As a packed, emotional house discovered at the Tribeca screening of the show’s upcoming Kenya episode — the twelfth and final season premiere featuring “United Shades of America” host W. Kamau Bell — Bourdain wanted to emphasize a point that has sometimes gotten lost in his work. “I do my best,” he said of his exploratory travel around the world. “I look, I listen. But in the end, I know it’s my story. Not Kamau’s, not Kenya’s. Those stories have yet to be heard.”
The coda, which airs after the credits on the episode, is one that not even his producers quite understood when Bourdain wrote it. “We didn’t have any idea what the f— he was talking about,” said director Morgan Fallon, with a small laugh. But after Bourdain died, they revisited the tape and “it was almost uncanny.” (This episode marks the last time that Bourdain’s narration will be featured on the show.)
Everyone on the panel — which included Fallon, Bell, showrunner Sandy Zweig, and Bourdain’s longtime producing partners Chris Collins and Lydia Tenaglia — agreed that Bourdain’s priority on “Parts Unknown” and beyond was to step back and let the country and the people he was visiting take the spotlight. Fuller remembered how Bourdain would often return to a variation on the same theme while producing an episode: “I’m not the story here. The story is this place, and these people.”
“He evolved into a kind of cultural anthropologist,” added Tenaglia, who had been working with Bourdain since “A Chef’s Tour,” his first foray on television in 2002. “He gave us and the audience an opportunity to see the world in a very intimate way. It wasn’t just a travel show.” As Bell put it, “if there’s anything Tony taught us, it’s how to be a good guest.”
After the fact of Bourdain’s death, the Kenya episode is bittersweet. On the one hand, most of it is full of jokes and joy as Bourdain shows Bell around a country that Bell had long considered a part of his ancestral history, but never visited. “It felt like I won a contest,” said Bell, who wore a t-shirt featuring a picture of the moment he first met Bourdain at the Emmys years ago. Over and over again, Bell described himself as a longtime fan of Bourdain’s who couldn’t believe his luck. “I’m just one of the people on the couch who got to be on the show.”
The episode shows the pair palling around Nairobi, meeting Kenyans working to create an equitable and inclusive future, and yes, sampling some seriously intense local dishes. (Keep your eyes peeled for a classic “Parts Unknown” highlight featuring Bell, a cow, and a delicacy drink he dared not refuse.) From time to time, there’s even room for a little sarcastic snark about how “this is decidedly not a s—hole,” a pointed barb aimed at President Trump’s reported dismissal of African nations.
But of course, Bourdain’s sudden death in June left them all reeling. Having traveled and collaborated with so many of the same people for so long, Zweig said, “the people he worked with were like family to him.”
Collins, who admitted that watching the new episodes is now “difficult,” described how Bourdain’s approach to making travel shows changed over the years. “For him, it began as a ruse. Like, ‘they’re really gonna let me do this?!’ Over time, it turned into a job. Then, it turned into a profession. Then, it turned into a life’s work.”
So while most of the Kenya episode revolves around Bell’s experience and Bourdain’s glee at getting to steer it, one of the most poignant moments comes as the two sit quietly on a crest, overlooking an expansive savannah stretching as far as the eye can see. “As soon as the cameras turn off,” Bourdain said, “I f—ing pinch myself. I can’t believe I get to do this.”
The final season of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” premieres September 23 on CNN.