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Tony’s Compass

How the crack creative team behind the late Anthony Bourdain’s TV show helped turn him into a star, and then came together to finish his story after his death

Adam Villacin

Mourning would have to wait. This June, just days after Anthony Bourdain’s death, the crew of Parts Unknown mobilized. They had no choice. The CNN travelogue’s profoundly beloved host, whose sensibilities influenced every aspect of his series, was gone. It was on them to assemble the show’s final season.

Devastated by the loss of their colleague and friend, Bourdain’s creative team gathered at the midtown Manhattan headquarters of his production partners Zero Point Zero. Sitting around a conference room table, the late television star’s collaborators talked about what needed to be done.

“Through a really, really difficult, soul-crushing time, it was helpful for people to focus their energy into finishing something that they had started,” said ZPZ cofounder Lydia Tenaglia. “And they all said, ‘Tony would’ve enjoyed this—figuring out how to finish those shows without his narration.’ It was a puzzle.”

The pieces were there. But they had to be assembled. The last five episodes that featured all original material had been shot. But Bourdain had fully narrated only one of those. What the ZPZ staff quickly realized, however, was that they were uniquely qualified to complete Bourdain’s opus. Over the last two decades working alongside him, they’d watched Bourdain evolve from an irreverent, swashbuckling cook-writer into a mesmerizing, empathetic icon who formed an unparalleled bond with both interview subjects and viewers.

“He was sensing what you were about to feel,” said Nobel Peace Prize–nominated chef José Andrés, Bourdain’s longtime pal. “And I think that’s the reason he connected with so many people at such a deep level. He was able to venture into what you will feel as you were watching his interactions with people and the places around the world.”

Each installment of Bourdain’s program was a representation of his distinct worldview. But he didn’t create his masterpiece alone. “There’s also the DNA of everybody that worked on those shows, too,” said ZPZ cofounder Chris Collins. “So to finish these off you just lay a little more of yourself in there to pave the way for your friend who’s not here anymore. And that’s what we did.”

Still, it’s difficult to end a first-person story when its protagonist is missing. To understand how ZPZ managed to wrap up Bourdain’s rich TV life, you must first go back to its humble beginnings.

Like many Bourdain obsessives, Tenaglia was introduced to him via Kitchen Confidential. Published in 2000, his book—aspects of which he disavowed last year for glorifying “a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently”—was both a memoir and a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant industry. In his review, New York Times critic Thomas McNamee described Bourdain’s style as a mix of Hunter S. Thompson, Iggy Pop, and Jonathan Swift.

Tenaglia enjoyed Bourdain’s book and heard that he was considering a follow-up: A Cook’s Tour. At the time, she and Collins were working as shooter-producers. One of their gigs was the TLC reality show Trauma: Life in the E.R. They didn’t know it then, but the series was the perfect place to train for a travel series. In the tight spaces of operating rooms and ambulances, the pair learned to be perceptive flies on the wall. Later, Tenaglia said, “We took that model and then we applied it to a small kitchen on a back road in Vietnam.”

First, however, Tenaglia and Collins needed to escape from what they referred to as “blood and guts television.” On a whim, the former phoned Bourdain at Les Halles, the New York brasserie where he was executive chef. After introducing herself and explaining that she and Collins were producers, Tenaglia asked if he’d be interested in having a meeting.

“He’s like, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever,’” Tenaglia said. “He was very nonplussed about the whole thing.” Tenaglia and Bourdain convened between lunch and dinner at his restaurant. As she remembered it, he was nursing a drink and his chef whites were unbuttoned. She was immediately struck by his height. “Physically, he’s an incredibly interesting person to look at,” said Morgan Fallon, a ZPZ director and cinematographer. “His proportions are kind of big and grandiose.”

