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Prime Cuts, Season 1

Aired April 12, 2014 - 22:00   ET


ANTHONY BOURDAIN, HOST: I wish I can hear over the sound of my exploding capillaries. I'm feeling every minute, every hour, every month and year of my age. No, maybe we should figure out how to cook dinner unless you don't want to eat any dinner, because we are really not going to eat any dinner tonight.

I can't say that I'm evolving or maturing or doing anything differently. You know. What was the question?


I would like to spend some time at a beach. Because the beaches here are beautiful. I would have liked to have eaten more widely because I know the food is delicious. I would have liked to have seen more of some of the places that we went to. I would like a pony, a magical pony. Possibly a unicorn even.

I describe PARTS UNKNOWN as a series of essays, standalone essays that generally try to focus on the subject of food and where it comes from. But not always. You know, food is the entryway. I'm a guy who spent 30 years cooking food professionally. That's where I come from. That's how I'm always going to look at the world. But food isn't everything. And something comes up, I'm happy to get up from the meal and wander off elsewhere.

Myanmar. After 50 years of nightmare, something unexpected is happening here and it's pretty incredible. Not too long ago, even filming here officially as an open professional Western film crew would have been unthinkable. In 2007, a Japanese journalist was shot point-blank and killed filming a street demonstration. Be seen talking to anybody with a camera and there would likely be a knock on your door in the middle of the night.

Yet so far, confronted with our cameras, a few smiles and mostly indifference at worst. Shocking considering how recently the government has started to relax its grip.

PHILIP LAJAUNIE, FRIEND: So you heard our sleeping car lost a wheel?

BOURDAIN: The what?

LAJAUNIE: The sleeping car lost a wheel. And the dining car so we get --

BOURDAIN: We lost the dining car, I hear.

LAJAUNIE: We lost a dining car but even our original sleeping car lost a wheel. So we just have to hope for the best.

BOURDAIN: The night express to Bagan. Six hundred kilometers of what will turn out to be kidney softening travel by rail. But Bagan, Myanmar's ancient capital, I've been told, is a must-see.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The true old English experience. The engine is a French engine from the '70s.

BOURDAIN: We've been told it's a somewhat uncomfortable 10-hour trip.

So really the question on this end of the journey is come back on the train or fly in coffin.

Mishaps on both Burmese planes and trains are not, shall we say, unheard of.

The widow-maker express.

LAJAUNIE: That is the choice. That may be the signal to depart at some point.

BOURDAIN: Yes. All aboard. Whoa. We're moving. Here we go.

LAJAUNIE: Here we go. That's it. We are at cruising speed.

BOURDAIN: Really? This is cruising speed? We can literally outrun this thing.

LAJAUNIE: We could. Jog ahead, have a nice meal in some, you know, recommended restaurant.

BOURDAIN: We could catch up with it.

LAJAUNIE: It's like a digestive walk. Here we go. This is stop number one of 75.

BOURDAIN: Heading north, the scenery opens up. The space between things gets wider, more pastoral, and more beautiful.

Looking around at my fellow passengers, it could be hard to distinguish between the 135-plus ethnic groups that make up the Burmese population. The very name, Burma, refers actually to only one of these groups. What they all seem to have in common, however, is tonika, a face paint and sun block made from tree bark that masks many of their faces. It's ubiquitous here. At first jarring to see, it quickly becomes something you get used to and take for granted.

Yangon's gravitational pull broken, and with darkness falling, the train picks up speed. At times terrifyingly so.

LAJAUNIE: If this thing is going to derail at some point. They have lost how many wheels yesterday? On this one train? So truly it's about being in the right car, the one that keeps its wheels.

BOURDAIN: Derailments or rail splits, as they are referred to here, is somewhat more benign sounding occurrence than, say, rolling off the tracks into a rice paddy are not uncommon. And one can't help wondering what the engineer and conductor are thinking as the train speeds heedlessly on faster and faster.

