There's a moment in the second episode of the soon-to-be-concluded third season of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown in which Bourdain sits an an ornate table in the gaudy Octavius Villa in Las Vegas' Caesar's Palace, comically unaware of what to do with himself or how he got there.
"You have made some steps up," comments Bourdain's dining companion, author Michael Ruhlman, seemingly a mile away at the other end of the table. "You deserve this."
It'll be 14 years this August since the release of the bestselling Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, transforming Bourdain into a culinary bad boy amid a sea of holier-than-thou food demigods. A reputation that Bourdain clung to and flaunted for the camera as much as possible during the Food Network's A Cooks Tour and for much of its wildly popular follow-up, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.
Bourdain himself will probably admit that his crass ways and bleak world view back then were ways of reconciling with his dark past and rocky road to the top -- one filled with drug addiction and all manner of highs and lows that only fellow chefs and food industry types could truly empathize with. As popular as Bourdain was becoming, he didn't want to lose touch with who he truly was.
But he's not that same guy anymore. And the quality of his television is better off for it.
At a certain point, Bourdain realized that there was little to be angry with in his life. He's no longer an addict. He's traveling the world and eating for a living. He's got a literally kick-ass wife. He can't even truly rail against celebrity food culture anymore, as he himself is a food celebrity now.
Kitchen Confidential and A Cook's Tour and the earlier episodes of No Reservations were Bourdain at his most jaded. Now he's spending more time enjoying the ride, treating himself to a luxurious dinner in that aforementioned Caesar's Palace villa. Or engaging in an orgy of the finest in French gastronomy the very next episode during a trip to Lyon.
There's still a dark undertone to Parts Unknown to satiate the cravings of those who savored the old Bourdain (which is to say the young one). He addresses the ongoing, deadly drug war when he travels to Mexico City; the ruthlessness of Putin-controlled Russia; the contentiousness within Indian's Punjab region.
But he does so not as someone who uses this darkness to fuel his own anger, like he used to. He takes it all in as a scholar or reporter would. He wants to understand it all for knowledge's sake, to be curious and ask questions not because he's a cynic but because he feels obligated to know as much as possible.
And he's passing that obligation onto us. Perhaps the best-known culinary bad boy in the business has grown up. And as viewers, we're reaping the benefits.