While chatting with Bourdain at the bar, it became evident to Tenaglia that he had no plan for A Cook’s Tour. The idea of making a TV show, Tenaglia and Collins surmise now, likely intrigued him because he wanted to use the experience to collect fodder for his new book. “It was probably an excuse for him to get out of the kitchen,” Collins said, “and us to get out of the emergency room.” Bourdain agreed to film a demo during a shift at Les Halles. At the conclusion of the evening shoot, Bourdain retreated to the basement for an interview. In it, he talked about the prospect of traveling the world.

“It was extremely romantic,” Tenaglia said. “Which I really think is a through line to a lot of Tony’s work. There’s kind of a dark romance and it’s fairly pervasive.” Bourdain’s ability to dip into an endlessly deep well of literature, film, and music knowledge stunned them. “He read more books than you,” Collins said. “He had seen more movies than you. He had probably watched more television shows than you.” Whether it was Joseph Conrad, Wong Kar-wai, David Bowie, or Keanu Reeves, he was always referencing something. “There are a couple that would just come up over, and over, and over again that were eye-rollers, man,” Fallon said with a laugh. “Like, if I have to hear another soliloquy on fuckin’ John Wick again in my life …”

At the turn of the millennium, a series starring Bourdain wasn’t exactly an easy sell. His bestseller may have endeared him to the restaurant industry, but he wasn’t quite a household name. Food culture hadn’t yet exploded. Back then, the ubiquitous, polished Food Network of Guy Fieri, Iron Chef America, Chopped, and Cupcake Wars was a long way off. The channel bought two seasons of the offbeat A Cook’s Tour.

At that point, Collins said of Bourdain, “He jumped on a train that started to move very, very fast.” In December 2000, a week after Tenaglia and Collins got married, they went on their first shoot with Bourdain. Filming of the first episodes in Japan did not go well.

“There was almost a deep reticence and a slightly adversarial relationship between what we were trying to capture and what he was trying to capture,” Tenaglia said. “Because in his mind he was a writer and he was gonna go into that Edo-style sushi place and he was gonna have this experience and then he was gonna go back to his hotel room and then he was gonna write about it. That’s a very different exercise than taking your experience and then translating that for an audience in a visual medium.”

Bourdain began to come around when shooting began in Vietnam. “Suddenly he was firing on all cylinders with all these frames of reference,” Tenaglia said. “Books and films and things he had seen. He had his well. And he could dip into the well. We were all kind of playing with the idea of film references and book references and going to the Continental Hotel where Graham Greene was and trying to capture that.”

At the start of A Cook’s Tour, Collins said, the people working on the show would write scratch narration and pass it off to Bourdain. For a short stretch there was even an internal competition to see who could come up with stuff that lived up to what he might actually say. “At some point he understood,” Collins said, “‘This is a guide track. You, Tony, need to write.’” As time passed, Bourdain’s pre-shoot preparation increased. “He was writing ideas and lines before we even got there,” Collins said. “Because he had a greater understanding of what he was gonna get. Which is really kind of beautiful. ‘This is my story.’”

After finishing the first season of A Cook’s Tour, Bourdain retreated to St. Martin to write. While he was there, he asked Collins to send over VHS tapes of all the episodes. Using those as a guide, he hammered out a book that shared the title of his new show. When A Cook’s Tour was released in 2001, Tenaglia and Collins had an epiphany about the memoir’s structure. “We’re sitting there reading it,” the former said, “and we’re like, ‘This is our shooting schedule.’”

Naturally, Collins remembered the events chronicled in the book slightly differently than his friend did. “In the beauty of Tony Bourdain, there were slight embellishments,” Collins said. “There were heightened moments.” Like, for example, references to Bourdain hanging out with shady characters. “It was part of his persona,” Collins added. “But make no mistake: It got to the point where he was meeting those people in the years after.”

In 2002 and 2003, Food Network aired two seasons of A Cook’s Tour. The channel wanted the show to continue, but sought to tighten its scope by keeping Bourdain stateside, where he’d visit things like barbecues and tailgates. Bourdain had no interest in doing that. Tenaglia and Collins recalled him asking if they thought there was a home for the series elsewhere.

