Anthony Bourdain and W. Kamau Bell are sipping gin and tonics on a hillside in Kenya at dusk. They’ve just finished a day-long safari and are taking in the gorgeous landscape.
“What a shithole,” Bourdain says sarcastically, with a laugh, alluding to President Donald Trump’s offensive comments about African immigrants. Moments later, things turn more personal.
“The idea that I’m sitting here with you, doing this now, knowing where my life and career have come, it’s pretty cool,” Bell, whose CNN series United Shades of America was directly inspired by Bourdain’s, tells the host. He asks himself, “Whose life is this?”
Bourdain, who had been traveling the world doing this type of show for 17 years, tells Bell that “as soon as the cameras turn off,” when he and his crew are sitting around having a cocktail, “I pinch myself.”
“I cannot fucking believe that I get to do this,” Bourdain continues. “Or see this, ever. Or that I ever would, because 44 years ago, dunking fries, I knew, with absolute certainty, that I would never, ever see Rome, much less this.”
Three months later, he was gone.
That scene in Kenya comes toward the end of the first new Parts Unknown episode to air on CNN following Bourdain’s suicide. But, as Bell tells me by phone this week, he never thought their semi-private moment would be seen by the rest of the world.
“At the time, I was like, I know they’re never going to use this because it’s not about us being in Kenya,” Bells says. The cameras were far enough away from them that it felt like they were alone. “But I was like, I’m going to take this opportunity to tell him how I feel about him and how surreal all this is,” he adds. “And then he leaned in and told me how he felt about his whole career. If we had gotten on the plane at that moment I would have felt like I got what I needed to get out of this.”
Bell believes it’s “important to let people who are important to you know that they’re important” because “you never know if you’re going to get the chance again.” In this case, that proved true. “So I’m glad they left that in the show,” he says, “because that was the moment I felt like we really connected.”
As for what Bourdain said about “pinching” himself when he thinks of how fortunate he has been in his career, Bell says, “It certainly opens up a lot of questions, but I don’t really think about it differently now because I think it was true in that moment.” Of course, he adds, “That doesn’t mean that life isn’t complicated.”
For many fans and regular viewers, Bourdain seemed to have the perfect life, with the ability to travel anywhere, eat anything and generally spend his waking hours learning new things and having a good time. Bell says he never perceived depression beneath the surface, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
“It wasn’t like there was on-camera Tony and off-camera Tony,” Bell says. “He definitely put himself forward as a guy who was complicated and had issues and could be gruff sometimes, but he also had a big heart and all that stuff was true being around him.”
“Every night after we finished shooting, we would all hang out, me, him and the crew,” he recalls. “We would stay up and we would talk. So for me, he could have been the guy I wanted him to be on camera and then just gone to his hotel room and not wanted to talk to me, but the fact was that we hung out a lot together.” Bell could tell that Bourdain “had a lot on his mind” but at the same time was always “generous” and eager to engage with everyone around him.
Bell stresses that he and Bourdain were not that close, but they were “becoming friends” shortly before he passed. “You’re basically seeing us form a friendship throughout the show,” he says, adding that he was “excited to get to know him some more.”
The Kenya episode, which premieres this Sunday, September 23rd at 9 p.m. on CNN, is one of five new location-based episodes that Bourdain filmed before his death. In addition to those, CNN is planning to air two stand-alone specials that delve into the host’s complex legacy.
Bourdain described this first new episode as a “mashup” between his show and United Shades of America and first proposed the idea of a collaboration with Bell when they met at an Emmy Awards after party a few years ago. “That was the first time I’d ever been in the same room as him,” Bell says. “And right off the bat, very quickly, he was like, ‘We should do something together.’ And I was still just like, ‘Oh my god, I’m meeting Anthony Bourdain.’”
Bell never imagined they would actually end up filming an episode together, but when CNN nudged them to make the idea a reality, he suggested Kenya as a possible destination, somewhere Bourdain had surprisingly never filmed before.
“I couldn’t imagine there would be a country I had heard of that he hadn’t been to,” Bell says. “He had been all over Africa, but this was the first time I stepped foot in Africa.” Bell’s parents gave him a Kenyan first name, so he had always wanted to see that country for himself. Even if Bourdain hadn’t passed away shortly after, Bell says their time in Kenya would have been “one of the seminal experiences” of his life.
When we first spoke before the launch of his CNN show two years ago, Bell said he wanted to “sample racism” on United Shades the way Bourdain samples food on Parts Unknown. “I think the thing that I was inspired by was that he went all in on his creative vision,” Bell says now, emphasizing the fact that Bourdain made him want to be his truest self onscreen.
“In one sense, I felt like a lottery winner because I got to do something that everybody who watches Bourdain wants to do, which is travel with him and do the thing he does,” Bell says. “And there was part of me that felt like I was on some sort of externship in TV production.” When he got back from the 11-day trip, he called his show’s producer and said, “We have to change everything. I’ve been to the mountaintop!” Bourdain “changed our show from the inside even before he died,” he adds.
More than anything else about Anthony Bourdain, Bell wants people to understand “the depth to which he cared about” making the best possible version of his show. “This was his life’s work. This was his lasting legacy.”