How do you write an Anthony Bourdain book without Anthony Bourdain? Laurie Woolever tries, with 'World Travel'

Almost three years after his death, and after a pandemic that almost completely shut down international travel, Ecco will publish World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Bourdain and his longtime assistant Woolever.

The New York Times April 16, 2021 18:02:48 IST
How do you write an Anthony Bourdain book without Anthony Bourdain? Laurie Woolever tries, with 'World Travel'

Laurie Woolever, Anthony Bourdain's longtime assistant, outside Gray’s Papaya on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which makes an appearance in “World Travel: An Irreverent Guide” by Bourdain and Woolever, April 1, 2021. (Karsten Moran/The New York Times)

In March 2017, Anthony Bourdain had an idea for a book but no time to write it. Since he started travelling and eating on camera with the Food Network’s A Cook’s Tour in 2000, the chef, frequent dropper of F-bombs and insatiable eater of delicious things had spent the majority of his time in the field, most recently for his CNN show, Parts Unknown. Bourdain and his team decided he would carve out some time to write in the summer of 2018, when he would have a few rare continuous weeks at home during a break in filming. That, of course, never happened, as Bourdain died by suicide in June 2018.

Nevertheless, next week, almost three years after his death, and after a pandemic that almost completely shut down international travel, Ecco will publish World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Bourdain and his longtime assistant (or “lieutenant,” as he often referred to her), Laurie Woolever.

“To me, there was no question that the book would go on,” Woolever said in a recent video call from her home in Queens, New York. “As long as I had the blessing of his estate, which I did, I wanted to finish it as a way to serve his legacy.”

World Travel is built out of a somewhat amorphous vision, an “atlas of the world as seen through his eyes,” Woolever writes in the book’s introduction. It is the second book, after 2016’s Appetites, that includes Woolever’s name on the cover just under Bourdain’s, albeit smaller. It speaks to the power of Bourdain’s legacy and the singularity of his point of view that his name still sits so boldly on the book’s cover despite the fact that he contributed not a single new written word to its 469 pages.

The book is built to read like a travel guide, even if it would be a stretch to use it as one. It covers 43 countries, with Bourdain’s recommendations for restaurants, hotels and other attractions in each one drawn mostly from his various TV shows. In between, Woolever, who was archivist, fact checker and editor on the book, as well as its co-author, has inserted context and, for each destination, a section on airports, public transportation and taxi costs. Occasionally she adds her own recommendations based on her travels and knowledge of Bourdain’s favorite off-camera spots: One particularly charming section includes a delivery request that Bourdain emailed to Woolever, for Pastrami Queen, a kosher deli on New York’s Upper East Side.

The book comes at a pivotal moment in travel, just after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that Americans who are vaccinated can travel internationally, and as closed borders between countries are slowly and fitfully reopening. The timing is fortuitous, though not intentional: The book was originally scheduled to publish in the fall of 2020, and Woolever said the publication was delayed because of production issues, not the coronavirus .

Edward Ash-Milby, the lifestyle book buyer at Barnes & Noble, said in an email that the bookstore chain has put in an order similar in size to that for past bestsellers by Bourdain: “We’ve ordered it for all 600-plus stores and we are all very excited about it.”

After the travel book market took a major hit over the past year, Ash-Milby said in his email that he has started to see it coming back in the United States, especially when it comes to domestic travel. World Travel, he said, was perfectly positioned to take advantage of American readers’ pent-up wanderlust for places further afield.

“I love the publication date of Anthony Bourdain’s World Travel, ” he wrote. “It feels perfectly timed to meet the imagination of today’s travelers who are primed to explore.”

Bourdain never professed to being a fan of travel guides and, before this book, he had never really expressed much interest in writing one. In an interview during South by Southwest in 2016, he admitted that he rarely read them.

“I like atmospherics,” he said. “I don’t want a list of the best hotels or restaurants; I want to read fiction set in the place where you get a real sense of what that place is like.”

Despite this, Woolever said there was also an understanding between the two of them that a guide could be exactly what his fans wanted.

“I would like to think that even if someone has seen every episode, even if they’ve read every book, there is the possibility of fresh discovery with this book,” she said.

The choice of what to include — which Singaporean hawker stalls, Spanish tapas restaurants or American dive bars made the list — mostly came out of one hourlong, recorded conversation in the spring of 2018 between Woolever and Bourdain held at Bourdain’s Manhattan high-rise apartment, which he had, according to Woolever, decorated to mimic one of his favorite hotels, Los Angeles’ Chateau Marmont.

“I prepared ahead of time for this meeting with Tony by making a list of every place he had been,” Woolever said. Then, as Bourdain chain-smoked and free-associated, she took notes.

“He would just, off the top of his head, say, ‘We’ve got to include this market stall, and this place with the chicken,’ ” she recalled. “He had a pretty astonishing level of recall for somebody who had done so much.”

In that quiet summer of 2018, Bourdain was planning to go through the curated list of countries and cities and write new, original essays about them. From his work on television it isn’t hard to imagine what they could have been: an effusive, profanity-laced ode to the decadent and delicate noodle soups of Vietnam perhaps, or an examination of why he loved old colonial hotels in the tropics so much despite their often problematic histories.