They pitched it to 12 networks. The only offer came from A&E, which wanted to build a Kitchen Confidential–like reality show around Bourdain. It included no travel. “Tony kind of had an existential crisis,” Tenaglia said. Without any other options, Bourdain asked his producing partners if they should go forward with the project. But after mulling it over for a few minutes, they all agreed to pass.

“What was clear was this wasn’t right for him,” said Collins, who formed Zero Point Zero with Tenaglia in 2003. “If we did do this and we bombed out, we’d be done, maybe, with Tony.” Then, in October 2004, they heard from Travel Channel, the first network they’d pitched almost a year earlier. Meetings with the company’s brass led to three episodes of a globe-trotting show being green-lit.

In 2005, British TV executive Pat Younge was hired as president and general manager of Travel Channel. Early in his tenure, he checked in with the network’s head of production, Bill Margol, who explained the plan for Bourdain. In April, Younge watched the first five minutes of the No Reservations pilot. Shot in in Paris, the New Wave cinema homage was titled “Why the French Don’t Suck.”

Admittedly, Younge was perplexed. “It’s black and white,” he said. “He’s smoking, which means we’ll have to deal with standards and practices. Where the fuck are we going with this?” But he was willing to take a risk. Travel Channel needed a boost. After 9/11, Younge said, its ratings tanked. A big chunk of the programming schedule was dedicated to the World Poker Tour.

No Reservations, Younge figured, could once again give the network’s viewers what its name promised. He became the show’s champion. “To this day,” Tenaglia said, “I hug him in my head.” Bourdain and his boss got along well. Right away, Younge knew that his new star was unlike anyone he’d ever met—or managed.

Younge remembered a marketing executive bringing him an email from Bourdain and asking, “How do I respond to this?” In the note, Younge said, Bourdain expressed displeasure over the No Reservations title sequence, calling it “trite” and “dated.” He also wrote, “I do not know which circle of hell the creators of this abomination inhabit.” Younge smoothed over the minor conflict, which stemmed from Bourdain wanting the opening credits to showcase Polaroids of episode locations rather than digital images of them.

What the tiff taught Younge was that when it came to his work, Bourdain was uncompromising. “He had a very, very clear vision of his show in his head,” Younge said, “in a way which most talent don’t.”

On July 25, 2005, No Reservations premiered. Few viewers tuned in to the show’s earliest installments, but Younge was encouraged by an increase in ratings in the 25-to-54 age range. “In TV terms,” he said, “that’s young.” He also noticed that people were talking about the show on internet message boards. “So,” Younge said, “what we decided what we were gonna do is double down.” Travel Channel ordered more episodes of the series, which got renewed for a second season.

In those days, No Reservations was strictly a travel and food show. Collins used to hear Bourdain say, “I am not a journalist. I am not the guy to go off and tell those kind of stories.” Then, in July 2006, he shot an episode in Beirut. During filming, war between Israel and Hezbollah broke out.

“We were hearing, from our end, that shit was starting to get dark over there,” Tenaglia said. Collins called Bourdain and told him that he and the crew needed to leave. Now. “Tony’s like, ‘No, no, it’s fine. We’re good. We’re fine,’” Collins said. “And he was extremely cavalier about the whole thing.” Collins was so angry that he hung up on Bourdain.

“It was an interesting dynamic with our relationship,” Tenaglia said. “It was truly one based on a deep love for each other. But also it was dealing with someone very stubborn and impossible at times.” Not long after Collins and Bourdain spoke, Israel bombed the Beirut airport. “Then,” Tenaglia said, “Tony realized the shit storm they were stuck in.” He grew extremely concerned about his crew’s safety.

While waiting to be evacuated, Bourdain and his team hunkered down in the Royal Hotel. Bourdain had been urged to keep a low profile. “Next thing I know,” Younge said, “I see him on CNN talking about what it’s like in the hotel.” With assistance from Discovery, Travel Channel’s parent company, and the United States Marine Corps, Bourdain and his crew eventually made it to the beach and boarded a landing craft utility. The amphibious vehicle brought them to the USS Nashville, which provided transport to Cyprus. The team then flew privately to the Teterboro, New Jersey, airport.