LAJAUNIE: I mean, it must be, what, about 40, 50 miles per hour at this point.

BOURDAIN: I wonder if anyone has ever, like, flown right out of their seat out the window.


BOURDAIN: You don't want to be, like, holding a lab dog.

LAJAUNIE: Or a baby or anything. I mean.

BOURDAIN: Try pissing in the bathroom and find yourself launched straight up into the ceiling, bringing to a rude conclusion what was already an omni-directional experience.

It's smooth now. It's very relaxing.

LAJAUNIE: What kind of beer did you have? I want the same.

BOURDAIN: What I'm amazed is how friendly and open people are with this. It's very easy for me to sit here and say whatever I want about the government, right? Me can go home. You know. Our lives will go on. We don't pay the price. Everybody who helped us could very well pay that price.

It should be pointed out that a lot of people did not. A lot of people were very nice to us, but said look, I've just -- I've already been in jail. You know. I -- I really don't want to go back. It's a very really concern. What happens to the people we leave behind? You know, what do we think that -- one's freedom, they've tasted freedom. Well, you know, you can't put the tooth paste back in the tube. You know, There's no doubt about that.

But for the moment, at least, things seem to be moving in the right direction. A country closed off to most for so long, sleeping, a 50- year nightmare for many of its citizens finally, maybe waking up. To what? Time will tell.

My approach to what I do is in no way changed. I mean, you are who you are. I'm marginally more hopeful about the world. I'm marginally more optimistic. I actually kind of believe after all these years of travel that -- I don't know, my estimation of the basic goodness of, you know, the human animal is maybe a little better than it was.


BOURDAIN: It's OK, I'm deliberately looking dreamy and thoughtful.

Travel tip, number one. Travel is not always easy. I don't know what this is, but it's good. What I would do to a bucket of fried chicken right now, it would be unholy. Unholy, I tell you. It would be an awful thing to see. I want to get some popcorn. Martini time.

I would describe myself as a lucky cook who gets to tell stories. And I'm certainly not a journalist. I'm not a chef anymore. I'd like to flatter myself by saying I'm an essayist, but I'm a storyteller. I see stuff, I talk about that, I talk about how it made me feel at the time.

If you can do that honestly, that's about the best you can hope for, I think. Without, like, talking about yourself in the third person.

Stereotyping coming. Look, how do I put this? Good Korean kids grow up to be doctors, lawyers or engineers, goes the story. There are expectations.

But what if you're a bad Korean? What if you're Korean-American and just didn't give a (EXPLETIVE DELETED)? What if you look around, ask yourself, who am I? Who I suppose to be? Where do I fit in society? And were unsatisfied with the answers you were getting?

What if you were an insanely talented artist in a small startup company called Facebook asks you to do some murals in their offices, and they paid you with stock, and you became ridiculously wealthy, and you still didn't give a (EXPLETIVE DELETED)? Well, then you might be David Choe.

DAVID CHOE, ARTIST: Hi. I'm David Choe.

I'm going to paint you today. Is that cool?

BOURDAIN: Yes, sure.

CHOE: All right. So just sit right there, and -- sorry, I don't usually paint this early in the morning.


CHOE: I'm going to go more expressionistic, if you don't mind.

BOURDAIN: I want to know, you said young people are looking to follow your road to success, your advice is, whatever you do, don't date a Korean girl?

CHOE: OK, I try to be open-minded about things, right? But, oh, I'm racist. You know, for me, I've given this a shot and then I end up in a situation where I feel like I'm dating my mom.

BOURDAIN: So what characteristics in common were you --

CHOE: Overbearing.

BOURDAIN: Overbearing?

CHOE: Jealous, unreasonable, like unrealistic about life, demanding. Like, it's -- I mean, I could go on and on. But also the men, too. Like if you're a woman, I would never recommend dating a Korean guy. For the very few women out there that are into Asian guys, if you are going to go that route, definitely go Chinese. Yes. Come check it out.

