There is an inexhaustible stock of incredible moments of connection, understanding, and joy in the archives of Anthony Bourdain’s show—A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown are really just four iterations of the same show—that the world inevitably feels like a brighter, more colorful place for having had Bourdain traipse across it. You could watch his religious experience at Waffle House and come away believing, if only for five minutes, in the American experiment.
The best episodes, though, were the ones where everything went terribly wrong. A high-water mark is Bourdain’s Iceland episode, where he loses it and drinks a bunch of Brennivín while snowed into a cave, and then recoils in horror after eating fermented shark. His disdain for the local cuisine and his own misguided decision to go to Iceland in January permeate the show and transform an objective disaster into an entertaining sort of trainwreck. Bourdain was always gleeful about the fact that showing the world in all its imperfections through the food that people eat was itself an imperfect process.
Which brings us to Romania, Bourdain’s most infamous failed episode, which he aptly called a “masterpiece of incompetence.” It remains the most inexplicably dreadful hour of television ever featuring Bourdain: Everything seems to have gone completely wrong from the moment the crew stepped foot in Bucharest. This is an episode that features nothing beautiful, no moments of spontaneous discovery, and more or less nothing remotely redeeming about the food Bourdain ate or the things he saw. The paranoid influence of the Romanian government’s tourism arm lingers throughout the episode, and his guide, Russian miscreant Zamir Gotta, is either too drunk, too injured, or too out of his element to do anything but make the trip worse.
The first stop is an attempt to see a statue of Vlad the Impaler, which never happens. As the cameras shoot stray dogs, car-sized potholes, and decaying grey buildings, an official of sorts shamelessly asks for a monumental bribe in order to allow Bourdain to shoot the statue. Bourdain is visibly furious with Gotta as they saunter off to their first meal of the trip at a tacky theme restaurant, a genre of eatery against which he admits his prejudices are “well-known and deeply felt.” The “insane museum of bric-a-brac” is lorded over by a lady in a big hat, who plays at personally inspecting and approving every dish that leaves the kitchen. The whole charade is woefully inauthentic, and Bourdain’s impatience with the meal is palpable.
Bourdain and Gotta then check out the Romanian Palace of the Parliament, as an English-speaking local gleefully remembers the overthrow and execution of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The man says something about how it’s better to laugh than cry in dire times, which Bourdain ominously warns will soon “become emblematic of the rest of our journey.” Bourdain later spoke about how government officials restricted the places they were allowed to shoot at to the least interesting, most hackneyed touristy places possible, which becomes painfully obvious when they go to Dracula’s castle.
The two sort of half-assedly pretend to be businessmen interested in purchasing the castle before Bourdain breaks down and admits the tour is “about as interesting as poking a dead squirrel with a stick.” They then discover that the castle in question is only some old house where the real person who inspired the character of Dracula spent a week in jail. Bourdain’s shows were attempts to break through popularly held stereotypes to find a truth beyond what most tourists see. When he is forced to spend time in places that ham-fisted Romanian authorities apparently thought were tourist attractions, he sees through the bullshit and calls it out. At this point in the episode, he’s clearly having a bad time, but he’s showing the viewer everything he sees.
What comes next is the worst part. Bourdain and Gotta are scheduled to spend Halloween night at a kitschy Dracula-themed hotel, described as “if Motel 6 had sex with a renaissance faire.” It’s a transparent tourist trap, and while Bourdain kind of plays along and dons a costume, he refuses to contain his sense of dread, and he gets loaded while a crowd of elderly tourists from Nevada hosts an altogether embarrassing costume contest. As Bourdain gets angrier, the party spirals out of control, culminating in a dude wearing a stained cape and an obviously cheap Dracula costume calling contestants in for “a totally pointless, squalid, half-hearted, but valiant battle.” The entire evening was an obvious setup, but rather than ignore it or try to find the fun in it, Bourdain’s show simply lets the camera run. If he’s going to have a miserable time, well, you have to sit through it too.
“Absolutely every genuine moment was quickly smothered under a thick scrim of artificiality, falsehood, and staginess,” Bourdain later wrote of his trip to Romania. The coup de grâce comes at the end of the episode, when he and Gotta travel to a small farm in the northern countryside to celebrate Gotta’s 50th birthday with a traditional meal. Unbeknownst to the viewer, the family who cooks for Bourdain was in fact relocated to a more “authentic-looking” house by Romanian authorities and the kids were dressed up in “authentic indigenous garb.” Worse still, Bourdain is left to wander around alone after Gotta throws his back out on the way to the cottage, then has to go sleep after getting prodigiously drunk off of homemade Țuică. The obviously uncomfortable family, including a child with a flamethrower, cooks what looks like a decent meal for Bourdain, though the inauthenticity of the affair is obvious from the start. After “no small amount of rage and personal humiliation,” Bourdain can finally leave Romania.
Bourdain later recalled the episode fondly as both a “shameful and slanderous show,” but it was a “very, very funny show.”
Bourdain’s ceaseless appetite for discovery and desire to tell untold stories made him a hero and an inspiration to millions, but his willingness to go along with anything, to get lost and have a bad time and be wrong, was one of his greatest qualities as a TV host. Bourdain was given a fake version of Romania, and he wove an authentic portrait of what it felt like for him to be trapped in that vortex of shit. He showed you the world as it was.