Anthony Bourdain Revisits Hawaii
My wife and I love Anthony Bourdain. He’s a famously acid-tongued chef and writer turned celebrity chef and travel host. He’s anchored several travel and food shows: “A Cook’s Tour” for the Food Network, “No Reservations” and “The Layover” on the Travel Channel, and now “Parts Unknown” on CNN.
Bourdain featured “Hawaii” on “No Reservations” more than seven years ago, and now he’s brought his CNN show back to the islands. On Sunday, June 14, the Hawaii episode of “Parts Unknown” airs at 3 p.m. in Hawaii (9 p.m. ET/PT). And once again, I was curious about which sides of Hawaii he’d see and share.
I just got a sneak peek at the episode, and I’m impressed.
Back in 2007, I was both excited and worried about Bourdain’s first TV visit to the islands for “No Reservations.” Excited because I was eager to hear his distinctive taken on my home, but worried in part because he can be brilliantly ruthless when he wants to be, and because he was being guided around town by the HVCB, which isn’t particularly interested in “the real Hawaii.”
The episode that eventually aired was enjoyable, to be sure. Bourdain visited chef’s favorite Side Street Inn and the classic Ono Hawaiian Foods near Waikiki. He went for kitchy tiki at La Mariana Sailing Club, and in perhaps the most surprisingly authentic segment, hung out with Lanai Tabura’s family and friends at a local-style backyard party in Kalihi Valley.
On the other hand, he also went to a tourist luau, indulged in a cheesy surf montage, featured the “puka dog” (which is as Hawaiian as Hawaiian pizza), and spent $3,000 on a loud “Hawaiian shirt.” There were some cringe-worthy moments that definitely seemed more like the commercially packaged Hawaii product than the real world I live in.
On “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain sticks the landing.
Sunday’s Hawaii episode felt like of the more authentic profiles of the islands I’ve seen lately — at least as authentic as one can get on a commercial cable TV show in just 44 minutes.
To be sure, Bourdain comes unapologetically from the point of view of an outsider (who understandably and amusingly fumbles the pronunciation of several Hawaiian words), and he does say and hear some provocative things that will surely ruffle feathers. But while even I disagreed with a point or two, I couldn’t deny that he and the people he spoke to were speaking from the heart.
“Hawaii is America — as American as anything could possibly be,” Bourdain says in his carefully crafted opening narration, which following a thoughtful opening sequence featuring Polynesian Voyaging Society navigator Nainoa Thompson. “Yet it also never shed what was there before and the layers and layers that have come since.”
“It’s a wonderful, tricky, conflicted, mutant, hellbroth,” he continues. “And want for lack of a better word you have to call paradise.”
“Nowhere is paradise,” we hear world-famous author Paul Theroux retort, dining with Bourdain at Town in Kaimuki. “Paradises don’t exist.”
Bourdain had me at “tricky, conflicted, mutant, hellbroth,” and the show continues from there with a solid tour of the ups and downs of island life, the push and pull of Hawaii’s mix of cultures and histories and politics. Sure, he had to riff on our love of Spam, but he also went places I didn’t expect.
He dines at Ethel’s Grill, perhaps the quintessential local hole-in-the-wall family eatery in Kalihi, with chefs Mark Noguchi and Andrew Le. Over oxtail and tripe they dive right into discussing what it means to be Hawaiian versus from Hawaii, and how some of Hawaii’s weirdest dishes have fascinating backstories.
Thompson talks of the dark days of native Hawaiian culture, and its resurgence, and Bourdain gives a decent 30-second history lesson running from the arrival of Westerners through the overthrow and World War II, from the plantation era to modern times. Today’s Hawaii is both very “Main Street USA,” and yet “has the nicest elements of the third world.”
And more than once, the shocking possibility that Hawaii may not always be dripping with aloha for its visitors is explored.
“It’s not a particularly welcoming or friendly part of the world, contrary to the aloha myth,” Bourdain tells Theroux. Theroux replies: “But no island is… did anyone ever come to an island with a good intention?”
Bourdain and his crew even goes as far as to test whether Molokai is as unfriendly as he’s been told. There he is welcomed, fed, and educated by Hanohano Naehu, keeper of the Keawanui fish pond, Hawaiian activist Walter Ritte, and friends. Over squid luau and fresh poi, they discuss Hawaiian history and sustainability.
Yes, Bourdain gets into the water again, but this time he brings with it a much richer context. He rides in an outrigger canoe to some surf-rock riffs, but the postcard moment literally leads onshore to more local moments.
“Surfing, a life connected to the ocean, and spending time with family and friends on the beach… some of the cornerstones of Hawaiian life,” Bourdain says, taking us to Maui. Daniel Ikaika Ito of Contrast surf magazine takes him to Tasty Crust, and renowned talent manager Shep Gordon hosts him at his home. There is more talk of history and culture and authenticity.
And yet, after all the talking over all the food, the episode closes with a long, serene underwater sequence that clearly left Bourdain in awe.
At one point Bourdain says he’s conflicted about what he should tell his viewers about Hawaii, noting that it’s surprisingly one of the least screwed up places he’s ever visited.
“I’m not sure what I should tell you about this amazing, multi-flavored, multicultural, awesome mashup of cool stuff in a spectacular environment,” he says. “I think what I should tell you is this: Hawaii, it’s awesome, don’t come here.”
But at least for this, his latest distinctively Bourdain documentary of our islands, I’m glad he came.