BOURDAIN: Oh, yes. Whoa. Awesome.



CHOE: I don't know. What do you think?

BOURDAIN: Dude, I'm honored. I've never had my portrayed done before. Thank you, man.

CHOE: Hey, man. You're welcome.

BOURDAIN: And this shit could have been worth some money on eBay, for sure.

CHOE: Now I'm definitely ready for Sizzler's.


Standing tall and prominent amongst the many Asian and Central American restaurants in the community, one place holds a cherished position in the collective memories of many second- generation Korean- Americans.

I am personally unfamiliar with the Sizzler brand. I know it by name, but never have I managed to actually cross its doors.

CHOE: After you.

BOURDAIN: Thank you. Wow.

CHOE: How are you doing today? I'm doing fantastic. I have my Sizzler outfit on. So here's the thing. You can get, like, a steak and then add the salad bar with it.


CHOE: Get the best bang for your buck or you could just get the salad bar.

BOURDAIN: I've got to have a little steak.

CHOE: I am going to go traditional and just get just the salad bar.


CHOE: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You can sit wherever you like.

CHOE: Excellent. BOURDAIN: Oh, yes. Oh, now, you're getting Korean on me.

CHOE: Yes. Super embarrassed right now because we're in Korea town, and I'm taking you to eat at Sizzler, which, for a lot of Koreans, it's the best food in Korea town.

BOURDAIN: So if you eat non-Korean, this was it.

CHOE: We never ate out ever, and if we did, it was McDonald's. And if it was a birthday and a special celebration and you want to kick it up a notch and go a little bit more special, then it was Sizzler.

BOURDAIN: This is a judgment-free zone, where there are no mistakes. A world to explore in congruous combinations without shame or guilt, free of criticism from snarkologist, because there are no snarkologists at Sizzler.

CHOE: Obviously, here's all the accoutrements for making a nice nacho, taco salad, and here's --


CHOE: -- all the stuff for --


CHOE: Pasta, spaghetti, whatever. The move is you get a hard taco shell and put meatballs in it. This is Italian/Mexican dining, and you make a meat ball taco, and there's nowhere else in the world where you can have this. You put three meatballs in the taco, some guacamole, and then you put all this nacho cheese, all these other stuff.

BOURDAIN: I know what I'm going. I'm going for the full south of the border experience here.

CHOE: All right. There you go.

BOURDAIN: No, no. I'm not kidding around here. Oh, yes, now we're talking, my friend.

CHOE: It's a little bit nicer than I remember. There it is. That's the best bread that you can get. So you tell me if you like that.

BOURDAIN: Now wait a minute. Are you saying that the cheese bread is complimentary?

CHOE: It's a complimentary. And once we found that out, we would order stacks of it. So it was our favorite part of Sizzler. And we're like we need to figure out how to manufacture this at home.

BOURDAIN: So were you good Sizzler customers, your family? Do you think they were happy to see you when you come in?

I love this dish, man. When I go back, I might have to have a meatball taco. CHOE: So we did -- we like goosed the system a little bit, but not like completely abused it. There would be the guilt associated with we never eat out, but now we are going out to eat. So you better (EXPLETIVE DELETED) eat. If you've got to put down at least three plates.

So what do you think of the bread?

BOURDAIN: It's delicious.

CHOE: Yes.

BOURDAIN: I totally get why this would be a wonderland.

CHOE: It's really good.

BOURDAIN: For you, Sizzler a happy place?

CHOE: Still, lots of memories. It's satisfying. Let get me more of this cheese bread.

BOURDAIN: This shouldn't be work. I'm a big believer in failing gloriously in the cause of trying to do something interesting. You know, I have the best job in the world. I'm trying to stay interested and engaged. You know, the minute I have nothing to say about a place, it's going to be pretty boring for you. And certainly boring for me. And I guess at the end of the day, I'm just looking to make television that doesn't suck.


BOURDAIN: What do you need to know? I'd love to be able to give you advice. But I'm really the last person in the world who should.

