjuku district of Tokyo seems to promise galaxies of gratification—for flavors of desire that range from the simply eccentric to the absolutely horrifying.

What might this mean? Is Japan simpler crazier and kinkier than we are? Does this detail oriented Sodom and Gomorrah relate somehow to their incredible and varied perfectionist cuisine? And is anyone, in the middle off all this madness, actually getting laid?

On one hand, the Japanese seem to have a much more open, non-judgmental, less puritanical view of sex. Attitudes towards women’s roles in the workplace and elsewhere, however, remain largely mired in the long ago past. Rigorously conventional on one hand, batshit crazy party animals on the other, Japan will always confuse outsiders looking in. Even from close up.

Interestingly, in a recent London Observer article, it is claimed that 61% of unmarried Japanese men and 49% of unmarried women are not involved in any kind of a romantic relationship. 45% of Japanese women polled said they were “not interested in or despised sexual contact”.

With the statistical rise in numbers of “hikikimori”, shut-ins or recluses who have given up on the outside world and live largely on line as avatars, “shingurus” (parasite singles) who continue to live with their parents well into their thirties, and “otaku”, proud members of the growing “geek” culture, fewer and fewer young Japanese seem to be having actual sex—living out their fantasy sexual lives vicariously. Virtual girlfriends, lifelike, custom designed dolls, pillows designed to “hug” lonely singles, all play a part in a broader spectrum of loneliness and desire.

Afraid of rejection, uninterested in the complications of involvement, many Japanese are happy to pay intimidating sums of money simply to be flirted with, assured that they are interesting and amusing, made to feel special—often at “hostess bars” where no actual sex ever occurs.

So in many ways, this show is about fantasy—as much as anything else.

I hope this news will temper, slightly, the reaction of the more easily offended who watch this episode as it contains images and subject matter of a decidedly “mature” and even offensive nature.

This is a “difficult” show. And I hope it doesn’t frighten anyone away from one of the most fascinating and deeply enjoyable places to visit, experience and learn a little about on earth.

It’s easily one of the most brilliantly shot and edited episodes we’ve ever done. Tasked with evoking the work of Japanese auteur Shin’ya Tsukamoto, (“Tokyo Fist” and “Tetsuo, Iron Man”), the ZPZ crew came up with something truly mind-boggling.

If you ever saw the uncut version, your heads would explode.

FAILURE

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Failure has a smell. Of burnt synapses, of dick jokes and wet ashes.

Why, why, why can’t I get Sicily right?

I love Sicily. It’s beautiful. It’s old, it’s Italy but its not. I like the people—proudly mixed up, preyed upon by generations of invaders and a nearly ubiquitous fraternal organization that makes even the simplest transaction like getting fruit to market….complicated. Sicilian food is exactly everything I love: the cuttlefish stained pasta, street meat, inky wines, oily fishes. And for some reason, though I don’t speak Italian, I understand nearly every word in Sicily.

But two shows in Sicily and for some reason, both times, I end up somehow missing the point. 

I end up an outsider staring in.

Wanting nothing more complicated than a bowl of pasta, a crust of bread, a view—on an island loaded with all those things, I seem always to end up on a pitching boat, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with some well intentioned local throwing dead seafood in my general direction.
Maybe it’s from painful experience that Sicilians have come to believe that most visitors want only the Godfather Tour—a bus ride up a mountain to see the church where Mikey married Apollonia, every perfect little trattoria and cafe playing the soundtrack to guess which film , over and over and over. It would drive anyone to madness. If the American TV crew wants an authentic fishing scene? Throwing dead fish into the water will only make it better, right? No. In my case, exhausted, burnt, seasick—I pretty much melted down and spent the rest of my time in country trying to reconstruct my personality from memory.

It is the perfectly imperfect place, one magnificent island after another and yet our shared cultural understanding of Sicily seems hopelessly affected by the movies we grew up with. It is my fault, not theirs, that I continue to miss the point of Sicily. Of all the places in the world, with all the difficult places I’ve been, it would seem that Sicily would be easy to get “right.”

It wasn’t. 

It’s a good show, well made. But a personal failure. Like a girl you love but just can’t find a way to tell her.

