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. 

ZPZ

ZPZ

"…WHISPERING, COME FIND OUT"

“Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.”

“Even extreme grief may ultimately vent itself in violence—but more generally takes the form of apathy.”

-Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”
 

It is the most relentlessly fucked over nation in the world, yet it has long been my dream to see the Congo. And for my sins, I got my wish.

No show I’ve ever made has been more difficult, more frustrating, more uncertain, maddening or dangerous. It is a country, a subject so large, so complicated as to defy explanation—or any summing up in a sentence, a volume, an hour of television—or even ten hours of television.

Occupying an ungovernable mass of land the size of all Western Europe combined, the Democratic Republic of the Congo should be the richest country in Africa. It possesses the equivalent of trillions of dollars in resources: diamonds, gold, coltan (which the whole world requires for cell phones), minerals, timber, probably oil, uranium and hydroelectric power. In short, it has everything that the first world needs and desires. This is its curse.

But from before its beginnings, it has been ravaged by greed. Stripped of its population by Arab and Portuguese slavers, its tribal societies devastated. Handed outright to Belgium’s King Leopold for his personal exploitation, nearly half its population were worked to death, whipped, dismembered, executed outright or sent running into the bush to die of starvation and disease in a pitiless quest for first ivory and then rubber. The Belgians who followed left behind a deliberately uneducated governing class and a few sergeants. The Congolese people then made the very untimely tactical mistake of democratically electing a socialist president in the midst of the nuclear arms race between East and West.

The CIA and MI-6 conspired to assassinate him (whether they succeeded directly is open to debate. What certainly very clear is that he was killed), eventually installing in his place Joseph Mobutu, a man of spectacular rapaciousness, brutality and megalomania. At one point, having looted the country of billions—and having allowed what infrastructure remained to largely rot into the forest, Mobutu’s army complained of not being paid. The President-for Life’s response was to point out that they had guns, and to suggest that they take what they needed from the already desperate population. This is an attitude that prevails today.

War in Rwanda, next door, left the Congo with hundreds of thousands of refugees, many of them genocidal Hutus, living within its borders—and a neighboring Tutsi government uninclined towards either sympathy or good behavior (as Mobutu had been a staunch supporter of the Hutu—who had enthusiastically slaughtered up to 800,000 of their Tutsi neighbors in a period of only a few short weeks). Ensuing Civil Wars have cost the country millions of lives.

At the time my crew and I drove across the border into Goma, there were nearly 30 different rebel groups and militias—many of them aligned with the Congo’s neighboring countries—fighting it out across the country. One of them, M-23, were fighting amongst themselves only ten miles away. The federal troops, the official armed forces of the Congo, the FARDC were said to be on their way—an outcome generally considered to be a worst case scenario as they are widely regarded as professionals at the business of extortion, murder, mass rape and robbery—rather than simply amateurs. We were, during our shoot, extremely fortunate. Relative to most, we had a luxuriously unmolested, violence free time of it. We were extorted, detained, threatened daily. But such is life in the Congo. 
The Congo is a place where everything is fine—until it isn’t.

And yet, there they were: the Congolese people themselves. Fighting to get by. To feed themselves. To keep themselves clean—and proud in the middle of circumstances of almost unimaginable difficulty and the constant threat of near psychedelic violence and instability.

Across the river from Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” (present day Kisangani), we visited the train station, a transportation hub for a system that once extended all the way to the Southern tip of the continent. At one point, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn would have seen it from their windows at the “Pourquoi Pas” Hotel where they stayed during the shooting of “The African Queen”. The hotel is now a shambolic squat, devoid, as most of Kisangani, of plumbing or electricity.The station is now a ruin. The tracks overgrown with grass and weeds. The magnificent engines and passenger cars sit rusting under bullet-pocked roofs.

But a skeleton staff of railroad employees, unpaid for who knows how long, put on their jackets and ties, their coveralls, and show up to work every day. They fill out their paperwork, grease wheels, hammer at metal, do their best to maintain locomotives, which haven’t run in decades and almost certainly will never run again. They are proud of what they do.