What do I know? Not a hell of a lot. I've been here a week. You don't know what you're talking about. I don't know what I'm talking about. Best to leave it alone.

I'm a guy who likes being wrong. I don't mind feeling like an idiot about a place, like showing up and thinking I know something about a place and then being shown a very sort of painful and humiliating way that I, in fact, know nothing. That -- you know, that's interesting to me. I am pretty vain, but I'm not that vain that I might terribly looking ignorant.

It's kind of fun. If anything, the best case scenario for me, the really exciting ones are the place where I know absolutely nothing, where the learning curve is so steep that every day, in every way, every minute of wandering around a place like Tokyo, for instance, you're confronted with the absolute certain knowledge that you will never learn even anything close to everything there is to know.

I don't know. For me that's exciting. I like being in a place where I don't speak the language, I have no idea what the menus say. I don't understand the customs. As long as the food is delicious and people care about what's going on, different is good. This is Tripoli. After 42 years of nightmare. How to build a whole society overnight and make it work in one of the most contentious and difficult areas of the world is what people are trying to figure out.

Outside Tripoli's center, there's this. One time axis of all power and untold evil. A huge complex and sinister offices, barracks, residences, on top of erratic war and of secret tunnels and underground facilities. The Bab al-Azizia, Gadhafi's enormous compound. And on August 23rd, 2011, it fell to rebels. Gadhafi and his family having fled.

This is what's left of Gadhafi's palace.

So when's the last time you were here?

OMAR: Last time is when the revolution is finishing. The machinery, going in first fighting.


OMAR: After then, the people.


OMAR: After then, coming a lot of people, normal people. Listening about something expensive here.


OMAR: Like the salt and like the gold and --


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Stop now. Stop now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They want us to stop filming right now.


While talking, we didn't notice several pickup trucks of local militia had closed in on us.


BOURDAIN: I've stopped.


BOURDAIN: Just relax. Relax.


OMAR: What's happening? BOURDAIN: This is their turf, or their area of operation, or somehow under their control. Whatever the case, they're the group in charge today. An argument ensues between our guys and their guys. All of whom fought against the same forces on this ground a year ago.

OMAR: They need an authorization just for this place.


OMAR: They want to delete the tapes. Let's leave. They said you had to delete what you've got. Let's leave.


BOURDAIN: OK. Let's go.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hold it down. Hold it down. Hold it down.

Another morning in Tripoli and life goes on. Vendors are out. People go about their daily routines.

AKRAM, FORMER FREEDOM FIGHTER: This is our traditional breakfast.

BOURDAIN: What is this dish called?

AKRAM: Sfenz (INAUDIBLE), which is an overstretched doughnut, I suppose.

BOURDAIN: Right. With an egg.

AKRAM: With an egg on top. You can get them with cheese, you can get them with chili paste. You can have them with honey, with sugar.

BOURDAIN: What are you having? How do you like yours?

AKRAM: I like mine cooked, to be honest.

BOURDAIN: What's the name of this neighborhood?

AKRAM: This is Hashnum (ph). This is a cradle of the revolution.

BOURDAIN: Right. This was the first neighborhood to rise up?

AKRAM: Yes. This is the first place to rise up.

BOURDAIN: Why do you think this neighborhood and not --

AKRAM: It's an impoverished neighborhood. It's been always liked here by the regime. They made them feel like they're not from this country, to be honest. And we go for it.

BOURDAIN: Oh, yes, dip. Right in the egg.

AKRAM: And dip it in the egg. BOURDAIN: Delicious. So where were you when it all started?

AKRAM: I was in London. Well, actually Manchester at the time.


AKRAM: By the 27th, I was in Libya.

BOURDAIN: We went out to see his house yesterday. The compound.

AKRAM: I was one of the guys who entered from the southern gates. No, the northern gates.

BOURDAIN: Akram is in the security business. A thriving industry here as you could probably imagine.