The fault is my own—for what kind of idiot could EVER be miserable in Sicily?

Me.

Some favorite objects

HAPPINESS

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I do not, by temperament or inclination, gravitate towards Scandinavian countries. I am intimidated and made uncomfortable by safe, clean, orderly places where everything works and people seem creepily content.

I’m a guy who tends to fall in love with hot, messy, barely functional places—where fiery arguments are common—and one is pleasantly surprised if one’s luggage arrives in good order— if at all. When I walk around Copenhagen, I find myself, for no good reason at all, irritated that I am not in Saigon or Rio or Naples—where one lives constantly on the edge of intensely pleasurable chaos.  

So, it comes as something of a surprise that what we came back with after a week shooting in Copenhagen—in what is said to be the “happiest country on earth”—is perhaps the finest, most technically accomplished, best looking hour of television we’ve ever made. It’s just fucking….gorgeous.

It’s a show centered around one restaurant, NOMA, and one chef, Rene Redzepi. Both have been written about many times.

But no one, I don’t think, has ever shown you what we’re going to show you—or as visually. 

NOMA is said to be “the best restaurant in the world” and they are famous for, among other things, sourcing almost all their ingredients from the forests, fields, farms beaches and marshes of  the area immediately around Copenhagen. They have pioneered the notion of “foraging” and taken it to an extreme that would be damn easy to mock—if the results weren’t so genuinely brilliant and delicious.

You’d think wandering around scrounging for weeds and moss would be boring. But get ready.

NOMA is a very, very creative space—and Rene Redzepi encourages creativity. So, we felt we had better live up to our subject.

We started off by deciding that there would be no standard “two shots” during conversations. That the cameras would move freely, literally suspended by wire from an uncomfortable contraption called an EZ Rig—for every single shot. That we would push our cameras through spaces large and small while thinking about Terence Malick at all times.

That we would provide no “coverage” for our editor back in New York, no extra footage of entrances and exits, establishing shots, alternate takes. Subjects would fall and wander out of frame. That we would force post-production to be great—because there would be simply no alternative. That we would tell our entire story over the course of one meal—at one restaurant—cutting back and forth through time and space.

Producer Tom Vitale was heroically suicidal in the risks he took with this episode. 

Cinematographers Zach Zamboni and Alan Jacobsen did amazing work. The show looks like nothing we’ve ever done before. And editor Hunter Gross took what we shot and made magic.

Needless to say, it was quite a challenge.

But what came out of that editing room is, I think, a masterpiece.

GUNS AND GREEN CHILE

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As much as I’d like to wax effusively about the delights of the Frito pie, a shamefully delightful flavor bomb that pleases in equal measure to its feeling in the hand like a steaming dog turd, I suspect what people are going to talk about when they see our New Mexico episode is the sight of me; socialist sympathizer, leftie, liberal New Yorker, gleefully hammering away with an AR-15, an instrument of mayhem and loathing that also has the distinction of being America’s favorite weapon.  

I like guns. 

I like shooting them. I like holding their sleek, heavy, deadly weight in my hands. I like shooting at targets: cans, paper cut-outs, and—even though I’m not a hunter—the occasional animal. Though I do not own a gun—I would, if I lived in a rural area like, say…Montana—consider owning one. Whatever my feelings about gun regulation—and my worries, as a father, about what kind of world my daughter will have to live in, I think I should have as many guns as I like. Even Ted Nugent should have guns. He likes them a lot. They make him happy—and as offensive as I may find a lot of what comes out of his mouth, I’m pretty sure, based on first hand experience, that he’s a responsible gun owner.

You, however, I’m not so sure about. And my next door neighbor. I’m not so sure about him either. I’d like to know a bit more about him before he takes possession of an M-16 and a whole lot of extra clips. If we accept the proposition that that a gun is simply a tool—with potentially lethal properties—it follows that it’s not too different than a vehicle. And I would like to know a LOT more about you before I’m comfortable putting you behind the wheel of a sixteen wheeler. I’d like to know if you’re a maniacal drunk or crackhead before allowing you to barrel down that highway with three tons of trailer swinging behind you.  If you favor an aluminum foil hat as headgear, I would have concerns about entrusting you with so much power to harm so many in so little time. That’s a reasonable thing for a society to ponder on, I think.   

