With “World Travel,” Laurie Woolever makes it possible for fans to travel with Anthony Bourdain once again
Anthony Bourdain — beloved chef, journalist, TV show host, and champion of human connection — was always a storyteller first, and when he died in 2018, he was at work on a guide to traveling the world. His longtime assistant Laurie Woolever made the decision to carry that book to its completion, and now, World Travel: An Irreverent Guide is a reality. Based on one hour of audio she recorded of their brainstorming session, years as coworkers and friends, it’s a vast catalogue of Bourdain’s work.
Woolever’s path to working with Bourdain included a variety of jobs that would be familiar to any multi-hyphenate or creative working in the modern gig (read: precarious) economy. She’s been a writer, journalist, editor, cook in restaurants and private kitchens, and an assistant to Mario Batali. After working with Bourdain for more than a decade, Woolever was uniquely positioned to bring this book to life, despite no new words from Bourdain himself.
World Travel is set up like a travel guide that spans 43 countries. Entries on each location include some information about where to stay and how to get around, but the emphasis is not so much on the practicalities of visiting a city as it is on Bourdain’s love of and connection to a place, his experiences there, and the ways in which food is entwined with a larger culture and global political histories. To provide context around the words Woolever deftly pulled from Bourdain’s TV shows and writings, she collected essays from his friends, colleagues, and his brother Christopher Bourdain, whose contributions are particularly illuminating of the life Bourdain lived.
Originally slated for 2020, production costs delayed World Travel’s release, but this may be fortuitous. While the world is far from clear of COVID-19, many are beginning to feel hopeful that travel and dining will be safer in the near future. But beyond its (limited) use as a guide, this book is full of stories that make for good reading on their own, transporting the reader to many of Bourdain’s favorite places, including ones that are not often covered in mainstream Western food and travel media. And of course, this volume, while bittersweet, will be welcomed by Bourdain’s many fans.
I spoke with Woolever over the phone about the process of bringing World Travel together, how working with Bourdain changed her career, and where she hopes to travel when COVID safety allows. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Eater: This book has been a long time coming; how are you feeling now that it’s in the world?
Laurie Woolever: I’m very excited to finally have the book out in the world. From the time that we conceived of the idea and started working on the book proposal until publishing is almost exactly four years, so it’s been a really long process. I’m very proud of it. I think that it’s going to appeal to a lot of different types of readers. Of course it’s also incredibly sad and bittersweet to be publishing this book without my co-author. So it’s kind of a mix of emotions.
How did you get into food writing?
I have always wanted to be a writer. That was something that I knew from a fairly young age and was something that I practiced and worked at as a young person. I didn’t study writing in college because it wasn’t “practical.” But I’m ultimately grateful for that because it was important as a writer to know about something other than myself. It was important to learn something about a subject in order to have something to write about. I studied natural resources in college, but quickly kind of let that go. I moved to New York. And one thing that I did discover is that I really loved to cook. So that became kind of a through line, from the time that I was out of college all the way to present day.
I went to the French Culinary Institute so that I could learn how to cook correctly, so that it would set me up ideally to be a food writer. I thought I would give it a shot being a restaurant cook, and I quickly realized that that was not really for me. I was very lucky to be hired as an editor at a culinary magazine with almost no editing experience. From there I went to Wine Spectator, and from there I had a baby and I wanted to slow down and be able to spend more time at home and not be a full-time editor. It just happened to be at the time when Tony Bourdain was looking for a new assistant. So that’s how I met him.
How did working with Bourdain change your career?
From my own experience of writing a cookbook with him, I learned about managing my own ego. It’s just the nature of the business that someone like Tony is going to be the face of this thing, regardless of how much work goes into it. And of course that’s the same with television and anything else.
I remember having a conversation with one of his post-production supervisors saying, “Does it ever bother you, you do so much work, all your colleagues do so much work, but people only ever talk about Tony?” And he said, “Tony is the guy that’s putting it all on the line.” If somebody likes a show, they say, “Great job, Tony.” But if they don’t like a show, they’re mad at Tony. We get the luxury of toiling in obscurity. It was an important thing to realize, that there is always going to be one chef, one captain, one marquee face, and they get the lion’s share of the accolades, but they also take on the lion’s share of the responsibility.
In what ways do you think Bourdain’s approach to food and travel writing, or food and travel culture, changed the way those things are written and talked about in the media? Did it change your approach to food writing at all?
The whole craft and business of food writing and travel writing certainly changed quite a bit in the time that he was doing it. In that 20-year stretch where he was making television, there was an enormous shift in the kinds of things that were being written about, the kinds of things that people were interested in, or that editors would allow. How much of that is Tony’s doing is hard to break down. I will say that there was the sense that people had, and I had it too, this sense that he’s paying attention and he’s set the bar pretty high. If you do something great, he’s going to probably shine a light on you and praise you. If you do something stupid, he’s probably going to call you out on that too. I don’t think he ever asked to be the gatekeeper of what’s good and what’s not. But because he was so outspoken and fearless, any story that I pitched, I definitely thought, “Would Tony be interested in this? Would Tony think this is stupid, or would he think it was a good idea?”
Can you talk about your process of gathering and assembling the pieces that make up this book?
