Through Tony’s eyes: Laurie Woolever on co-writing ‘World Travel’ with late chef Anthony Bourdain

Laurie Woolever, who co-wrote ‘World Travel: An Irreverent Guide’ with Anthony Bourdain, says the book is an artefact of the world as it was when the chef, author and television host, visited it

One would imagine a travel guide has no place at a time when travel is either a distant dream, or a nightmare. Yet here is World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (Bloomsbury, ₹699) by celebrated chef, author and television host, Anthony Bourdain, who died in June 2018, and his long-time assistant, Laurie Woolever. “The idea of a travel book seemed insignificant from the perspective of a world that had stopped travelling,” states Woolever over a video call from New York City.

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She adds, however “With parts of the world opening up again, and people feeling comfortable about travelling, this book seems to come at a perfect time. If you are in a place where it is not safe to travel, this book can be a surrogate, a way to fantasise and remember. Then there are those who do not travel, like my mother, who is unwell. She loves to read about the world and watch old episodes of Tony’s show to see Madagascar or Mozambique.”

Laurie Woolever, who co-wrote World Travel with Anthony Bourdain
 

Change is constant

The internet has changed how we consume travel information, Woolever says. “What I think adds value to this book, is that it is Tony’s perspective. People miss Tony’s voice. This book is an artefact of the world as it was when he visited it. Some things do not change, cuisines are much more stable than individual businesses or political situations, so there is something to be gleaned from a book that you can’t get from a single Instagram photo or a travel recommendation website.”

Anthony Bourdain sketch by Wesley Allsbrook in World Travel
 

The book, like Bourdain’s other books, including Kitchen Confidential, A Cook’s Tour, The Nasty Bits and Medium Raw, is on the bestseller list. Woolever does not want to call it a homage to Bourdain, or a greatest hits compilation. “It is much more focused than that. There are essays from people who knew, loved and worked with Tony that adds new context and perspective. There is my research and perspective of my travels with him.”

In the beginning

Talking about how the book came to be, Woolever (47) says, “Back in 2017, Tony and I had just finished promoting our cookbook, Appetites, and wanted to do another book project together. Talking with him and his agent, we came up with World Travel, which is a very specific guide to the world according to Anthony Bourdain. It doesn’t include every place that he has been but includes places that he has something to say about.”

Woolever and Bourdain discussed the book — the locations to include and some general ideas about how the book would go. “That, unfortunately was my last meeting with Tony.” In her introduction, Woolever writes about how difficult it is to co-author a travel book when your co-author, the traveller, is no longer travelling the world.

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Sketch from World Travel
 

“It was difficult. What made it possible for me to carry on with the project was that he had left behind this extraordinary body of work in his books and television work. Between that and my long-standing relationship with him —I was his assistant for nearly 10 years — I had a good sense of how he spoke, his voice, tone and rhythm.” She adds, “It is very clear that that is him who is speaking or writing. It was a process of putting together a puzzle or a quilt into a cohesive new thing. Of looking back and seeing where he had been and what he had liked or not liked about a place, and working with this template that we created before he died.”

Woolever says she followed the template as closely as she could, but she also made some changes. “There were places that he did not include or that he was on the fence about. Beirut, for instance, was important to him. It was a pivotal moment in his life in 2006 to be caught in a war there. He and his crew were delayed, and they made a beautiful show about it. He went back twice. When we were planning the book, he was a little distracted and said, ‘let us come back to that’. Initially I left Beirut out but on advice from the publishing team included it.”

Layer of quirk

Wesley Allsbrook’s exquisite illustrations add a layer of quirk to World Travel. “Logistically it would have been not only very difficult and time consuming but also extremely expensive to get new photographs. Using old photographs would mean an inconsistent look and style. Tony was doing television from 2001 and cameras have changed so much in that time. The idea was to do something unexpected.”

Sketch from World Travel
 

Bourdain’s original idea, Woolever says, was to try and find someone who did a Victorian naturalist style of illustration. “While we did deviate from that a little bit, the idea was to keep it in the vein of a field guide, with illustrations that are more evocative than a flat photograph. Tony spent a lot of time as a teenager and a young adult working on illustrations and cartoons. He was modest about it but was actually quite a gifted illustrator.”

Sketch from World Travel
 

Apart from essential advice on how to get there, where to stay and what to eat, World Travel has essays by people close to Bourdain. “There is an essay from Nari Kye, a long-time producer with Tony who went with him twice to South Korea. She was born in South Korea and came to the United States when she was five years old. She told this beautiful story about how it wasn’t until Tony enabled her to make this television show with him that she understood and appreciated where she came from. Vidya Balachander’s essay on Sri Lankan cuisine was beautiful too.”

Laurie Woolever remembers Anthony Bourdain’s different avatars

  • Traveller: While he set aside preconceived notions and expectations, Tony would show up to a place well prepared. He was a voracious reader and would often read a book or two, from whatever place he was visiting. He was always willing to listen, to let the people who actually live there tell their own stories and let the place and the people speak for themselves.
  • Chef: Tony referred to himself as a journeyman. He was a proficient chef. He would correct people who said, ‘you were a great chef’. He would say ‘no I was not. I was a working chef who could ably run a kitchen. I was not a highly skilled, creative, technical genius. That wasn’t, my skill set.’ I think he may have been a little too modest. What he loved about cooking was the camaraderie.
  • Writer: He was a natural writer. He found writing as a way to live a big life. He had a natural, clear voice and was disciplined about his writing, in a way that I find inspirational. He would work very hard in the kitchen, get a few hours of sleep and then get up, sometimes before the sun came up and write for an hour or two. Throughout all his incarnations of chef, television host and entrepreneur, he was a writer at heart. The reason he came to the attention of the world was because of his love for and facility with the written word.
  • Boss: Tony was the best boss. He was hands off, by virtue of travelling, and put a lot of trust and faith in me. He was generous and supportive. It is very melancholy to talk about it because there will never be another opportunity to work with somebody like Tony.

In the fall, Woolever has a second book coming out, Bourdain, the Definitive Oral Biography. “It is the story of his life, as told through the stories of people who knew him. I did close to 100 interviews with everyone from his mother, brother, first and second wife, daughter, childhood friends, cooking school friends, kitchen, television, and publishing colleagues.”

Bourdain’s legacy, Woolever says, is his way of seeing the world. “There is so much more to the world than fine dining and hotels. He was at the forefront of a movement to show people that the entire world is interesting. It is this openness to experience and discovery that is his legacy. Tony functioned as a wonderful example of someone who had strong opinions, but also had respect for people who disagreed with him. I hope that people can hold that memory of him; as someone who would be willing to sit down and break bread with someone whose views were not the same as his.”

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