Anthony Bourdain Takes Us Along on One More Global Journey

·9 min read
via CNN
via CNN

“Finding a new food you like is one of the great things about traveling.” This premise underpins the book World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, formulated from a 2017 brainstorming session by the revered and beloved late author/TV host Anthony Bourdain (who committed suicide in 2018). His “lieutenant” Laurie Woolever—a writer/editor/conduit who worked alongside him for nearly a decade—fleshed out his miscellany of opinions and predilections into a compendium. These highlight his humor, openness, and unceasing love of offal.

World Travel gathers locales where he’d been the world over, yielding a pragmatic resource and indexical atlas, replete with quotes pulled from Bourdain’s vast media output, notably Parts Unknown and No Reservations. It’s a tribute, per Woolever, to Bourdain’s “acid wit and thoughtful observations and a few sly revelations of the mysterious contours of his battered heart.”

The book is wide in scope but broken down into glimpses, bite-sized rather than comprehensive. With whiplash transitions, the reader is wrenched from India to Kenya to Myanmar to Peru via market stalls and restaurants. The cited spots in each locale were those memorable to Bourdain. As he himself summarized in his candid, uncontrived way, “I go places, I come back. I tell you how the places made me feel.”

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In addition to venue suggestions, Bourdain demythologizes international cuisines. Of Mexican food, he emphasized, “It is not melted cheese over a tortilla chip. It is not simple, or easy. It is not simply ‘bro food’ at halftime. It is, in fact, old; older even than the great cuisines of Europe and often deeply complex, refined, subtle, and sophisticated.”

Of Scotland’s signature dish, he noted, “There is no more unfairly reviled food on earth than haggis. Its ingredients are, in fact, no more unusual, or bizarre, or unappetizing, than any hot dog you ever ate. How many anal glands are in a chicken nugget?” He also deftly bridges cultures, creating gastronomic echoes, such as equating Porto’s signature sandwich, the francesinha, to “a sort of turbocharged croque monsieur.”

Several friends contribute essays to the book, but perhaps the most endearing are by Bourdain’s brother, Christopher, who recounts their joint childhood love of Tintin books (fittingly qualified as “almost proto–Parts Unknown”) and the multi-language Insult Dictionary that served the siblings well on their first family trip to Europe.

We spoke to Woolever about mourning versus celebrating, refining Bourdain’s voice, and making executive decisions with him in absentia.

In the intro, you say, “I’d spent enough time in daily correspondence with Tony to have a good sense of the way he’d choose his words and set his rhythm.” Do you remember an early moment when you realized that capacity had clicked into place?

When Tony asked me to collaborate on our cookbook Appetites, published in 2016, I knew that he trusted me enough to help execute his vision, and in some cases write a first version or a final version of what he wanted to say about a particular dish. I think that Tony’s voice is characterized by a hyper-intelligent use of hyperbole, a deep well of references and a willingness to lay bare one’s own deepest desires, fears, and idiosyncrasies.

“It is a hard and lonely thing to coauthor a book about the wonders of world travel when your writing partner, that very traveler, is no longer traveling that world.” Would you consider the book a means for grieving him? For yourself, and also for readers? Or is that what the forthcoming oral history is expected to do, at least partially? How will that differ from this book?

Writing and assembling the information in World Travel has certainly been a helpful part of my grieving process, and I’ll be glad if there are others who get some sense of relief from reading it, but I think it is also a joyous celebration of his life. The oral history is Tony’s story, told through the memories and observations of the people who knew him from all stages of his life; I think people will find it enlightening and entertaining, and it may also help people find some closure around his death.

What can a book do that a TV show can’t? Can you talk about the benefits of this particular medium?

Reading (or listening to an audio book) engages a different part of your brain, one that many of us have maybe let atrophy a little bit in favor of scrolling and clicking. I’d like to think that this book is an entertaining way to engage that reading muscle again. There’s something calming about interacting with a page of text, and a collection of quietly charming illustrations. And because Tony often spoke like a writer, in complex complete sentences, there’s a new pleasure in reading some of the things he originally spoke out loud on camera or in interviews.

