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Though it’s been nearly four months since Anthony Bourdain’s death, the late TV chef’s presence was felt throughout New York’s Spring Studios on Saturday night at the Tribeca TV Festival. The season 12 premiere of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown made its world debut at the television fest, where the team behind the show remembered Bourdain’s boundless gratitude and his talent for authentic storytelling.
The final season premiere sees Bourdain travel to Kenya, one of the few countries he had yet to visit with the Parts Unknown crew. He brought along fellow CNN personality and Shades of America host W. Kamau Bell, who is of Kenyan descent, for the episode. After meeting with locals, going on a safari and eating several national delicacies — including the entirety of a goat’s head in Nairobi — Bourdain and Bell reflected on their time spent in the African country.
“I cannot fucking believe I get to do this or see this. Forty-four years old and dunking fries; I knew with absolute certainty I’d never see Rome, much less this,” Bourdain said in the episode as he looked out onto the savanna, following a tour of the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. That comment was met with an enthusiastic response from Bell, who then told Bourdain how much his work both in front of and behind the camera meant to him over the years.
Before the screening, Bell chatted with The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet about that conversation, which he considers “one of the most poignant moments” of his career.
“We had already talked about Kenya and everything and we just started having a conversation, just two guys sitting there. I got to tell him how important he had been to me before I got my show,” Bell recalled. “I learned a long time ago that you’ve got to tell the people who are important in your life that they’re important because they might disappear.”
Added Bell: “So, when I went to Kenya, I just wanted to make sure that I got that moment with Tony. But I didn’t know it was going to be on camera and that it would be used in the episode. It was a gift.”
The Kenya episode also felt like a gift for Bourdain, said director Morgan Fallon. “He really soaked up the culture there. You could just tell how much fun he was having with Kamau. He was grateful to not only go to a place he had never been with Parts Unknown, but to also share it with Kamau, who had never been to Africa and has Kenyan heritage,” Fallon said. “This really was a special episode.”
The episode ended with a reflective voiceover from Bourdain, who, in part, emphasized that Parts Unknown is “my story.” Bourdain added that this episode in particular did not tell the story of Bell, Kenya or its citizens: “Those stories have yet to be heard.”
Bourdain’s collaborators — including Bell, Morgan, showrunner Sandy Zweig and executive producers Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia, who participated in a panel discussion after the screening — said his minute-long meditation threw them all for a loop.
“When he wrote it, we all thought, it was so out of the context,” Fallon told moderator and CNN anchor John Berman. “We were kind of thinking of a big ending for Kamau.”
Although the Parts Unknown team was previously unsure whether Bourdain’s voiceover would make the final cut, they knew they had to include it following the Emmy winner’s June 8 suicide at age 61, which occurred during production. “What he wrote was uncanny after everything that’s happened,” Fallon continued. “[There was] this realization that, ‘Oh my God, there’s this incredibly impactful line that we’ve been cutting out of the show.'”
Later, fans in the audience were encouraged to participate in the discussion by asking questions. Many of them expressed praise for Parts Unknown and shared stories about how the show has impacted their lives in positive ways throughout its five-year run. At one point, a woman in the crowd tearfully asked, “What is your connection [with Bourdain] that you will always carry with you?”
Visibly emotional, the team on stage took a few moments to answer. “It’s so multi-faceted, so it’s hard to explain. But for me, if there’s one thing Tony taught me, it’s really abandoning fear of other people and really wholeheartedly being able to throw yourself out into the world,” Fallon said. “He did that in so many ways and shared so much of himself. He so freely was open about all of his failings and complexities. He did it without fear.”
“The moments of quiet were probably the ones that he appreciated the most,” added Tenaglia. “He was actually kind of shy. As friends, we kind of understood that about him. It’s such a discrepancy when you see this person going out there and connecting with people. He was funny and kind of, sometimes very goofy and shy.”
And, according to Bell — who wore a T-shirt printed with a picture of himself and Bourdain hanging out at an Emmys afterparty to the event — there will “never be another Tony.” He told THR, “Right now, there’s this ‘Next Bourdain’ talk and I think that’s just impossible. Tony’s inimitable, but we can preserve his legacy by finding authentic storytellers and putting them on TV and letting them control the storytelling because that’s what he was.”
Bourdain and Bell’s trip to Kenya was the only Parts Unknown episode fully completed before Bourdain’s death. Four of the season’s episodes — set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Indonesia, Spain’s mountainous Asturias region and Texas’s “Big Bend” area bordering Mexico — will be completed using narration and additional interviews provided by guests who were featured in each episode. The final two episodes of the series will serve as tributes to Bourdain’s life.
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown airs on CNN Sundays at 9 p.m.
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