SHANGHAI

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Here we go again!  A shiny, new season of PARTS UNKNOWN. The end result of many months on the road, the fruits of the combined efforts of our hard working band of constantly in motion cinephiles. So many amazing landscapes have whipped past us on our way from here to there. So many great meals. So many appalling bathrooms.

As always, we spent a lot of time trying to figure out what we can do differently, how far we can push it—what stories can we tell that we haven’t told before.  

You might notice that in the premier episode, set in Shanghai, that I am, from time to time, wearing a colored pocket square or foulard. This is not, as a matter of course, normal for me. But there is a method to my madness. These tiny notes of color are our first venture into actual production design—a calculated effort to give the episode a specific “look”.

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I have long been besotted with the works of Chinese director Wong Kar Wai—and his frequent cinematographer, Christopher Doyle. His films, “In the Mood for Love” and “Chungking Express” in particular, are gorgeous meditations on longing and desire and missed connections. They are spectacularly shot—and a while back, I noticed how tiny elements of color in the foregrounds of the frames are often connected to similar colors in the background—giving scenes a lush, unified atmosphere that feels natural and un-designed. So we tried—as best and as cheaply as possible—to do that. You will notice scenes tied together by colors. Cameraman Mo Fallon and cameraman/editor Nick Brigden did, I think, truly epic work on this one. 

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I mention longing and desire. And in many ways, that’s what this episode is about. China is experiencing an explosive period of change and growth as millions of people are joining the middle class. Millions and millions of people who want and will soon demand the cars, TV screens, apartments, gasoline, access to information and mobility most of us take for granted.

China—Shanghai in particular—is a very different looking place every time I go. And I believe that the world as a whole, largely because of what’s happening in China, is going to be a very different looking place. If you live in New York (as I do)  and think you live in the most modern, sophisticated city in the world—or even at its center—Shanghai can come as a rude surprise. In spite of its nominally communist system, it is the most go-go, unfettered, money and status mad, materialistic place on earth. Its skyline alone is confirmation that money talks loudest. In no other city could you build the world’s largest, tallest and ominously curved phallus—stick it right up into the clouds like a giant “FUCK YOU!” to the world and not have trouble with the NIMBYs.  

After Shanghai, we have an erratic line up of weirdness comprised of shows like Paraguay, The Bronx, Jamaica, Vietnam, Tanzania, Iran and a show about heroin in Western Massachusetts and New England that will be an eye opener.

Season Finale

I try and go to Brazil whenever I can find an excuse—and the fact that I haven’t made a show in the city of Salvador since A COOK’S TOUR, over 12 years ago, seemed like reason enough for another one. It’s all the best things about the country, boiled down into a thick, spicy, African stew. It’s mystical, magical, incredibly colorful and has its own choreography that we worked very hard to capture.

I asked the crew to shoot at hip level as much as possible, to move the cameras, to try and convey the sense that, unique to Salvador, everybody is beautiful. Young, old, fat, thin, every hue, every shade on its extraordinarily diverse and randomly mixed up color spectrum, absolutely everybody in Salvador is beautiful. Even ugly people are beautiful. Everybody seems likely to start dancing at any minute—and often do. There’s drums and music everywhere. Large and very cold beers and powerful beverages of crushed limes and sugar cane liquor, spicy fried things, seem to appear from all directions. It seems, from a visitor’s point of view, Utopian. 

It’s not, of course, Utopia at all. Brazil in general, and Salvador in particular, face enormous problems—and how they are going to handle the hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors attending the World Cup is going to be…interesting. There will be, for sure, many adventures, but most of them will surely be good. 

I stopped trying to figure out Brazil years ago and after many visits, just decided to go with the flow. The show we came back with, I hope, reflects that attitude. After nearly a year on the road, a solid block of shooting on 5 continents, this is the last new episode of the season. Given the rigors of all those miles and all those airports, I felt a “low impact” one was appropriate. Someplace warm where the music is always good and the water’s fine. Someplace that definitely doesn’t suck. 