The upcoming New Mexico show is not about guns. Though there are, as in much of America between the coasts, many guns there. This show is about the American cowboy ideal, about the romantic promise of the American West, about individuality, the freedom to be weird. New Mexico, where Spanish, Mexican, Pueblo, Navajo and European cultures mix and have mixed—at times painfully, lately more easily.  New Mexico, where everyone from artists, hippies, cowboys, poets, misfits, refugees, and tourists, of every political stripe have interpreted the promise of its gorgeous, wide open spaces and the freedom that  that offers in their own, very different ways. New Mexico is an enchanted land, where people are largely free to create their own world.

Americans are traditionally, by nature, suspicious—and even hostile—to government. Whether we admit it or not, we were, most of us, suckled on the idea that a “man” should solve his own problems—that there are simple answers to complex questions—and that if all else fails, taking the situation into one’s own hands—violently—is somehow “cleansing” and heroic. Whether playing cowboys and Indians as a child, or watching films—those are our heroes, our icons: the lone gunman, the outlaw, the gangster, the ordinary man pushed too far. That’s a uniquely American pathology. And even the ex-flower children who’ve escaped the cities of the East to put Indian feathers in their hair, turquoise around their neck—and a battered pair of cowboy boots are, on some level, buying in to that ethos of a mythical West.  

In New York, where I live, the appearance of a gun—anywhere—is a cause for immediate and extreme alarm. Yet, in much of America, I have come to find, it’s perfectly normal. I’ve walked many times into bars in Missouri, Nevada, Texas, where absolutely everyone is packing.  I’ve sat down many times to dinner in perfectly nice family homes where—at end of dinner—Mom swings open the gun locker and invites us all to step into the back yard and pot some beer cans. That may not be Piers Morgan’s idea of normal. It may not be yours. But that’s a facet of American life that’s unlikely to change. 

I may be a New York lefty—with all the experiences, prejudices and attitudes that one would expect to come along with that, but I do NOT believe that we will reduce gun violence—or reach any kind of consensus—by shrieking at each other. Gun owners—the vast majority of them I have met—are NOT idiots. They are NOT psychos. They are not even necessarily Republican (New Mexico, by the way, is a Blue State). They are not hicks, right wing “nuts” or necessarily violent by nature. And if “we” have any hope of ever changing anything in this country in the cause of reason—and the safety of our children—we should stop talking about a significant part of our population as if they were lesser, stupider or crazier than we are. The batshit absolutist Wayne LaPierre may not represent the vast majority of gun owners in this land—but if pushed—if the conversation veers towards talk of taking away people’s guns—many gun owners will shade towards him—and away from us.

Gun culture goes DEEP in this country. Deep. A whole hell of a lot of people I’ve met remember Daddy giving them their first rifle as early as age six—and that kind of bonding—that first walk through the early morning woods with your Dad—that’s deep tissue stuff. When people start equating guns—ALL guns—as evil—as something to be eradicated, a whole helluva lot of people are going to get defensive.

The conversation so far has illuminated, instead of any substantial issues, mostly the huge cultural divide between those like me who live in coastal cities with restrictive gun laws—and that vast swath of America who live very differently. We don’t understand how they live. And they don’t understand how we could POSSIBLY live the way we live. A little respect for that difference might be a good thing. The contempt, mockery and total lack of understanding for all those people “out there” by deep thinkers and pundits who’ve never sat down for a cold beer in a bar full of camo-wearing duck hunters is both despicable and counterproductive. We are too busy expressing disbelief at the ways others have chosen to live to ever really talk about the nuts and bolts of making America safer and less violent.

No middle ground is possible when even the notion of a sane, reasonable person who likes to shoot lots of bullets at stuff is seen as so foreign—so “other”. Maybe we would be better off– safer, kinder to one another if we were Denmark or Sweden.

But we are not.

And riding across the incredible landscape of Ghost Ranch outside of Sante Fe, seeing the canyons and arroyos that so inspired Georgia O’ Keefe and generations of artists, writers and seekers who followed, one is especially glad we are not.