At the remote Yangambi Research Center, a hundred kilometers downriver, the chief librarian and his clerks also show up to work every day at the powerless library, the showpiece of a once massive complex of modernist buildings—now without electricity or running water of course—and do their best to fight the ravages of moisture, mold and age on the thousands of volumes of botanical and agricultural knowledge. They too are proud, and living in some kind of hope. Waiting for something.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the Congo is “too black and too sad” and certainly too complicated—to ever attract the attention of the world, much less television audiences.

Yet it is also magnificently beautiful.
It is—gorgeously—like “going back to the earliest beginnings of the world”, and just as gorgeously (if tragically) post-apocalyptic; whole cities, once grand hotels, lovely buildings, a whole society (albeit a cruel, exclusive and oppressive one) receding into nature.

On the way downriver, we stopped all too briefly at a village to visit the chief of a once mighty tribe. He appeared at the riverbank resplendent in a suit, wearing a medal given to him by the Belgians. We said hello, gave him a goat as our best available form of tribute and respect. He gave me a simple, hand hammered bracelet of copper.

It was only later, miles down river that I was told what the bracelet was. It had been given to the chief by his father—sometime in the ‘30’s. Passed down, as bracelets of this kind were, from generation to generation. A tradition going back to the earliest Arab slavers and traders, who had, it is said, taught the tribe how to make, and craft these things.

This thing in my hand went back a long time. Represented something far more significant than I’d realized. It was an old thing. Very old. It dated back a long time. To when the big trees were kings.

THE WAGES OF CACAO

There are a lot of very good reasons to go to Peru.

On a previous trip, I bounced around Lima, exploring the ever-changing, ever more exciting food scene—from the more cutting edge fine dining restaurants, to the funkiest but most delicious traditional cevicherias. I’ve had many Pisco sours, huffed up mountains, light-headed from altitude sickness, my cheeks stuffed with coca leaves. I’ve eaten guinea pig in Cuzco. Explored the jungle of Amazonia. Drank chicha with yucca farmers. I took ayahuasca in the middle of the night with a curandero, putted up river in a wobbly boat with imaginary bats screeching in my brain, lights that probably weren’t there dancing in front of my eyes. I have looked out over Machu Picchu at dawn—one of the most extraordinary experiences one can have in this life, watched millions of cutter ants strip a forest floor clean, made friends, learned something about the world and about myself.

So, I didn’t really need a reason to go back. But this time, I had a good one.

About a year ago, my good friend, Eric Ripert, the chef of the most excellent restaurant Le Bernardin in New York City told me he had recently tasted the “best chocolate in the world” and inquired if I would be interested in getting involved in a probably foolhardy venture into the high-end chocolate business.

There were these beans, he went on to say, high in a valley in a mountain range, somewhere in Peru—cacao beans from wild trees, and recently, when their DNA was tested, they were found to be of a variety long thought to be almost extinct in their pure, non-hybrid form. Even more tantalizing—at an even more remote location, were an even more rare all-white variety. He’d been to see them, and his stories of high jungle adventure coupled with delicious, delicious chocolate were… enticing.

Eric, as I knew well, LIKES chocolate. And as one of the best, most decorated, celebrated chefs in the world, he’s had a lot of it. Guys like Eric? A lot of very fine wines come their way. Expensive ingredients like truffles, caviar, very old Cognacs. It’s not just his business to know what the good stuff is: the good stuff finds him. What I’m saying is: the guy knows his chocolate. So when he tells me that this Pure Nacional shit from some little town in a remote mountain valley in Peru is the best he’s ever had? I’m interested.

We eventually come up with mix of chocolate and nibs in bar form and next thing you know? I’m in the chocolate biz.

