"Phnom Penh. S---. What have I got myself into?"
So begins an episode of Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, the new Netflix travel show starring American chef David Chang. The introduction to his journey through the Cambodian capital oozes Anthony Bourdain obeisance, a fairly naked attempt at mimicking another more famous American chef's intrepid, excited style.
The thing is though, it doesn't work. In recalling Bourdain immediately, Chang makes you realise that he's no Bourdain – immediately. He also makes you realise that, hang on, he's only in Cambodia, the same place every backpacker has been going for 20 years. And the opening montage pictures Chang relaxing in one of the city's five-star hotels. I think you'll be OK, mate.
The Phnom Penh episode isn't the first in the four-part series – in fact it's the last – but it's the one I clicked on to sample Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner, because it's the destination I'm most interested in, and I'm a fan of the episode's guest star, Kate McKinnon. So my first taste of the series were those not very insightful words.
For those who don't have Netflix, Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner is pitched at people like me: people who love to eat, love to travel, and really miss Anthony Bourdain. It features Momofuku founder David Chang travelling to a different location each episode and eating local food with a famous guest star: he visits Vancouver with Seth Rogan, Marrakech with Chrissy Teigen, LA with Lena Waithe, and Phnom Penh with McKinnon.
It's part buddy comedy, part food show, part travel show. Chang and his guests move through the world discussing their personal histories, trading anecdotes, dropping names and eating tasty dishes with the destinations themselves relegated to mere backdrops most of the time. These foreign places – particularly Phnom Penh and Marrakech – are just objects of wonder to keep the conversations flowing.
I'm not a huge fan. Mostly, I'm not a huge fan of the American-centric portrayal of the world that's evident throughout Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner. Everything on the show has to be viewed through American eyes: what Americans think of it; how it relates to America; why Americans should care about it. McKinnon only chose Phnom Penh as her destination because it's a place most Americans don't know much about – including herself.
This is not the replacement for Anthony Bourdain that people have been looking for. Yes, Bourdain was American, but it never felt like he was making TV purely for Americans, or that he viewed the world through a particularly American prism. He was interested, first and foremost, in other people, other cultures – not what Americans thought of them.
That's what makes a great travel TV show. It's a show that provides insight from a visitor, but that also allows a destination to speak for itself. It's also one that gives you the grit and the grime of the real travel experience, without mockery or judgement. It allows things to go wrong, and then just smiles or grimaces when they do.
Bourdain's shows did that. Long Way Around, the motorbiking adventures of Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman, also did that. Simon Reeves' travel shows do that. Michael Palin's did that.
It's a deceptively difficult skill, particularly as a presenter, to let others talk while also having something interesting to say yourself. British comic Richard Ayoade, for instance, is extremely intelligent and usually entertaining, but his weekend getaways show, Travel Man, too often veers into just making fun of locals and local culture. He's not really travelling to learn anything, he's travelling to say funny things.
Conan O'Brian, genuinely witty American TV host, makes cringe-worthy travel shows that view the world through a lens of American ignorance.
Australia, for its part, has never really produced a great travel TV show, despite the fact we're great travellers. For too long we were fed a diet of pure cheese (which, apparently, most of the country was hungry for), as we followed the sunny, resort-bound antics of shiny-toothed presenters on the likes of Getaway, The Great Outdoors, Postcards, Weekender, and so on and so on.
Those weren't even really travel shows. They were holiday shows. They were lightning-fast suggestions of places to go and things to do, quick enough to fit between the ad breaks. There was never any attempt to discover culture or get to know locals or allow the slightest realistic mishap to unfold.
And so the search for the perfect travel show continues; the search to somehow replace Anthony Bourdain continues. It's not Getaway, obviously. It's not Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner either. It's not David Chang. And it's probably not even American.
But hopefully it's out there somewhere.
What's your favourite travel TV show? What do you look for in a travel show? Are there any you really hate?
LISTEN: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast
To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.