There are a lot of nice people in this country. A whole helluva lot of them, like it or not, own AR-15s. If we can’t have at least, a conversation with them, sit down, break bread— about where we are going and how we are going to get there, there is no hope at all.

As far as the much more important question of where I stand on the question of red chile—or green?

I’m green all the way. And New Mexico’s got it best. 

I SMELL EMMY

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When the Emmy for Cinematography was announced, longtime Zero Point Zero cameraman, Morgan Fallon was up and out of his seat like a shot. He’s a strapping guy of well over six feet, and he took off down that aisle like a wide receiver going out for the long one. He bounded up the stairs—only slightly ahead of his colleagues, Todd Liebler and Zach Zamboni—and grabbed hold of that statue like it was it was the neck of a chicken, the last one on earth, and he was hungry. Very, very hungry. Shortly afterwards, he was followed up on stage by Chris Collins,  Tom Vitale, Lydia Tenaglia, Sandy Zweig, Sally Freeman, Josh Ferrell, Diane Schutz—and me. We were, all of us, very, very happy. I have, even now, no idea what I said up there. I’m pretty sure that at very least, my fly wasn’t open.

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Afterwards, there was the Governor’s ball, followed by many, many drinks, followed by the consumption of more beverages in Mr. Vitale’s room at the Chateau Marmont. I have no recollection of anything untoward occurring from that point on. In fact, I have no recollection of anything at all. Any suggestion that I had anything to do with the dead rodeo clown found in Mr. Vitale’s bathtub is spurious speculation. He was still alive when I left. 

“It’s an honor simply to be nominated” is, I think, what you’re supposed to say at such awards ceremonies. But we wanted those fucking things. We wanted to win. We wanted trophies—tangible, physical, heavy metal objects—that we could fondle and gaze at admiringly, later, in private moments. 

I slept with mine. I say that without shame. I propped it up on the pillow next to me in bed, and slipped, happily into unconsciousness, rising the next morning to feelings of validation and general well being.  Also a sizable room charge for assorted power tools and take-out sushi that I’m pretty sure I didn’t order. 

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This week on PARTS UNKNOWN, we examine the question of what it might be like to live a dream. Many of us, no doubt, perhaps after reading Hemingway or other romantic accounts of expat Americans who find themselves in a Europe of fantasy—of old buildings, delicious foods, omnipresent wine, unfamiliar but elaborately beautiful rituals, traditional music, incredible scenery. What that might be like?

My veteran cinematographer, EMMY award winning Zach Zamboni grew up in rural Maine and lived, until recently in New York City. But not too long ago, he met the woman of his dreams and relocated to Granada in Spain, marrying into a Spanish family, learning Spanish, and immersing himself in the daily life of his adopted new home.

It is, as far as I can tell, an enviable situation. Everything—from breakfast through amazing (and substantial) lunches, accompanied by much wine, long afternoon naps, promenades through ancient streets, has a magical quality. A feeling of otherworldliness, only enhanced by the fact that it takes place in the shadows of the absolutely awe inspiring castle complex, The Alhambra. Nights are often spent bouncing from bar to bar, sampling the extraordinary variety of tapas—again accompanied by much wine. Later, on certain nights, one can listen to flamenco in the gypsy dwellings carved into the hills. 

What’s that like? A second act like that?
Zach explains—as we take a look at Granada and the surrounding area through his eyes. We always like to be able to look at places through an individual’s perspective. What makes this episode very special, is that with Zach, we are not only looking at a very old, very beautiful world through fresh eyes—but that we are looking at it through the eyes of a particularly gifted cinematographer. Zach’s visual poem to the mysterious Alhambra is a uniquely wonderful bit of filmmaking we are all very proud of. 

ZPZ

ZPZ

FULL METAL INA (My Summer Vacation)

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It’s that time again. Time to slip out early in the morning and deflate the pool floaties. “Mr. Crockie”, the crocodile, looks up at me accusingly as he shrivels on the chaise lounge. Two air mattresses wait for similar treatment behind him. I gather up the super-soakers, the water pistols, plastic sharks, two purple rubber octopi, the goggles, plastic treasure chest and shuttle them into the garage. It’s a rental property, so I’m not sure if I’ll see them again. 