SHUT UP AND EAT

A frequent comment on food websites is that I should avoid discussion of politics or social conditions and concentrate on the food. My host, serving me a humble but tasty Lao style laarb could be missing three out of four of his limbs but God forbid I ask the question: “Hey there, fella…what happened to your arm and legs?” The answer might intrude on someone’s vicarious eating experience. 

In the Congo, the bucket of water used to boil my pounded cassava might well have been transported the 2 miles from the nearest river on top of a small child’s head. Some very unpleasant militias have been known to interrupt such journeys. This, it would seem, is also worth mentioning. 

There is, of course, nothing more political than food. Food itself. Who’s got it, who doesn’t. “What’s” cooking is usually the end of a long, often violent story. That can be a bummer for some—who’d rather be fondling themselves while perusing recipes for bundt cake than thinking about what Burroughs called the “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” 

So there should be much rejoicing in chowland that this Sunday’s episode of PARTS UNKNOWN is “all about the food.” Ironically enough, it takes place in one of the most politicized environments on earth: Thailand—where, it seems, every time we go, there are civil actions, military coups, changes of government. I’d like to say that the politics of Thailand are just too complicated, too fast changing, too impenetrable for me to ever understand much less explain, hence my focus on food and drink. I’d like to say it was because the latest military takeover happened after we were there—rather than just before—or during. But that wouldn’t be true. 

Fact is, I chose to focus on eating—and specifically drinking in Northern Thailand around Chiang Mai simply because I was fortunate enough to go there with a uniquely qualified guide. Chef Andy Ricker of Portland and New York’s “Pok Pok” restaurants. He may be a farang, but he’s been moving back and forth between Thailand and America for 20 years or more and…well…just eat his food sometime and you’ll know what I’m talking about. 

Basically, it’s an entire hour of prolonged bender, an increasingly addled tuk-tuk ride from place to place shoving delicious things into my face, washed down with (variously) Thai “whiskey”, moonshine, and beer. Naturally, things ended badly. 

Have you ever been spanked by a supermodel? Carefully but aggressively tortured with nipple clamps, riding crop and handfuls of crushed ice by a statuesque beauty in skin tight vinyl? Me neither. I frankly don’t care if it’s my pick of the Victoria’s Secret catalog coming my way with a paddle, I’m not interested. I don’t care in what context, I don’t like pain. I don’t even like minor discomfort. 

Except when we are talking food, where the older I get, the spicier and more painful I want it. It’s one of the things that hooked me earliest and most irrevocably about Southeast Asia: the spices, the chiles, the funky, mouth searing sauces and dips. Any idiot, of course, can dump enough cayenne or hot sauce into a bowl of ground beef and ignite your head. But it takes a master to build the deeply pleasurable slow boil you find in some Thai dishes: the delicate interplay between sweet and sour and spicy, the gradual build up of pleasure/pain to the point that you feel your vision starting to get weird. Numerous times during my most recent trip, I’d be halfway through a delicious table top full of food and feel my eyesight closing down: first getting fuzzy around the edges of the frame like a Vaseline smeared lens, Andy starting to look like Barbara Walters on The View—then, gradually, closing down to full on tunnel vision, tongue burning on all sides, lips inflamed, back of neck and forehead beaded with sweat—an otherworldly sense of elation coming over me as my brain became flooded with endorphins. 

I offer this—an overdose of endorphins—leading to a false sense of well being—and the presence of what was probably more alcohol than advisable—as a mitigating factor in the how and why I ended up kissing Ernest Borgnine on the lips. He was apparently wearing a clingy cocktail dress at the time. 

Northern Thailand, by the way, offers some of the best reasons for why, when traveling at least, a vegan might consider suspending their restrictions. Because to experience the place without trying the splendiferous variety of pork products would be sad enough. To ignore the end result of a heavily protein based cuisine shaped, over centuries by influences Lao, Chinese, Burmese and Indian, a missed opportunity. But to avoid the deep, ubiquitous, mysterious funk of the local shrimp pastes would be to turn one’s back on the totality of human endeavor. 

I say this without malice. 