I started with our [2018 brainstorming] conversation, and I had no idea it would be the only one, but I’m glad it was as comprehensive as it was. I taped it, I had it transcribed and used that as the blueprint for the book. There were some deviations from that as I dug in and saw what was around, and what elements I needed to construct an entire chapter. There were some cases where there wasn’t enough and so I had to cut some things and then I added in some things.
A few months after Tony died, I restarted in earnest and really immersed myself in all of the work that he had put into the world: watching all the episodes, rereading the books, listening to the audiobooks, looking at some of our correspondence. We were in daily correspondence by email for almost 10 years, so there was a lot of interesting stuff in the back-and-forth of details of places he was and places he wanted to go. And then talking to people — I have good relationships with a lot of the people that worked on his television shows, so they were a huge help. I had lots of conversations with the directors, producers, and editors about some of the references that they worked from. There was a lot of jogging the memories of the people that helped him.
Tony had meant to write about a dozen essays for the book and the plan was for him to do that in the summer of 2018. He didn’t get a chance. So I had to fill that in with something. The most natural thing was to solicit essays from other people, his brother being a great resource. He did three essays, and then organically as the chapters took shape, it was like, well, here’s a place where we could use a little more context. Each one of these [additional essays] came up in a way where I thought, here’s someone that I know had a great time on camera with Tony, or was super helpful behind the scenes with Tony.
The practical information comes from all over: Tony’s shows, especially The Layover where there was so much service-oriented information; I have a great big stack of individual guidebooks, and of course the good old internet; and talking to people on the ground in addition to the producers and directors of the show.
What was your favorite part of putting this book together?
There are a number of places in the book where I didn’t get to go. My original plan back in 2017 was to take some of the advance money from the publisher and hit as many of the places myself as I could. It didn’t really pan out that way. But I enjoyed digging into a place and learning about a place that I hadn’t been. In some cases it was reading the supplemental material that Tony had read to prepare himself, and going up and down and all around a place to understand it better, with the idea that I’ve got to distill this into something that’s useful to somebody else. That was very satisfying, but it was also very difficult and emotional. At first, it felt like this impossible mountain to climb, trying to do it by myself. It would have been a very different process had Tony been around. But it was also very helpful in working through the shock and grief, to sit down with this person and their best work and try and make something that hopefully continues and preserves their legacy.
What are you hoping readers will gain from it, especially in the context of a world that’s sort of slowly and haltingly crawling out of COVID?
I think it depends on the individual. There are a number of ways that people can, and I hope do, use the book. For people who feel nostalgic for the travel that they’ve done in the past and aren’t able to do now, there’s something really satisfying about seeing some of that reflected back. For people who are dying to travel, who maybe were just on the cusp of traveling before COVID who were anxious to get out, I think this is going to be a source of inspiration. I have a friend who said he and his wife were going through it chapter by chapter, trying to figure out where they want to go next when it’s possible.
My mother hasn’t been able to travel for a long time because of a medical condition, and that never stopped her from really digging into all of Tony’s shows. I think she would have done that even if I hadn’t been her daughter working for him. She and my dad every week would dive into these places; some of them are places that they had never even thought of in their lives, and suddenly my parents are learning about Tanzania and Mozambique and Antarctica. This book will give the vicarious armchair traveler a thrill and a little bit of insight into a place that they might not be able to see themselves, but they can still learn something about and read the witticisms that Tony was so good at, those off the cuff observations. There’s so much of that in the book.
Are there any places you are looking forward to going when it’s safer?
In New York, I haven’t done any indoor dining. I’m just not there yet. But when things are back to normal, I’m looking forward to going to Barney Greengrass, something that’s quintessentially New York. I want to hit Barney Greengrass and Katz’s and Pastrami Queen, really just beat up my arteries.
As far as travel, I went to Rome shortly before the pandemic. It was a research trip for this book. I was there for four days and I just was sprinting through the city and trying to do as much as I could. I’d really like to go back to Rome and do it at a leisurely pace. Also Vietnam, which was a place that was very important to Tony. He went back again and again; I went with him in 2014 to Huế in the central part of the country. It was my first time in Asia, and it was my first trip with Tony and the crew. So for that reason, it was special to me: to see how much it was a place that he loved and had really opened his mind to the possibility of travel and how much bigger the world was. I’d like to see more of that country. I’d like to see Saigon and Hanoi and go into the mountains a lot and experience this country that had a powerful impact on Tony.
You’re at work on an oral history of Anthony Bourdain at the moment; is there anything you can tell us about that?
Yes, that’s the next one that comes out in October. I think the term “oral history” is sometimes a little jarring for people because it sounds like an audio project. But it’s a book; it’s the culmination of about a hundred interviews with people from all areas of Tony’s life. I’m very excited about that, and I’m looking forward to talking more about that in the fall. Beyond that, I’m a writer for hire, I’ve been doing copywriting and I’m always looking for the next project. I really like collaborating with people, cookbooks, biographies; I’m very open. So hire me!
Did you do all 100 interviews for the oral biography?
Yeah. It is a very long process. I basically started these two books concurrently, really focusing on World Travel because the deadline was earlier, but I was working all along on the oral biography because it’s a lot of work. I was actually just getting ready to hunker down and finish the [oral biography] when COVID shut things down. I was going to be home a lot and working and not socializing anyway, so I’m not really suffering. It’s a lot of work, but it was a tremendous learning experience.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.
Art from World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever (Ecco), illustrations: Wesley Allsbrook