Overcome with sadness, I actually wave goodbye to Mr. Crockie. 

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Later, I’ll take my wife and daughter down to the beach for a last look. We’ll wait until its after 5—so there will be parking spots and no crowds— only a few locals surf casting. Which will, of course, only make it look more beautiful and more sad, that magnificent grey and dark green Atlantic surf breaking in the early evening light that cinematographers call “golden hour”, the smell of salt air, a particularly briny variety unique to the Northeast—accompanied, perhaps, by the vestigial scent of steamer clams opening in a pot somewhere, lobsters dying under pressure, drawn butter, distant deep fryers, corn on the cob. Or will I only imagine that part?… The light will have taken on that extra level of clarity that says Autumn. As if someone has just slapped on a higher quality lens and made everything crisper, brought everything into focus.

It’s the death of summer. 

This was my second “real” vacation of the last decade. Many of you will no doubt be thinking, “Uh…wait a minute, asshole—your whole life is a vacation!”

Fair enough.

For A COOKS TOUR, then NO RESERVATIONS and now PARTS UNKNOWN, I’ve been in near constant motion for most of the past 13 years. I go to some pretty cool, pretty interesting places. This year, I went to Israel, Spain, Japan, South Africa, Sicily, Denmark— and Detroit. I go wherever I want.

But since the birth of my daughter, I’d never, until last year, had a real family vacation. By “real family vacation”, I mean “normal”—like on TV, like in movies, or like it was when I my family would take me “down the shore” in Jersey. A vacation like I was raised to think you were supposed to have— back in the day when home ownership and a week near a beach was not an unrealistic thing for a single income middle class family to hope for. When it seemed the whole neighborhood would load their station wagons with children and comic books, Coppertone and cabana wear and head to Barnegat Light or Seaside Heights.

So vacation for me is idealized, admittedly over-romanticized, total immersion into fatherhood, into the suburban/vacation dream, backyard barbecues, entertaining at home—what some troubled observers have referred to as my “going Full Ina.”

After years on the margins—followed by years traveling— now that I’m  finally an actual Dad, and finally able to actually take some time off— I admit, I do, occasionally, go overboard with the enthusiasm.

My first few days of vacation, I submit anyone in my orbit to a brutal and relentless program of nostalgic touchstones from my dimly remembered youth. There’s a frenetic quality to my hospitality— a desperation, a manic rush to do it all:

“Wake UP!! Daddy’s making pancakes!!” a typical day might begin. I will then pile way too many (“plain? Blueberry? Chocolate chip?”)— in front of still bleary eyed family and guests, sighing painfully when they don’t administer both syrup and thoughtfully pre-softened butter the way I’d like them to. This will be almost immediately followed by urgent, military style preparation for an expedition to the beach. By the time the assembled have been marched into the car, sandwiches will have already been assembled, cut on the diagonal, wrapped first in plastic wrap then put in carefully labeled sandwich bags. (Bags will be labeled by both contents of sandwich and designated eater). Various fruits, beverages, napkins and wipes will have been pre-positioned in the cooler bag— along with the cold packs and disposal bag. Umbrellas, beach chairs, plastic pails and shovels will have been put in car the night before. Towels at ready. I am, after 30 years in the restaurant business, nothing if not organized.

Later, after multiple trips to stores and farm stands—where I shop like an Italian grandmother on amphetamines, alternately squeezing fruit, elbowing indecisive customers in the produce aisle and giving unwanted cooking advice to total strangers (“You definitely don’t want to marinate that. I don’t give a shit what your ‘chef’ says.” ), I will carefully rotate stock in the refrigerator, I will poach off some chicken breasts and replenish the chicken salad for tomorrow, start deep prep like vinaigrette, dicing vegetables for ratatouille. More often than not, my menu (which I obsessively decided on last week as part of a seven day cycle ) is something  simple—an over the top “greatest hits of my childhood” menu—or “ “golden moments Anthology”. If you are lucky enough (or unlucky enough) to be my guest during the month of August, you can rest assured that you will eat the fucking freshly sliced, impeccably sourced local heirloom tomato salad. You better notice the artful way I have separated the yellow tomato slices from the green and various hues of red. That I have alternated between opposing, contrasting colors as I spiraled slices, domino-like around the service platter. Notice please that each slice is the identical thickness. That I have drizzled the tomatoes at only the very last minute with a very fine olive oil—and that the balsamico that I applied like thick syrup is from the town of Modena, where the old man who sold it to me drained it from his personal batteria.