To be fortunate enough to be able to visit Thailand, to eat in Thailand, is a deep dive into a rich, many textured, very old culture containing flavors and colors that go far beyond the familiar spectrum. Given our limited time on this earth, and the sheer magnificence, the near limitless variety of sensory experiences readily available, you don’t want to miss ANY of it. 

EM EYE ESS ESS EYE ESS ESS…

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What do I—a pig ignorant Yankee—know about Mississippi? What could I ever understand about growing up in the Delta, that peculiar and heavy mix of guilt, rough pride, obstinacy, sentimentality and cynicism?
(Answer: Next to nothing) 

Let me be honest about this right up front: before I started traveling the world extensively, seeing many foreign countries and cultures very different than my own, I would never even have considered visiting Mississippi. 

As a New Yorker, with the drearily predictable worldview of my tribe, I took a dim view of Mississippi. Mississippi was the deep South. It was where they shot Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider”, wasn’t it? The history was not pretty—a fact reinforced by just about every film ever set in the state. It’s near the poorest performer on every metric of a state’s health: income, education, healthcare. 

But I have long since learned to find myself comfortable in as “foreign” an environment as Saudi Arabia, Liberia, or Cambodia. Why can’t I get to know and love this part of my own country? Particularly when what we love about our country—what is undeniably great about America, its most powerful and persuasive export and gift to the world—comes from the state of Mississippi. It changed the world like nothing else American.

Somebody else would have invented and marketed the automobile eventually. But no one would, could or did invent The Blues and Rock and Roll. That uniquely strange mutation could have come from nowhere else. 
It’s also the home of perhaps the most uniquely awesome and uniquely American drinking institutions, juke joints. 

The past, of course, like a constant accusation, hangs over everything in Mississippi. And those born and bred have gotten used to having to account for it, talk about it. Like I said, it’s a poor state—and investment in infrastructure—whether renovating your home, modernizing your restaurant dining room, redeveloping an abandoned section of town is not much of a priority or even an option much of the time. So it looks much as it did in the movies you’ve seen. That’s both curse and blessing. If you are focused on change? You will likely be frustrated. But if you like the good, old school shit—you will find it in Mississippi. 

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We sure as Hell didn’t “explain” Mississippi in this episode. I doubt I left the state much smarter than I entered it. It’s not a representative overview of “what you should know or see while in Mississippi”. But I hope that viewers will get a taste of a uniquely beautiful place –where some of the last of some truly great American institutions are still alive. Where you can hear the blues performed where it was born—in exactly the same surroundings, the same kind of bar, as when it all began. Where you can have an irony free pigs ear sandwich that will make you weep for joy. 

THE RETURN OF ZAMIR

Who is the man that would risk his neck for his brother man?
 Who’s the cat that won’t cop out, when there’s danger all about?
 Right on.
 You see this cat Zamir is a bad mother-“

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He’s back.
With tanks massing by the Ukraine border, the region in turmoil, and the Russian bear once again flexing his muscle, there’s only one man for the job, a very special man, a man named Zamir.

In this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN, we take a look at Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Not Russia, the country of Tolstoy and Gogol, poetry and great sacrifice, forests of birch. Nor the Russia haunted by the Great War, Lenin and Stalin, terrors, gulags  and purges. The Cold War does not feature in this story—nor what immediately followed. We’re looking at Putin’s Russia, the country he’s made—is making, right there, in full view of the world. We look at who’s doing well—and who is not.

Putin appears to see himself as a manly man of the old school. By old school, I mean mid-period Stallone. He is fond of appearing in public with his shirt off while riding a horse or standing in front of a tank or holding a large gun. A Freudian might be inclined to quip ”sorry about your penis” but there is no hard information as relates to Mr. Putin’s length or girth in that department. For reasons of good diplomatic relations, the West has been inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Extending the benefit of the doubt has been something of a reflex when it comes to Putin. When a loud critic of Putin’s was poisoned by a radioactive polonium (a wildly expensive and nearly impossible to obtain substance outside of restricted military circles) in the center of London, the attitude was very much, “WHO could possibly have done such a thing?” In the run up to the annexation of Crimea, there was similarly disingenuous hand wringing in the press and by public officials: “What, oh, what will Putin do next?” And, “Who could those pro-Russian insurgents be?” Though, the question probably should have been, “Was there ever ANY doubt?” Perhaps there are other priorities at work in the West’s apparent credulousness. About 50% of the oil used by Europe comes from Russia these days. And Vladimir Putin has demonstrated before that he will not hesitate to turn off the tap. 