Thing is: it’s a very boutique-y, very high end, screamingly expensive end of the biz. One of the only 7000 bars we were able to produce (the whole year’s supply sold off in just a few months) cost the nosebleed price of 18 DOLLARS. Even reflecting the remote location, the rarity of the raw ingredient, the long trip from the mountains to the city to Switzerland and then to the States—the whole artisanal process… that’s still a fuck of a lot of money for a chocolate bar.

So, here’s what I wanted to know:

Was I doing a good thing? Is it OKAY to be in the chocolate business? I don’t have any problem with wealthy people who can afford making impulse buys in expensive gourmet shops spending a lot of money on my chocolate. But where does the money go? In fact… where does this chocolate come from, anyway? Just about everybody loves the stuff. It’s everywhere. A fundamental element of gastronomy. But I knew so little about it. Where does it come from? How is it made? Most importantly: WHO does it come from? And are they getting a good piece of the action? Or, are the producers, as in so many cases, getting screwed over? I very much hoped to find that whoever was growing our cacao was, at the end of the day, happy about the enterprise—that life AFTER Eric and Tony’s Excellent Chocolate Adventure was, on balance, better than life before.

I decided to find out.

So I invited Eric to take me back to Peru, up into the mountains, to follow the cacao trail all the way back to source. There would be, as I was soon to find out, quite a journey ahead of me: many miles of bad road, vigilantes to pay tribute to, swollen rivers to cross, the kind of mud that swallows whole trucks, shamans to get right with, planes, bridges, boats and ferries—long hikes up steep, slippery slopes into the forest before we’d find our trees, hack open a few pods and see what it was all about.

It turned out to be a great adventure.

Were all my questions about the morality of the luxury chocolate business answered to my absolute satisfaction? No. But this episode will show you some things—and raise questions about others; painting if not an entire portrait—at least a fuller picture of one of the world’s favorite things to eat.

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.

INTERZONE

“Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.”
-Hassan-i Sabbah

When I was an angry young man, disillusioned with the world, disenchanted with my generation, disappointed by the “counter-culture” and looking for role models, William S. Burroughs’ paranoia and loathing, his anti-social appetites, his caustic, violently surreal wit, and his taste for controlled substances seemed to perfectly mirror my own aspirations.

I wanted to write. I wanted to be apart from everything I grew up with. In short, I wanted to be elsewhere. And the Tangier—the “Interzone” that Burroughs described—where he’d found himself exiled, strung out, writing the pages that eventually became “Naked Lunch” sounded, to my naïve young mind, like an exotic paradise. 

Tangier, of course, is part of Morocco—and however accepting it was of badly behaved expats, however “international” a city—it was always part of that nation. Traditional Arab/Berber life went on, always, around the dreamers, refugees, libertines and romantics who flocked there. 

This week’s show is not about Morocco. Nor is it about Tangier precisely. It’s about the intersection between the old world and the new, the modern and the ancient, the real world of real Moroccans and the fantasy created by generations of foreigners who came to Tangier to create, to one extent or another, an “Oriental” fantasy.

Unlike Burroughs, the author Paul Bowles genuinely loved Tangier. Unlike Burroughs, he stayed there, plunged deeply into Moroccan art, music and culture. He came as close to seeing the place for what it was as any who’ve visited. Not as a playland, but as an entity all its own—with fascinations far more lasting and important than hashish, majoun and inexpensive flesh for rent.

A culture as deep as Morocco cannot be “explained” in 42 minutes of television—much less 4 hours. And what you’ll see on the show is hardly a comprehensive overview or even, necessarily a helpful guide to the sights.

It will, I hope, give the flavor of a truly remarkable place—and inspire you to look deeper. There is no place like it in the world. It looks, smells, sounds and tastes like no other city. It is all to easy to lose oneself in the romantic ideal—more difficult to assess the place as it is: an increasingly modern port metropolis situated only a short boat ride from Europe.
It’s probably a good idea to do both: Live the dream for a bit.
But keep your eyes open. 
And be careful.
As you’ll see, many visitors came to Tangier for a short vacation and remained for life. It’s that kind of place. 