As soon as Bourdain got off the plane, he approached Collins: “We’re never making an episode out of this material.” They had, after all, shot only about 10 hours of footage before the conflict started. Younge, who’d purchased Bourdain two packs of cigarettes as a welcome-home gift, was also there that day. He instructed Bourdain to turn the episode around quickly. “That was absolutely the right thing to do,” Younge said. “Because it was gonna be the best exclusive films on what it’s like to be in one of these situations.”

Over the next few days, the episode took shape. Without an abundance of material, Collins interviewed Bourdain at length about the nine days spent in Beirut. The host then wrote his narration.

“I’d begun to believe that the dinner table was the great leveler, where people from opposite sides of the world could always sit down and talk and eat and drink and, if not solve all the world’s problems, at least find, for a time, common ground,” he says in the episode’s closing moments. “Now, I’m not so sure. Maybe the world’s not like that at all. Maybe in the real world—the one without cameras and happy food and travel shows—everybody, the good and the bad together, are all crushed under some terrible wheel. I hope, I really hope, that I’m wrong about that.”

“Anthony Bourdain in Beirut” aired on August 21, 2006, and earned the series its first Emmy Award nomination. “That show was probably the first Bourdain episode to do a .7 or a .8, which, in TV terms. is when you’re playing with the big boys,” Younge said. “That was like the next level of Bourdain.”

From there, “He took off.”

To Bourdain, Beirut was a turning point. Later, in a blog post, he described leaving Lebanon feeling disillusioned. “I came away from the experience deeply embittered, confused—and determined to make television differently than I had before,” he wrote. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it or whether my network at the time was going to allow me, but the days of happy horseshit—the uplifting sum-up at the end of every show, the reflex inclusion of a food scene in every act—that ended right there.”

For a while, Travel Channel provided him the platform that he desired. But as No Reservations blossomed into a hit show, some of its biggest internal supporters, including executive producer Myleeta Aga and Younge, left the network. At the tail end of an eight-season run—Bourdain also made 20 episodes of The Layover—Tenaglia and Collins started hearing the same things that they did before leaving Food Network. Bourdain and his team were asked to make stripped-down, domestically shot episodes. According to Collins, the word from the executives was discouraging. “It was the classic statement—and this is a sad statement—‘Our audience doesn’t have a passport.’”

Bourdain wasn’t happy about making a smaller, safer show. But Travel Channel had offered a two-year deal, and no other networks were calling. “We’re screwed,” Tenaglia recalled thinking. “We’re gonna sign the contract because we have no recourse.”

Unbeknownst to them, there was a suitor. In 2012, CNN embarked upon an original series division. One day, Tenaglia said, newly hired executive Vinnie Malhotra left her a voicemail. He wanted to speak with Tenaglia and Collins. They met with Malhotra and fellow CNN executive Amy Entelis, with whom they chatted about potential projects. Near the end of the conversation, Bourdain’s name came up. “Not by us,” Collins said.

When Collins explained that ZPZ and Bourdain were close to re-upping with Travel Channel, the CNN execs asked if they could hold off on signing the contract. Soon, the news network was offering Bourdain a show. It didn’t take long for him to accept.

“We all jumped into a chasm,” said Tenaglia, who still has Malhotra’s initial message saved on her phone. The move to a deep-pocketed, well-connected global news network unlocked more of the world for Bourdain. In his first year at CNN, he visited Myanmar, Libya, and Congo. But more importantly, the shift provided him with a comforting amount of creative security.

“I’ve had people over the years go, ‘You really made an enormous leap from Travel Channel to CNN,’” Collins said. “What I attribute that to is not a better budget or more episodes ordered. What you’re seeing is a network, CNN, giving you the confidence to go do that which you know how to do and grow it.” Younge called Parts Unknown, which debuted on April 14, 2013, “No Reservations on steroids.”