Putin’s rule has been marked by official attitudes of xenophobia, homophobia and paranoia. He likes power and, as we’ve seen with the Sochi Olympics, is not shy about projecting it. Though a former officer in the Soviet intelligence services, he is certainly comfortable with 80’s style go-go capitalism. The people close to him tend to make a lot of money. He’s not afraid of doing what he sees as being in his interests—or the interests of his country—and the Hell with what anybody else thinks. He’s no pussy. He espouses, when convenient, anyway, traditional Christian values. Thinking about it, he could probably get elected to Congress in this country. Though his face is as taut and devoid of expression as a Real Housewife, it holds, based on past behaviors, little mystery, one would think. Yet here we are, only now, finding out who Vladimir Putin really is. 

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But who, who is Zamir Gotta? This man who has, at various times tried to sell me a Transylvanian fixer-upper, a decommissioned Russian submarine, taken me foraging for mushrooms with the former KGB counterintelligence officer who ‘ran’ Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen, made me a public enemy in Romania? Sidekick, entrepreneur, literary agent, film producer, broker of deals, would-be vendor of military hardware, cult hero, friend—he is all of those things and more.

I met Zamir in St. Petersburg in the winter of 2002. He’d been hired as a fixer, the sort of type one needs—particularly in Russia—when trying to make television. Someone had to arrange permits, navigate the bureaucracy, deal with any “non-official” bodies who might have had their hands out or who might threaten to make things “difficult”. And Zamir, it turned out, had a startlingly wide and deep number of contacts: writers, dissidents, chefs, former officers of the KGB and FSB, beauty queens, and associates of what, for lack of a better term, one might call “mafiya”.

The last thing in the world we had planned for this very capable, international man of mystery was for him to become on-camera “talent” and my most enduring, best loved sidekick. But it was our first trip to Russia and things were not going well. A locally hired cameraman had wandered off, never to be heard from again. Chris Collins, the now lone cameraman/producer, was struggling for scenes. Planned sidekicks had either failed to materialize or proved themselves less than outgoing. I found myself in country where I didn’t speak the language, knew no one, had few realistic plans—and under the gun to provide an hour of television entertainment worthy of the Food Network’s undoubtedly high standards.

At the very last second, we threw a mic on Zamir, fed him some vodka, and sat him on a park bench. I then walked up to him while the camera rolled—and we winged it. The rest, as they say, is history. We have had many, many good times making television together over the years, in St. Petersberg, Moscow, Ukraine, Kansas City, Uzbekistan and Buffalo. Our infamous Romania show was not such a good time, however—a hideous, infamous, cruel goat rodeo of epic proportions. I blame Zamir. Or the vodka.

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Maybe I’m just trying to be polite, observe local customs. Or maybe we are just disgusting, horrible people, but whenever we get together, we seem to knock off at least a bottle of vodka in a sitting. I assure you, I don’t drink like this at home. As incredible as it may seem, I am not an alcoholic. I don’t even keep beer in my fridge. When I’m back in New York, rare is the time I even go out to a bar for a leisurely cocktail. But when Zamir is around? It’s like nuclear fission. Two elements who, when they get together, blow shit up. It’s why I do shows with Zamir so infrequently. Because after drinking vodka so steadily, and in such quantities, for a week or more, I need a few years off.

So enjoy this one. It’s rude. It’s boozy. Vladimir Putin won’t like it. And there won’t be another one like it for some time to come—or until my liver forgives me. 

Under The Volcano

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Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortas, enchiladas, tamales and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal and Mexican beer every year. We love Mexican people—as we sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration, we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our lawns, wash our dishes, look after our children. As any chef will tell you, our entire service economy—the restaurant business as we know it—in most American cities, would collapse overnight without Mexican workers. Some, of course, like to claim that Mexicans are “stealing American jobs”. But in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, provably, simply won’t do. 