The steamers will have been carefully purged, of course, to remove as much sand and grit as possible. But there will be conveniently located bowls of broth near your seat, for the dipping and washing process so important to the correct enjoyment of your clams. Drawn and clarified butter will also be nearby. Should you require any help or instruction as to the proper technique for removing your steamer from the shell, slipping the dark stocking-like membrane off its foot, or the dipping sequence, please let me know. Because if you fuck it up, I will be glaring at you with barely concealed hate.

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The lobsters will arrive with shells thoughtfully cracked ahead of time. You will find that your claws separate easily—having been deftly and professionally levered just…so— by a heavy knife. The tails will have been halved and segregated from claws, fanned out at the Southern end of the platter—claws to the North. A few heads will provide impressive garnish at the center of the platter, their antennae twirling heavenwards –but not all of them. Because only my wife, God bless her, is cool enough to dig everything out of the heads.

The corn will arrive, still steaming, freshly salted, and drenched evenly with ungodly amounts of whole butter. Holders will be nearby. Please don’t stab yourself—as I will be displeased to interrupt my duties as maniac obsessive host in order to ferry you to the nearby hospital.

At such time as the main courses are finished, and the wine has been consumed, discarded shells, lobster guts, napkins and other effluent will be quickly rolled up in the convenient newspaper tablecloth.

Rest assured that your cheese course—and there will be a fucking cheese course and yes, you will fucking eat it—has been sitting out for some time so as to be ready to be served at Optimum temperature.
Dessert? You’re on your own. What do I look like? A fucking pastry chef? 

It’s pretty much like this everyday. On those days when we have no guests, I’m tempted to wander the streets, looking for someone to kidnap –to whom I can subject to my cycle menu. I’m like a psychotic version of Ina Garten. But if Jeffrey isn’t “sooo happy I made meatloaf”,  I’ll bury him in a shallow grave.

Tomorrow will be hamburgers! And Hot dogs! Not to worry! There will be the right, the perfect potato buns. Relish. American cheese. Said cheese slices will have been pre-separated and replaced, kitty corner, in a neat stack, for easy-grab action once I’m at the grill. There will be ketchup, of course, and two types of mustard. I prefer Dijon style—but as a man who respects tradition, I will also provide yellow, ballpark style mustard.

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Ordinarily, I would berate guests who put ketchup on my hot dogs, or mess up my burgers with a mix of mustard, ketchup  and mayonnaise—but because it’s summer, and I’m all about mellow—I will let it pass.

The homemade potato salad, made by me—from freshly boiled fingerling potatoes– their skins slipped off while still hot, folded with mayonnaise, a touch of red wine vinegar, freshly cracked pepper, salt and herb from the garden will be most excellent.

In my insane efforts to make up for a largely misspent life, and my guilt at being away so often and for so long,  I will have overcompensated by perhaps overproducing. Simply put—there will be more food than any reasonable person could be expected to eat. You will, however, be expected to eat it.

You will be happy at my house. We will all be happy together.
And normal. Absolutely normal.

Anyway…that’s all over now. Now it’s back to the city, unpack the bags, pack the bags. Go from normal to the farthest from normal anyone can go. Sometime Friday, I’ll be caked with leftover studio make-up, sitting  alone in my hotel room above Sunset Boulevard, eating room service spaghetti Bolognese, or In’N’Out Burger. 

And—oh, yeah…on Sunday night of the 15th, I’ll be watching the season premier of PARTS UNKNOWN. We shot it in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. I’m particularly proud of this one—as it’s sure to piss off just about everybody. 

A continuous dribble of stuff we're thinking about and think you should know about. -Tony