The reverent making of Anthony Bourdain’s new book ‘World Travel: An Irreverent Guide’ — including its chapter on Chicago

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Louisa Chu, Chicago Tribune
·6 min read
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Anthony Bourdain revisits the world posthumously in his final book “World Travel: An Irreverent Guide,” released last week.

“It’s a travel guide to the world through the eyes of Anthony Bourdain,” said Laurie Woolever, co-author and longtime collaborator. “So it’s hardly a comprehensive guide to all of the world, because that would be an impossible task.”

What could have been an impossible task was simply finishing the book at all. Bourdain and Woolever had only one meeting about the project.

“A year before that one fateful meeting, we’d actually started writing the book proposal,” Woolever told the Tribune. “His publisher agreed to get on board with the idea of a travel guide. But just the way his life was, we didn’t get to work on it until the following spring, when we sat down in his apartment in Manhattan, which he had very painstakingly styled into a facsimile of the Château Marmont hotel in Los Angeles.”

Bourdain, who died by suicide in 2018, may have been best known for his love of street food. He preferred luxury hotels though, like the old Hollywood haunt. In Paris, there was L’Hotel, where he stayed in the suite where Oscar Wilde died.

“I had gone in with a lot of research, because I knew exactly all the places that he had been in his career as a television host and a travel writer,” Woolever said from her home in Queens. “We just went through place by place and talked about whether or not to include it in the book. What were some of the restaurants, hotels, markets, people and weird things that might make a good fit for the book.”

She taped and had transcribed what was supposed to be the first of many book meetings.

“That was how we did our cookbook ‘Appetites,’ which we published in 2016,” said Woolever. “We had a really good working rhythm with that book, so I expected that it was going to be the same with this one, but unfortunately that was not the case.

“Tony was very, very busy, so the rest of the spring, he was out on the road finishing up the season of television shoots,” she said. “I was starting to pull up transcripts, talking to people, getting my wheels turning — and then he died, and that was it.”

Until it wasn’t. Woolever picked up where they left off and got back to work on the book.

“It’s really a collection of some of the places that he loved, remembered best and had specific recommendations for,” she said.

Plenty of places he loved didn’t make the cut, although it’s hard to say where he and Woolever might have traveled for research as their book took shape.

“Tony loved Thailand,” said Woolever. “He had one place in mind in northern Thailand that he wanted to include, but there really wasn’t enough to make a chapter.”

Indonesia was another example.

“He went to Indonesia several times, and he had really interesting experiences there,” she said. “But the most fruitful experiences he had were not easily replicable by someone going as a tourist or traveler.”

Iran too.

“There aren’t really a lot of Americans going to Iran for leisure travel right now,” she added. “So it didn’t make sense to include a chapter.”

Chicago, however, was another story. Bourdain is quoted at the beginning of the chapter: “This is one of the most awesome cities in the world. They do not f--- around in Chicago.”

He stays at the Four Seasons hotel in the Gold Coast neighborhood. He visits the International Museum of Surgical Science nearby. He drinks at Old Town Ale House. He eats breaded steak sandwiches at Ricobene’s in Bridgeport, and Italian beef at Johnnie’s in Elmwood Park.

Woolever contacted me in June 2019 to ask who was making the best hot dogs since Hot Doug’s had closed. (I was the field coordinator — what Bourdain called a fixer — on the Chicago episode of “No Reservations” and the first Paris episode of the series, appearing in both.)

“The idea was to do a multipart hot dog essay,” she said. “To get all of the hot dog opinions from our friends in Chicago who know what’s what when it comes to food. Then as the book developed, the rest of the essays were really kind of one person going on at more length about a topic. We went back to the most recent episode in Chicago, which was ‘Parts Unknown.’”

“Tony hit a few places with producer Steve Albini, who’s based in Chicago,” Woolever said. “So we said, let’s see what he has to say about Chicago. Talking to Steve, he had so much more to say than I expected.”

Albini moved to Evanston to attend Northwestern University, where he earned a journalism degree. He is a prolific punk zine writer and musician. He produced Nirvana’s final record.

Albini’s essay dreams the dream of taking Bourdain to Jim’s for Polish sausages, Wiener’s Circle for the insulting hot dog experience, Superdawg for Whoopskidawgs, Publican Quality Meats for charcuterie, Paulina Market for politically progressive raw meat, Lem’s for ribs and hot links.

He expands beyond the realm of hot dogs: Original Soul Vegetarian (now known as Soul Veg City) for vegan macaroni and cheese, Amitabul for vegan Korean food, Harold’s for fried chicken, Hecky’s for barbecue chicken, Kuma’s for heavy metal burgers, La Pasadita for tacos de lengua, Irazu for Costa Rican food, Cafe Tola for empanadas, plus Nhu Lan and Ba Le for pho and banh mi.

“It became its own essay, in a fantasy world that we all wish we could inhabit, where you’re doing another Chicago episode, with where Tony needs to eat,” Woolever said.

It’s a good list in a good chapter in a good book. What’s missing inevitably are the stories Bourdain could have filled in later. Paris feels especially bereft, despite an essay by his brother. What’s left in some places aches like ticket stubs and cafe receipts kept in lieu of secrets never spoken.

“I hope people enjoy it and take it for what it is, not what we intended to do when Tony was still around,” said Woolever. “I think it still very much feels like it’s a new look, a new way of reading Tony.”

She’s now finishing a new Bourdain book alone.

Woolever has interviewed a hundred or so of his family, friends and colleagues. They included Bourdain’s late mother, ex-wife, wife and their daughter. As public as he was, he kept some relationships private.

“Bourdain: The Oral Biography” is due out in October.

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