We love Mexican drugs. Maybe not you personally, but “we”, as a nation, certainly consume titanic amounts of them—and go to extraordinary lengths and expense to acquire them. We love Mexican music, Mexican beaches, Mexican architecture, interior design, Mexican films.

So, why don’t we love Mexico?

We throw up our hands and shrug at what happens and what is happening just across the border. Maybe we are embarrassed. Mexico, after all, has always been there for us, to service our darkest needs and desires. Whether it’s dress up like fools and get pass-out drunk and sun burned on Spring break in Cancun, throw pesos at strippers in Tijuana, or get toasted on Mexican drugs, we are seldom on our best behavior in Mexico. They have seen many of us at our worst. They know our darkest desires.

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In the service of our appetites, we spend billions and billions of dollars each year on Mexican drugs—while at the same time spending billions and billions more trying to prevent those drugs from reaching us. The effect on our society is everywhere to be seen. Whether it’s kids nodding off and overdosing in small town Vermont, gang violence in LA, burned out neighborhoods in Detroit— it’s there to see. What we don’t see, however, haven’t really noticed, and don’t seem to much care about, is the 80,000 dead—mostly innocent victims in Mexico, just in the past few years. 80,000 dead. 80,000 families who’ve been touched directly by the so-called “War On Drugs”.   

Mexico. Our brother from another mother. A country, with whom, like it or not, we are inexorably, deeply involved, in a close but often uncomfortable embrace. Look at it. It’s beautiful. It has some of the most ravishingly beautiful beaches on earth. Mountains, desert, jungle. Beautiful colonial architecture, a tragic, elegant, violent, ludicrous, heroic, lamentable, heartbreaking history. Mexican wine country rivals Tuscany for gorgeousness. Its archeological sites—the remnants of great empires, unrivaled anywhere. And as much as we think we know and love it,  we have barely scratched the surface of what Mexican food really is. It is NOT melted cheese over a tortilla chip. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply ‘bro food’ halftime. It is in fact, old— older even than the great cuisines of Europe and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated. A true mole sauce, for instance, can take DAYS to make, a balance of freshly (always fresh) ingredients, painstakingly prepared by hand. It could be, should be, one of the most exciting cuisines on the planet. If we paid attention. The old school cooks of Oaxaca make some of the more difficult to make and nuanced sauces in gastronomy. And some of the new generation, many of whom have trained in the kitchens of America and Europe have returned home to take Mexican food to new and thrilling new heights.

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It’s a country I feel particularly attached to and grateful for. In nearly 30 years of cooking professionally, just about every time I walked into a new kitchen, it was a Mexican guy who looked after me, had my back, showed me what was what, was there—and on the case—when the cooks more like me, with backgrounds like mine—ran away to go skiing or surfing—or simply “flaked.” I have been fortunate to track where some of those cooks come from, to go back home with them. To small towns populated mostly by women—where in the evening, families gather at the town’s phone kiosk, waiting for calls from their husbands, sons and brothers who have left to work in our kitchens in the cities of the North. I have been fortunate enough to see where that affinity for cooking comes from, to experience moms and grandmothers preparing many delicious things, with pride and real love, passing that food made by hand, passed from their hands to mine. 

In years of making television in Mexico, it’s one of the places we, as a crew, are happiest when the day’s work is over. We’ll gather round a street stall and order soft tacos with fresh, bright, delicious tasting salsas—drink cold Mexican beer, sip smoky mezcals, listen with moist eyes to sentimental songs from street musicians. We will look around and remark, for the hundredth time, what an extraordinary place this is.  

The received wisdom is that Mexico will never change. That is hopelessly corrupt, from top to bottom. That it is useless to resist—to care, to hope for a happier future. But there are heroes out there who refuse to go along. On this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN, we meet a few of them. People who are standing up against overwhelming odds, demanding accountability, demanding change—at great, even horrifying personal cost.
This show is for them. 

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. 

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! 

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.

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.

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. 

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. 

