The Time Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations Went Too Far

"Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations" ran on Travel Channel for 144 episodes over nine seasons, from 2005 to 2012 (via IMDb). While the show was a success, Bourdain couldn't reach his full potential until he moved to CNN to do a bolder version of food travel called "Parts Unknown." On that show, thanks to CNN's clout, Bourdain would go places he couldn't go before, including Myanmar, Libya, and Congo, according to the network's "Starting Point" blog. And that was just Season 1. 

"Parts Unknown" went too far, quite literally, when filming in Armenia for Season 8. Neighboring Azerbaijan claims the territory Bourdain visited for one of the episode's segments. Since Bourdain did not receive the Azerbaijan government's permission to enter the region, per Traveler, he was banned from ever entering the country again. Watching a different episode, some Pittsburghers thought "Parts Unknown" went too far by shining a light on that city's racial disparities (via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). Here though, we turn the spotlight on "No Reservations" and ask, which episode from that beloved Bourdain series went too far? A few candidates come to mind.

Beirut and Romania are candidates for No Reservations episodes that went too far

The "No Reservations" crew arrived in Beirut in 2006 to make a show about food in a city recovering from civil war (via The Atlantic). The show ended up being about another war, after Israel started bombing the city. At first, Anthony Bourdain thought it might be going too far to turn the footage his crew had filmed into a show (via Television Academy Foundation). But Travel Channel rushed to air the Beirut episode, just one month after Bourdain's team was evacuated (via IMDb). The episode was nominated for an Emmy, so maybe "No Reservations" hadn't gone too far in this case, after all.

As good as the Beirut show was, the Romania episode on "No Reservations" was just as bad. Bourdain admitted this in his Travel Channel blog. He made some bad decisions for Romania, including using a Russian friend as a guide in a country not at all fond of Russians. "Romania was just a terrible failure," Bourdain said in a separate video from the Television Academy Foundation interview. The Romanian government had tried to steer Bourdain toward a positive depiction of the country — pressure he successfully resisted. The Hungarian blog Dumneazu counted some 1,000 negative comments on Bourdain's Travel Channel blog, mainly from Romanians angry to see their country coming off so poorly. Bourdain had no regrets, and this episode of "No Reservations" doesn't quite qualify as the one that went too far. "Frankly," Bourdain wrote in his blog, "I think it's a pretty funny show."

Anthony Bourdain required total artistic control over his shows

Few things made Anthony Bourdain happier than tweaking the sensibilities of network executives. For Bourdain, the network was a necessary evil — a vehicle for distributing his creative work that otherwise needed to stay out of his business. As Bourdain told the Television Academy Foundation, he left Food Network and "A Cook's Tour" because executives rejected a show idea he thought was a golden opportunity: unfettered access to one of the most creative chefs at the time. Food Network would have rather seen him reporting on barbecue at county fairs, riding a pony, and wearing a cowboy hat. "You pay me to show up on time and deliver an hour of entertaining television," Bourdain said. "I will do that. But don't tell me to ride a pony."

Travel Channel understood what Food Network didn't — the best way to handle Bourdain was not to handle him at all. "We were given at Travel Channel, in the beginning, the freedom to do the best work we knew how," Bourdain said. But after he submitted the 2011 "No Reservations" holiday special to his bosses, they decided to draw a line. By Bourdain's own account, on Tumblr, he had struck "terror and confusion" among Travel Channel execs by lampooning another of their beloved show hosts and creating an animated segment showing children's Christmas joy morphing into abject fear and almost certain death. Travel Channel decided to give Bourdain's Krampus cartoon the ax.

Travel Channel host Samantha Brown amazed fans with her alter ego

Season 8 of "No Reservations" premiered with a holiday special that aired in December 2011 (via Travel Channel). As you watch, you can tell from the start this won't be yet another feel-good television celebration of the season, with families hanging the stockings with care and all that. The show opens with Bourdain's real-life wife, Ottavia Bourdain, kicking him out of the house. Bourdain gets a hotel room and wanders New York alone during Christmas. 

The viewers' experience over the next hour is like a Dostoevsky nightmare. The chef at Les Halles, the restaurant where Bourdain worked before achieving fame, won't even get him a table. He has to eat a pile of cheap meat in the basement, next to a prep cook peeling potatoes. Samantha Brown, whom Bourdain called the Travel Channel "sweetheart," played herself as an alcoholic cat lady who poured schnapps into her Frooty Pebbles (via Tumblr). A drunken, bitter Brown resents Bourdain's fame. "When I was there, everyone wanted authentic, adorable, bubbly. Then you came along," she rants. "Men eating! Men eating! How in the world that became interesting, I have no f****** idea." Next, Brown shoots Bourdain with a little gun she named Paula, sending him to the hospital. A nurse who happens to be a Paula Deen fan scornfully throws a plate of hospital food at him. Bourdain squeezes his morphine drip until he flatlines. Roll credits over footage of a band named F***** Up doing a punk version of "Jingle Bells."

The network deemed Bourdain's Krampus unfit for TV

The whole of the "No Reservations" 2011 holiday episode was — to quote Anthony Bourdain on the show — a big "Feliz Navidad motherf*****" to the viewing audience. For the most part, it seems, the audience loved it. One commenter on Eater's coverage of the show called the Samantha Brown segment "genius." Another commenter said the holiday special was "insane," in a good way. "I loved the nurse at the end," they said. "Very 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'"

Perhaps Travel Channel took some solace from the positive viewer reaction. (No word on how many complaints it got from the easily offended.) Or maybe network executives felt relief after learning that was the last holiday episode Bourdain would ever make for them. The final episode of "No Reservations" aired in early November 2012 (via Travel Channel), before Bourdain made the move to CNN and "Parts Unknown."

What the people who watched the 2011 holiday episode didn't get to see — unless they found it on YouTube — was the Krampus segment Travel Channel censored. Santa Claus' evil twin of Austrian legend stuffed those little kids in a sack so tight, their arms popped off. "The whole show was ugly, squalid, and magnificent," Bourdain wrote on Tumblr. "We didn't just bend the rules, we killed them dead — then went to the funeral and shot the mourners."