Each facet of the show, down to the theme song, had Bourdain’s fingerprints on it. His friends, rock musicians Josh Homme and Mark Lanegan, collaborated on the track. Before recording, the three of them joined together on a conference call. Bourdain asked for something that sounded like Joey Ramone’s version of “What a Wonderful World.”

“If you listen to the song, it’s basically just a quick rewrite of that,” Lanegan said. Bourdain loved it. “I was thrilled to be involved,” Lanegan added. “And even more thrilled when he dug what we did. He said it was exactly what he was looking for.”

Bourdain’s unofficial motto for Parts Unknown was simple. “He would say, ‘Let’s go for it,’” recalled ZPZ director-editor Nick Brigden. After arriving in Tokyo to shoot a second-season episode, Bourdain decided that he wanted to explore shibari, a style of rope bondage. A fixer helped the crew find a shibari master, who agreed to let the crew film a session. The subject was a dominatrix. “She participated in this shibari because she felt like she needed to balance out her yin and yang,” Brigden said. “She was very much yang in her day job as a dominatrix. And she needed to be submitted through the shibari. So it was very therapeutic for her. It was interesting. But it was incredibly erotic.” The crew also shot her at work, interweaved the two scenes, and gave the piece to CNN.

“They were very surprised to say the least,” Brigden said. “But they were also very willing to work with us. Pushing the envelope, that was our war cry. Tony pushed us to push ourselves. He never wanted to do the same thing twice.”

Bourdain had become a celebrity. That helped him book dozens of notable guests, including President Barack Obama, with whom he dined on bún chả in Hanoi. But the way Bourdain disarmed the buttoned-up leader of the free world was no different than how he engaged a home cook on any continent. Bourdain always found a way to connect.

“The thing that distinguishes someone who is expert in these kinds of one-on-one conversations and someone who’s sort of getting by,” said record producer and musician Steve Albini, who ate a Ricobene’s breaded steak sandwich with Bourdain in the Chicago episode of Parts Unknown, “is that the expert gives the subject the genuine impression that he gives a shit about what that person has to say.”

Fallon’s favorite example of Bourdain’s ability to ingratiate himself with people came while filming in Welch, West Virginia, for an episode that aired this April. Before a meal, the family hosting Bourdain said a prayer. Though not religious, he joined in anyway.

“Without skipping a beat, he grabs everyone’s hands, bows his head, he says ‘Amen,’” Fallon said. “He was fully into it. He fully understood, ‘I can do this, I’m not worried about what this means in terms of my image, my persona, who I am, what the audience sees me as. I’m here with these people. I’m sharing in their experience. And I’m going to do that wholeheartedly.’”

As Parts Unknown progressed, and Bourdain tackled more and more complex locales and issues, he struggled to top himself. That sometimes made the crew’s life difficult.

“Every year that went by it was a harder, and harder, and harder exercise,” Tenaglia said, “and he became more exacting and more difficult and more challenging and more bullying to make sure that the next show was better than the last one.”

Yet there was still room for joy. Earlier this year, Bourdain filmed in Asturias, the gorgeously mountainous region of northern Spain where José Andrés was born. The gregarious Washington, D.C.–based chef, Bourdain’s foil in the episode, spends the show giving his friend a tour of his childhood haunts and feeds him, among many local other specialties, fabada asturiana. One evening, when the filming of a wild salmon feast at a restaurant finished, Bourdain, Andrés, and the crew lingered.

“After long days of shooting, and especially if you have to go to the airport early in the morning like he had to and I had to,” Andrés said, “you want to go back to the hotel as quick as you can and get into bed.” Instead, they opened a bottle of Château d’Yquem and when that was empty, pulled the cork of a second, bigger bottle. Brigden said it was the most fun he’d ever had on a shoot.

“We were sipping that beautiful sweet wine like time was not ticking,” Andrés said. “And we were all there talking about nothing. Talking about life. The big dreams and the little dreams. The important things and the non-important things.”