The conversation, meant to be the first of many brainstorming sessions, became Woolever’s only blueprint. Facing all of the unwritten essays, she reached out to Bourdain’s friends, family members and former colleagues to fill that space: His younger brother, Christopher Bourdain, writes about traveling to the Jersey Shore and Uruguay for episodes of Parts Unknown and No Reservations; record producer Steve Albini provides a lengthy list of his favorite where-would-Bourdain-eat spots in Chicago; Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg recounts how the stunt that made her restaurant famous (a “bone luge” shot, in which bourbon is poured down a hollowed-out veal bone) was concocted for an episode of The Layover, the relatively short-lived Travel Channel show that was, before this book, the closest Bourdain ever came to making a “how to” guide.

“It’s a hard and lonely thing to co-author a book about the wonders of world travel when your writing partner, that very traveler, is no longer traveling that world,” Woolever admits in the book’s introduction.

Woolever first worked with Bourdain in 2002, when her former employer, chef Mario Batali, recommended her as a recipe tester and editor for Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. She became his assistant in 2009 after working as, among other things, an editor and a private chef. As Woolever recounts it, Bourdain happened to be looking for an assistant at the precise time that she had a child and was looking to do something new.

“It was such a lucky coincidence of timing for both of us,” she said.

Woolever knew Bourdain well after so many years, and it was that closeness that helped her get through some of the hard decisions in putting together the book, she said.

Much of that decision-making process involved talking to others: members of his close circle of confidants, his production team and past fixers who offered updated information on old spots Bourdain might have visited.

“I never want to speak for Tony, but if I had to speculate — and I think we all agreed — I think he would want these things that had been set in motion to go on,” she said. She ran decade-old No Reservations picks by past collaborators to make sure they were still good. She pored over transcripts of past shows and spent days contacting chefs in the French countryside or along the Mozambique coast to make sure they were still operating.

That fact-checking process took on a new level of intensity, of course, with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, as restaurants globally were hit hard.

“I did check to see that all the listed venues were still open just before the window closed to any new edits,” she told me. She knows of just one establishment — Cold Tea bar in Toronto — that has closed since but doesn’t regret its inclusion in the book.

“I am happy to have its listing remain in the text, because Tony loved it, and I hope that the business owners may be able to resurrect it in the future,” she said.

Over the course of the book, Woolever never makes the claim that the guide is comprehensive — and the end result does feel incomplete and unbalanced. The countries of Ghana, Ireland and Lebanon get three pages apiece; the United States gets nearly 100. There is a chapter on Macau, but nothing on Indonesia or Thailand. These are somewhat predictable shortcomings, dependent as the book is on voice-over transcripts spanning decades and the impossible task of stringing them together across time.

Some of the inclusions feel at odds with Bourdain’s avoid-the-tourists approach to travel as well. In the Tokyo section, recommendations include the Park Hyatt hotel (made famous by Lost in Translation); Sukiyabashi Jiro, the restaurant at the center of the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi; the bizarre kitsch-fest that is the Robot Restaurant; and a bar in the tourist-clogged Golden Gai neighborhood. These may be all appealing attractions to a first-timer in Tokyo, but there is nothing in that selection that you wouldn’t find at the top of an algorithm-generated TripAdvisor list.

When I asked Woolever about these recommendations, she agreed they were perhaps obvious choices, but said Bourdain wanted to include them because of how much they meant to him after so many visits to the city.

“He wasn’t always (or, arguably, ever) about cool for cool’s sake, or obscurity as its own reward,” she said in an email.

If it’s a guide they are after, though, travellers may be left wanting. In Cambodia, you get recommendations for three hotels, two markets for dining and a suggestion to check out the temples of Angkor Wat, the country’s most famous attraction by a long shot. It isn’t exactly the list of hole-in-the-wall spots with no addresses that fans of Bourdain may be hoping for. What those fans will find, though, is Bourdain’s word-for-word rant against American military involvement in Cambodia (“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”)

Having those passages — the no-holds-barred monologues that were a hallmark of his television shows — in one place might be the book’s greatest strength.

Over the decades that Bourdain spent traveling the world, there was a lot of talk of the “Bourdain Effect”: how a culinary gem, previously only frequented by those in the know, could be “ruined” by being included in his show. When I asked Woolever whether she thought this book could amplify that effect, she emphasised that most business owners knew what they were in for when approached by producers.

“People call it the ‘Bourdain Effect,’ but Tony didn’t invent it,” she said. “It’s something that business owners have to weigh out for themselves.”

As I read the book, I was thinking of a different Bourdain Effect, one that feels more vital than ever as travel begins to take its first baby steps back after a year of lockdowns. Seeing so much of Anthony Bourdain’s work in one place and being able to compare his impressions country by country in a tightly packed medium makes it easier to see what he stood for. A travelling philosophy emerges: his utter disdain for stereotypes, his undying commitment to challenging his own preconceptions, his humility in the face of generosity.

Because of tragic circumstances following its inception, World Travel may feel more like an anthology of greatest hits than a new, original guidebook. But read cover to cover, country by country, it is an enduring embodiment of Anthony Bourdain’s love for the whole world and a reminder of how to stack our priorities the next time we’re able to follow in his footsteps.

Sebastian Modak c.2021 The New York Times Company

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