LIBYA

I’ve made a lot of hours of television over the years, but I think I’m proudest of Sunday’s Libya episode. I believe it is the best piece of work I’ve ever been part of. Some of that pride comes from recalling how difficult it was. My crew and I are not exactly seasoned veterans when it comes to shooting in “conflict zones”. We had to adapt to a whole new style of shooting—where prior preparation, instead of being a religion—became a security risk. Destinations couldn’t/shouldn’t—to the greatest extent possible, know we were coming. We had to learn to keep moving, spending only a short period at each location before moving on. We changed hotels frequently, spent as little time as possible milling about between vehicle and destination, refrained from social media, rarely went out for dinner off-camera.

Whether any of this was “necessary” is beside the point. Libya is a place where there is every likelyhood that everywhere you go and with everyone you meet, you will be greeted warmly, treated generously, welcomed with a smile or a thumbs up. It is also a place where very bad things happen to nice people—where things can go very, very wrong in a heartbeat.

While we were there, the close associate of one of our interview subjects was kidnapped. In Misrata, a popular elected official was assassinated with a silenced pistol. In Benghazi, the British Embassy was telling its citizens to leave. Generally speaking, highly trained security dudes do not want to even consider their idiotic on-camera “talent” charges anywhere near weapons—much less imagine the possibility of their operating one. During one tense moment, I was blithely reminded that “selector is on the left, clip release on the right. Extra clips in the seat back—and above you.”

It was not uncommon for my crew and I to be roused by our security late at night, told to pack our bags, grab our passports, get ready to head for the airport. These incidents were usually followed by group discussions—borderline arguments, really—where we would debate the issue of “stay or go”. I am very, very grateful to my stressed out crew that we stayed. As you will see the amazing result of their work on the screen.

Again, I’d like to underline that none of the stress, the heightened security measures, the omnipresence of weapons (wielded by the young, militia members from Misrata who looked after us when things started to get..tense) meant that anything bad happened to any of us. There were NO near death experiences. No close calls. (Okay. A bottle rocket ricocheted into my hair. Setting it momentarily on fire. It hurt for a second. Ouch.) Everywhere WE went, people were, more often than not, lovely to us. At one point, we unwittingly rolled up on the front gates of the internal security forces’ HQ, intending to shoot some cool graffiti. Some very sinister looking dudes were extraordinarily and unusually cool to us. Almost anywhere else, we would have been arrested immediately. In Misrata, the overwhelming concern of the various “militias” seemed to be to keep us safe, to keep order, to not let their city—for which they’d fought so hard—slide back into chaos. Even the Tripoli militia who you’ll see shutting us down while trying to shoot in the ruins of Gadaffi’s palace complex—they weren’t overtly hostile per se. It was more an armed version of a bureaucratic squabble over jurisdiction. These things happen when you’re talking about a “new” nation emerging from 40 years of maniacal autocracy. There is not, currently, much of a government. Order, to a great extent, is a DIY affair, maintained on what one might call: a volunteer basis.

What will stick with me about Libya, however, is not the tension—or all the things that might have gone wrong but didn’t. What will stick with me is the faces of the people we met—most of them very young. Young people in their twenties who, only a few weeks before the rebellion, were playing PS2, studying medicine, working abroad, learning to skateboard—who then rushed to fight. Again and again, these young people looked at our cameras and, in answer to a simple question, told us extraordinary things. The mix of hopefulness and pain in their faces is something I will always remember.

At one point, one young man, who had helped storm the Gaddafi compound, sat down with me to eat American style fast food chicken at KFC knock-off, “Uncle Kentacki”. “This is the taste of freedom”, he said, joyously, un-ironically—and with considerable pride. There was something beautiful in that.

The food in Libya is often delicious—with influences from Moorish Spain, Italy, across North Africa. The seafood in particular is excellent. It is a beautiful country—with perhaps the best preserved (and fantastically under-attended) ancient Roman City in the world—the magnificent Leptis Magna.

But what I hope people take away from this episode is a picture, a glimpse, of WHO we are talking about when we talk about Libya—and Libyans. It is a far more nuanced, complicated matter than what we might get from brief news stories.
I met a lot of people I liked. I hope you will like them too.

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