FOODFUCKED IN QUEBEC

Foodfucked: to be fed more food of a ridiculously high quality and deliciousness than deemed judicious by any reputable health authority whilst in no position to refuse

Chefs Martin Picard, David McMillan and Frederic Morin are masters of foodfuckery. They are loved, respected and feared by chefs from all over the world who’ve visited them at their restaurants in Montreal (Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon and McMillan and Morin’s Joe Beef and Liverpool House). They are justifiably feared for their generosity with fine wines and liqueurs, their profligacy with ingredients like black truffles and foie gras.

They are also, arguably, the most important, most influential chefs in Canada. Even a glancing association with any of their kitchens gives a cook in Brooklyn or Los Angeles an immediate hipster cred. This is, of course, particularly ironic given Mr. McMillan’s frequent threats to beat passing hipsters to death with a shovel.

They are Canadian. They are Quebecois. And what they bring to gastronomy is a particular embrace of French Canadian lumberjack appetites and joie de vivre—coupled with a deep respect for the traditions of dining and hospitality unique to their region.

They do not look like intellectuals, historians or gentlemen farmers. They look more like a motorcycle gang or well-fed fur trappers. But they are.

And in the week I spent with them recently for the making of this episode of PARTS UNKNOWN, they fed me as I have never been fed in my well-travelled life.

You will see food porn in this week’s episode so epic, so enticing, so devastating in its richness, flavors and sheer volume as to endanger the life. If I have ever made an episode of television where even WATCHING food being served can cause livers and other vital organs to explode or malfunction, this is it.

This episode is listed as being about CANADA. But it is clearly not. It is not even, really, about QUEBEC. It is, however about three characters—and the world they move around in—that could not have existed anywhere in the world BUT QUEBEC.

They are the magnificently mutated offspring of an old and glorious culture. They respect and cherish and preserve the best of the old, while creating and inspiring the new. They are dangerous, dangerous men.

I know you will like them.

Colombiana

I’d thought my unconditional love for Colombia was well established there. I’d visited for speaking engagements. I’d made a giddily enthusiastic episode of a previous series in Medellin and Cartagena. I’d waxed poetically and often about how well I’ve always been treated, how thrilling it is to see how far the country has come from its bad old days. I’m a fan of its people, its music, its food and its disarmingly injured pride. But coming out of the remote jungle village of Milaflores, I made a mistake.

I tweeted a photo of myself, standing under a shade tree, surrounded by young Colombian military recruits. My old friend and Top Chef colleague, Tom Colicchio tweeted right back: “ Too soon.” – connecting the appearance of machine guns with the then recent Newtown massacre. I tweeted back that “this what it looks like in FARC country.” Of course, I meant, “territory recently controlled by the FARC”—the very unpleasant Marxist guerilla group who’d been terrorizing Colombia for decades with kidnappings assassinations—and worse. They operate hand in glove with the cartels—essentially shaking them down and providing them with protection—in return for funds. And indeed, not too long before I arrived at the dirt airstrip, merchants in the small town are said to have accepted payment for basic goods and services with coca paste.

Now, Miraflores is swarming with army and police. The FARC, by almost all accounts, have been beaten back significantly. The phrase “FARC country” was not, however, interpreted as intended—as meaning an area, a neighborhood, a territory once under FARC control. Not in Colombia. Colombians were outraged. “I do NOT live in FARC country” and “how come you glorify those bastards?” were common responses. The twittersphere blew up with pissed off, deeply offended Colombians, reading second hand reports of what I was believed to have said. Many misidentified the young soldiers in the photo as being guerillas. Our fixers and drivers were very, very unhappy—in the uncomfortable position of being closely associated with someone (me) who was (for the next couple of days, anyway) widely thought to be a FARC sympathizer. Things bled into the print media and it was a tough couple of days. It was a clumsy, ill worded and foolish thing for me to have done.