Usually travel books purport to guide readers towards the most exceptional spots. Sometimes, the recommendations here don't even sound like recommendations. For instance, Harry’s Café De Wheels in Australia: “It may not be the best meat pie in the world, or even in Sydney, but it is certainly the most famous.” Can you talk about the range of criteria for inclusion?

I tried to stick to the places that Tony had visited and specifically asked to be included in the book, whether or not they were the coolest and most obscure, or something very mainstream that nonetheless resonated with him in a special way. As I discuss in the book’s introduction, some of these places had become mainstream or famous because of the “Bourdain effect.” People saw them on TV and flocked to them.

In some cases, I made an informed decision to switch out a place that had lost its shine for a different place that was closer in spirit to something Tony had loved. That happens in the Rome chapter.

Perhaps as a corollary, elsewhere in the book—in the Paris section—Tony is adamant about steering off the beaten path: “Just avoid the obvious.” What’s the distinguishing feature between iconic versus obvious?

In the case of Paris specifically, here is a city bursting with the potential for pleasure that is very specifically Parisian—cafes, bars, small restaurants, charming streets, parks, art galleries. There is no need, in this city, to queue up at the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, when there is a hedonistic experience to be had over ordering a coffee or a baguette, walking, and people-watching. In general, it’s about figuring out how you want to spend your time, more than how you think you should spend your time.

In terms of organizing principle, why did you decide to include detailed transport references (airports, train stations, bus stations, boats)?

I think you can learn a lot about a place just knowing how to get there, and whether you can get there from someplace else. Airports are often named for historical figures. Arrival and departure is a big practical part of traveling, and for some people, the first part of deciding whether to go to a place. Tony had so much experience in airports and train stations, and he had opinions and observations about some of them, which I tried to include as much as possible in the book.

How did you weave in the socio-political realities, which can be delicate to address? (i.e. Tony noted: “Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.” Or even the addendum: “current conditions are far from ideal for tourism in Lebanon” following the August 2020 explosion.)

These were evaluated on a chapter-by-chapter basis—did Tony have something to say about a place, as he did for Cambodia? Is there something happening currently that might impact travel planning?

There’s a pop culture index aggregated at the end. Tony expresses how Wong Kar-wai shaped the way he saw Hong Kong, or how a Mexican cantina was “decidedly nicer than the Peckinpah films had led me to believe.” Pop culture adds to the mythology of a place, yet can admittedly be misleading about cultural expectations. How did you negotiate between these two aspects?

I don’t think that the film references were always or even most of the time meant to stand in for cultural interpretations of a place; I think a lot of times, they were more jumping-off points for style and visual mood, such as In the Mood for Love as a visual reference for the Buenos Aires episode, or La Grande Bellezza for Miami.

In the France section, Tony mentions, “You can still get the good old stuff, just a lot of the bullshit seems to have gone the way of the woolly mammoth.” Was there an archival impulse, on your part, given that traditions within the food world are always shifting—and, sometimes indeed going extinct?

In some ways, this entire book is an archival impulse, a capturing of times and places as they appeared in 2000, or 2010, or 2018. For Tony, I think it depended on the place and the context, whether he was interested in the deeply traditional—things he cherished in Lyon, in Rome, and in New York—or the more modern aspects of Parisian dining, or the dynamic, forward-looking energy of Vietnam or South Korea.

In Tokyo, Tony said, “It was just like taking acid for the first time. Meaning, What do I do now? I see the whole world in a different way.” It’s interesting that a lot of the places have this effect of positive devastation—of rearranging his world view and palette. How did you watch that process play out over time for Tony?

I had the thrilling experience of going to Vietnam and twice to Japan with Tony and the crew, and seeing (and hearing, tasting, smelling, and feeling) exactly why these places had captivated him and turned his mind inside out. [But] by the time I started working closely with him, I think he had already moved beyond that phase of thrilling discovery and into an era or wanting to go deeper into a place, its people, the stories, and the reasons behind people ate what they ate, lived how they lived.

Do you have a favorite destination travel memory from this diverse compilation?

One afternoon in the northern part of Sri Lanka, Tony had an afternoon off, and his driver took us to the beach, which involved driving an SUV onto a very modest ferry and hoping for the best, and swimming in the Indian Ocean, eating super-sweet ice cream, and shooting the shit for a few hours.

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