I haven’t always been a fan of Anthony Bourdain. Though I enjoyed his first book, Kitchen Confidential, No Reservations, the show he slogged through for nine seasons on the Food Network, left me cold. Last year, however, I started watching Parts Unknown on CNN, and found him to be much more interesting – mature, a father, introspective and seeming like he gives a damn. Now I don’t miss an episode.
Enter Andy Ricker, of Pok Pok fame, with his original Northern Thai restaurants in Portland and now branches in New York City. In the latest episode, Ricker becomes Bourdain’s tour guide through the street food scene of the Chiang Mai area of Thailand. It is an alcohol fueled romp through the region, with the obligatory scenes of over indulgence, ladyboys, and a few dishes that even makes Bourdain recoil: raw blood soup, anyone? But underneath it all is a fascinating look at Northern Thai food. I’ve spent time in Chiang Mai, and have eaten lots of the street food, but never felt that any TV show I’ve seen has portrayed the scene the way it really feels when you are there yourself. Parts Unknown gets it right. Ricker is fascinating as the big American, who is so passionate about the food, locals seem to open their heart to him. He knows the cuisine, and even in their most drunken moments, cuts through the haze with thoughtful analysis of each dish. It’s been a while since I’ve been to Pok Pok, but I want to go back. I’m guessing that Ricker has to walk a fine line in his restaurants between Americanized Thai food and the real thing, trying perhaps to dumb it down slightly for American palates and ingredients, yet still stay true to the roots of the cuisine and to bring us along in our education.
Paired with Bourdain’s newly reflective nature and sense of adventure, the show is interesting, educational and at times laugh out loud entertainment. If you get a chance to see it, you should.