A lot of things happened in a lot of different parts of the country, sort of simultaneously. Kind of amazing that all of these people came together very fast.

AKRAM: How did it happen?


AKRAM: Easy. Twitter.

BOURDAIN: Twitter?


BOURDAIN: It was really like that?

AKRAM: Yes. We sent so much information to NATO via Twitter. We get a phone call from Tripoli or Benghazi or whatever. We get to call this via Google Earth.


AKRAM: We verify that there is a location there that needs to be hit. Send the tornado at NATO and then it's gone.



BOURDAIN: How does that feel knowing you've been calling it Tomahawk missile over there?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's all to the movies.

BOURDAIN: Did anyone think it was possible that in their lifetime they were going to see the end of this and most people are telling me they never dream.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know if you can call them dreams, hopes, wishes. It was just something in the sky. Something I look at every night.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But when I hit that point, and got into (inaudible) and spit on Gaddafi's body, any dream would come true.

BOURDAIN: What's the situation now?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's fluid. It can swing any direction.

BOURDAIN: Well, look what happened in Benghazi a few months ago, I mean what does this mean to the country?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think there is a dark, mysterious hand. Who doesn't like this country to prosper. They see system and organization as a big enemy to them. These are kinds are slowly getting diminished. It's a matter of time before we can get rid of them.

BOURDAIN: How hard do you think that's going to be?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How hard that's all. We got rid of Gaddafi, nothing else is hard.

BOURDAIN: I like your attitude.


This is supposed to be the biggest, fanciest new hotel development in town and like a lot of the newer structure is that they pretty much stops when they started to pull down the government. There were a lot of cranes building nothing at the moment. A lot is just like sort of frozen until we figures out what happens next, let's wait and see, you know. It's one of many moments of unexpected weirdness of Libya. The mosque, the Medina, the frozen wait and see hotel and I think a truck with militia looking at us.

Meanwhile, right over there, there are -- they're playing, Rod Steward, do you think I'm sexy to an amusing park full of kids? Makes no sense at all in a vaguely encouraging way.


BOURDAIN: I had colonoscopy just before coming here. It was far more enjoyable. I often find myself picking longingly of that comfy table, gentle probing of trained rubber gloves, the slow drip of opioid synthetics into my blood stream. Good times.

So far, I wish I had a bunch of really interesting places. The challenge is simply this. It's always how do we make a show that looks completely different than the show we did last week. It's nice if you really, really like last week's show but I'm not going to do that one again. I would rather make a show next week that you really hate as long as it's different and it was interesting for us. It's about moving forward and then step out doing things differently. I'm pretty much -- I'm feeling out of this. I feel like Elton John at home. Oh, yes. It's when the other one's start to come in, have so many kicks, really good. Really, you get three of those going, you know, you're not the only New Jersey. You know you're someplace.

In Tangier, I lived in one room in the native quarter. I have not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes or removed them, except to stick a needle every hour in the fibrous gray wooden flesh of terminal addiction. I never cleaned or dusted the room. Empty ampoule boxes and garbage piled up to the ceiling. Life and water long since turned off for nonpayment.

I did absolutely nothing. I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. I was only roused to action when the hourglass of junk ran out.

The words of William Seward Burroughs, one of my heroes. He came to Tangier in 1953, shortly after shooting his wife to death in a drunken accident in Mexico City. He was a heroin addict, a homosexual and an inspiration to those proto-hipsters who came known as The Beats. Burroughs, however, was not a hipster. There was nothing beatnik about him.

He was a somewhat stuffy, well-dressed St. Louis son of a good family gone wrong. He was also to my mind the greatest writer of the whole damn bunch.

On the road, you can have it. His classic "Naked Lunch" was written here, a nonlinear, dark, dry humor of searingly critical, satirical and profane masterpiece. Burroughs was apparently high for much of the process, on heroin or a locally available prescription opiate called Eukodol. And of course the daily staple of many of these parts, hashish, kief, and majoon. How was it made? This is what I wanted to know.