It was the last wine that he and Bourdain drank together.

On June 8, Bourdain, 61, took his own life. Chef Eric Ripert, his friend, found him unresponsive in his hotel room in Kaysersberg, France.

I recently interviewed Tenaglia and Collins in the same Zero Point Zero conference room where the Parts Unknown crew gathered after Bourdain’s death. The morning we met, the former spoke briefly about her friend’s suicide.

“I think Tony died of a broken heart,” she said, echoing chef and friend Daniel Boulud’s thoughts. “I do. I think we all know it. And we saw it and we felt it very, very deeply that he was in the midst of something that was not good for him and it ultimately just crushed his heart, I think. That’s really what happened.”

The outpouring of grief that followed the tragedy could have overwhelmed the members of Bourdain’s tight-knit, award-winning ZPZ team, but somehow, it had the opposite effect. “I would say I was just amped,” Fallon said. “I think it was just adrenaline.”

In addition to two retrospectives, there were five more episodes of Parts Unknown left to create. The final season premiere, shot in Kenya with W. Kamau Bell, features Bourdain’s full narration. The others do not.

While assembling “Far West Texas,” Fallon tried to imagine what a show without voice-over would be like. To fill in the gaps, he recorded new audio interviews with some of the episode’s subjects. “You have to kind of say, ‘This is Tony’s show and this is Tony’s voyage and so we’re gonna strip a lot of the exposition away from and just kind of present the facts,’” Fallon said. “If you watch that West Texas show, it’s a very political show.” But since it lacks Bourdain’s editorial perspective, Fallon added, “it’s much less opinionated [than it would’ve been with him].”

During filming in Asturias, Brigden had done something unusual. He shot a lengthy interview with Andrés. “I’ve done dozens and dozens of shows and I’d never sat down with a sidekick,” said Brigden, who weaved some of the poignant chat into the episode.

As he edited, Brigden would reflexively seek Bourdain’s approval. What would he think of this music track? This scene? This line? “It’s kind of like that Obi-Wan shit,” Brigden said. “Where Obi appears to Luke. It sounds spooky but it’s really comforting, even though he’s gone from this earth.”

Eventually, Brigden realized that he didn’t need Bourdain’s feedback. “His parting gift to me and to everyone, I think, was that he made us better filmmakers,” he said. “And after almost 10 years of working with him, and his guidance, I think he will never leave me. That compass that he set for me will always be with me.”

For Collins, Tenaglia, and ZPZ, one last question remained: How should the show end? When Bourdain was a young man, the now-gentrified Lower East Side of Manhattan was to him—an addict, punk rock fan, and cook—a special place. That, and not a distant land, is where Parts Unknown would wrap. “It just felt like he was coming home,” Brigden said. The final episode, which aired November 11, highlights a long list of the LES’s finest, including Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, and Jim Jarmusch.

Michael Ruffino, the show’s music director, said that the last email Bourdain sent him was about a song. It was the 1978 track “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” by the late punk singer Johnny Thunders. CNN had finally secured the rights to the song, and Bourdain wanted it for the LES episode. He asked Ruffino to record a version.

“Johnny Thunders’s concept of a ballad, and the execution of it, is just very different than certainly anything you’d hear now,” said Ruffino, longtime bassist for the Unband. “I’m sure to him it just sounded like the ’50s music that he loved. There was no way to keep the sense of abandon out of it, and I think that’s really the beauty of it.”

Ruffino didn’t record the song until after Bourdain’s death. When Ruffino finished, he said, “I just felt like it needed something in there.” At the last minute, Bourdain’s daughter, Ariane, recorded backing vocals into her iPhone and sent them to Ruffino. “She was a trooper,” he said. The song plays over the episode’s closing montage. And then the screen cuts to black.

“I’m sure there were people who looked at it and were like, ‘That’s it? That’s how you end this?’” Collins said. “And you know what? That’s how you end this.”

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