Colombia is NOT, for the record, “a FARC country”. Far from it. As I should well have known, the struggle between the FARC, the cartels, and various right wing militias has been deeply felt by nearly every Colombian family. Opinions—even perceived opinions—can have consequences. Just about everybody you talk to—even in a present day Colombia that is much, much safer and secure—has lost someone to violence from one side or the other.

Colombia—more than anyone—has paid a terrible price in lives for the world’s seemingly bottomless appetite for cocaine—and for the greed of a relative few. And if you ever wondered “how come they don’t get a handle on things down there”, all you need do is look at the place. The country is huge. It is about 70% sparsely populated (and gorgeous) jungle, mountains and coastline opening up onto both the Caribbean and the Pacific. It is ideologically divided. And it has neighbor problems. Venezuela next door has been all too happy to provide safe haven and even covert military assistance to the FARC. Panama’s Darien Gap offers some of the world’s most impenetrable jungles. Colombia has been very successful in recent years in its war on cartel and FARC related violence. But the ludicrous futility of any fully successful “war on drugs” is apparent with a single look out of a plane window. In spite of all its painful history, Colombia is emerging as what SHOULD be a vacation wonderland. Have I said yet how beautiful the place is? It’s incredible. It’s fun. And yes—it’s safe. Every day, more so. Cartagena has some of the most beautiful colonial architecture you’re likely to find anywhere in Latin America. A great bar scene. Amazing food and architecture. Medellin is a modern, sophisticated, enormously enjoyable place to spend time—as far from its image as a murder capital as you can imagine. And people are heartbreakingly welcoming and happy to see visitors who have come to their beautiful country for something other than to talk about narcos and violence. Cali is a party town to rival Miami. The beaches along the coasts are as unspoiled as your wildest fantasies. And yet many people still don’t go.

I would urge you to put aside the stereotypes. If you want to find bad people in Colombia, you can surely find them—as you could in New York or Los Angeles. But nowhere have my crew and I been treated better or with more kindness and generosity. I’d bring my family on vacation there in a heartbeat. And hope to soon. As I said before: Colombians are proud. Let them show you what they are proud of.

That said, this week’s Colombia episode of PARTS UNKNOWN marks another great moment in Bourdainian stupidity. Faithful viewers of my previous program on that other, less good network, might remember my previous misadventure on an ATV. You’d think I would have learned from that experience, a long barrel roll down a sand dune, wrapped around a few hundred pounds of metal and machinery. I was very, very lucky to have emerged from that experience with limbs and skull intact. That maybe I’d be smart enough to realize that maybe off road vehicles were just not for me.
No.
In Colombia, I saddled up once again—and as you’ll see—managed to fly off the seat, drive my head straight into the ground (helmet-less, of course), and (my producers insist) somehow succeed in running over my own head. Though I was “out” for a brief micro-second there—I remember bounding to my feet, unwilling to be embarrassed by the glaringly obvious: I should have worn the helmet they offered. I should have driven more carefully. I probably shouldn’t—given my record—been driving the damn thing at all. Comedy Gold.

K-TOWN

“What, exactly, is ‘parts unknown’ about Los Angeles?”

It’s a fair question that cuts right to the heart of what we’re trying to do.

Of all the locations on earth, Los Angeles has probably appeared on film or tape or memory card more than any other. In fact, making Southern California look like somewhere else has been a primary concern for filmmakers since the beginnings of Hollywood.  My partners at Zero Point Zero production and I have shot in LA before. Twice.

So, where the  **** do we get off trying to shoot something “new” about Los Angeles?

A few years back, fresh off the success of Kitchen Confidential and new to the ways of life outside the kitchen, I found myself staying at a hotel in West Hollywood where the kitchen staff were fans. They were also Korean. And in the course of events, I found myself accompanying them to places that I—though I’d been to LA a few times—had no idea existed.  Even though LA was newly in the grip of some of the country’s most restrictive anti-smoking laws, every place these cooks brought me were packed with young Koreans, drinking soju, eating and smoking at the same time. Many of the places they brought me—in what turned out to be a fairly drunken bounce from one place to another to another—first denied being a business, then, on what appeared to be the basis of my wrong ethnicity— denied me entrance, only admitting me after being shouted at in Korean by my posse of cooks. Interestingly, many of these businesses continued serving alcohol long after what I had previously believed local ordinances permitted.