They were kind enough to demonstrate. Kief is first chopped into fine granules and then slowly added to melted butter and chocolate over a low heat to toast it and release the psychotropic goodies within. While the binder element of the majoon is slow-cooking in the plan, combination of spices are blended with cashews, almonds, walnuts and dried fruit. This will be the framework to suspend the THC-laden goodness in the next step.

The cannabis-laced butter chocolate is added along with plenty of honey to bind together all the ingredients. Then mix.

Last you roll the entirety of the mixture into a ball and either refrigerate or dig right in.

You can pretty much spend like, you know, five years of your life, you know, siting around in a room, in your (ph) garment, looking out that direction going (inaudible). I take a lot of people here have spent five years who wish doing that. Oh, wow dude.

I hate the word stretch creatively, you know, I'm not going to suddenly, you know, join a world company of King Lear, or you know, learn to play drums. But as long as I'm telling stories I would like to tell a different story every week. And I ask myself, will it be interesting to do the selfish process.

Will it be fun if I don't have any expectation that being fun will it be interesting? Who will it be interesting too? I think most importantly will it be interesting to me, because if it's not interesting to me, I can see why it would be interesting to anyone else.


BOURDAIN: I'd say I feel cleansed but that could be the diarrhea. Really don't understand this whole purging thing people are like there was a purging cleanse or juice cleanses, right. Just travel with this show for awhile, I'll tell you I'm feeling pretty good with my crew. Clean is a whistle, you get four mineral water throw them in and then it would come out crystal clear. There's no fault to the fine cuisine here, by the way. I'm convinced it was the showing me at the hotel buffet. You warn him, you warn him, you warn him. Do they listen?

And I guess I'm at the point in my life like where I could get off a plane and I think it's true of all of us who make the show. You get off the plane in a place you've never been. You walk out of the airport, you inhale and I don't know what it is. It's like a smell like this place smells like some place we're going to be making interesting encounters (ph).

This is going to be interesting and fun. Other places sneak up on you like but they -- over the course of a week or however many days I'm on location gradually confound my expectations, you know, I come out thinking something very different than or very contrary to my assumptions when I arrived in a place. That's a really good feeling.

Wow, nice, best to wait this one out. Crashes are pretty common place. Not so long ago a plane with nearly a 100 people on board went down on the same route we're taking today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know, most planes they crash in Congo crashed because of the weather, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, most of time, yes but ...

BOURDAIN: Not us. Don't worry.

The weather clears up, sort of so we decide to give it a go. Our destination what Conrad referred to "Heart of Darkness" has the inner station. Here surrounded by dense jungle binds our rendezvous with the Congo River.

In "Heart of Darkness", Conrad writes about the greed of the Belgian colonizers. They grab what they could get for the sake of what was to be gotten. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale.

And after 75 years, the Congolese had had enough but independence came quickly that when the new country manage to inaugurate their first democratically-elected leader Patrice Lumumba, the CIA of the British working to the Belgians had him killed.

We helped to install this miserable bastard in his place, Joseph Mobutu. He stole billions of dollars from his people and pretty much became the template for despotism in Africa. Needless to say this situation deteriorated over the next 30 odd years and by the time Mobutu was done, the Congo was mired in a series of civil wars. The government was no longer paying its bills and the trains basically stopped running.

This is Kisangani Station. There's one short run left service once a week when operational which is an off and on which is not often, I'm guessing. Abandoned by the Belgians, shut up and stripped by rebels in the '90s, the station, the engines, the ancient passenger cars and the tracks themselves has slowly receded into the jungle.

And yet all these years later with hardly any resources, Monsieur Alub Emile, the railway administrator and a staff of clerks, conductors, mechanics and engineers show up at work and do what they can in an attempt to keep things in working order.

The railway employees I'm told do not get paid, yet they continue to show up and work. It said of the building of the country's once vast rail network one Congolese died for every single time.