The next day, I didn’t remember getting home but I did remember what I’d gotten a glimpse of the night before: another world—existing right under the noses of another one.

So, I thought, for this episode, we’d try to shoot Los Angeles entirely from the point of view of people who grew up in Koreatown. We’d shoot this most over-photographed of cities as if no one BUT Koreans—and their immediate neighbors (Mexicans, Sri Lankans, Filipinos…) existed. As if the Hollywood sign,  the Hills, the movie industry,  and white people in general just…never happened. In our episode, K-Town would be Center of the World.

I thought about recent discussions with my friends, the chef and author, Roy Choi—and the artist, David Choe, about the effect the LA riots of the early 90’s had on their world view and that of their families. As I know many Koreans—and because all of them seem to suffer from some dark,  unarticulated burden—an unspoken  pressure to be something other than how they see themselves. I began to explore the Korean concept of “han”, an existential sense of pain and rage that is said to pass from generation to generation and wondered how I might discuss that in the show. 

A window into the soul of the Korean American? Nah…I wouldn’t go that far.  At very least, this episode will be a window into some VERY delicious Korean food. If you’re not hungry after this one—there’s no hope for you.

Film nerds might notice our shameless rip off of the “look” Michael Mann gave to the driving interiors in the film “Collateral”.  Or they might not. This episode also marks our first use of a “drone-cam”, a small, remote controlled , flying helicopter-mount for our cameras. 

Onwards!

BURMA FAREWELL

It’s a very special moment when you arrive someplace, look around at a vista that is clearly, awe-inspiringly fantastic and realize: “Holy ****! Almost no one else has SEEN this!”

After many years of looking at some pretty impressive vistas, I have to be honest: It makes it better. Let’s face it, the first French dude to push aside some jungle brush and look upon Angkor Wat was probably a hell of a lot more excited about it than I was. (And I was pretty excited). It’s a greedy, selfish instinct—the notion that this is all for you, that you are singularly fortunate to have seen this—that you—and only you, get ALL the cake.

I don’t know what Hiram Bingham thought when he looked up at Macchu Piccu for the first time. He certainly hadn’t “discovered” the place. He was probably just the first non-Indian to have gazed upon it. But I’ll bet he felt pretty smug about his accomplishment. “Will you look at that! Wow! And it’s been here all along! Dumb bastards been traipsing through these parts for centuries and they missed THIS!”

That’s kind of how I felt looking out at the ancient temple complex of Bagan in Myanmar. An unlovely instinct, I grant you. But like I said; I get to see a lot of beautiful vistas. Way too many of them, after all these miles, take on the importance of moving wallpaper. So it’s something really special to be thrilled by ruins—hair stand-up-on-back-of-neck- excited by a view.

Of course, plenty of visitors have been through Bagan over the years. But for Americans, the country now known as Myanmar has been mostly a place to avoid. I’ve avoided it for years—in spite of a terrific curiosity about the place— because I didn’t want to help a very unpleasant, totalitarian government stay in power.

But things have really started to shift in Myanmar. It’s still a military regime in charge. They are still up to some very nasty business in the parts of the country they do not let Westerners go. But the people are now, for the very first time in over half a century, relatively free to speak their minds. From a society where huge segments of the daily papers were routinely—and without explanation—hacked out by censors, where having an opinion could be a very dangerous thing..and where just about everybody with an opinion has been to jail—it’s pretty remarkable to see what’s happening.

Most remarkable, I think, was how open people were with us—how willing they were to talk –how not shy they were with our cameras, when only a little over a year ago, talking with a Western film crew could land you in prison. The door is opening in Myanmar—and we are very proud to show you some of what’s happening inside.

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