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What Anthony Bourdain’s New Book Tells Us About His Food Philosophy

World Travel coauthor Laurie Woolever on seeing the world through the lens of Bourdain.

Published Apr. 22, 2021.

Travel books fall into two camps. There are the practical, stuff-it-in-your-tote books you consult for subway maps or useful food phrases. And there are the immersive, illuminating books that make for satisfying reading, even if you have no plans to visit Lima or Lagos. Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever’s World Travel: An Irreverent Guide is decidedly the latter.

Bourdain and his longtime assistant Woolever began sketching the structure for this book in 2017; Bourdain died unexpectedly in June 2018. Woolever and Bourdain’s estate decided to continue with the book, and the guide went on sale April 20.

On a practical level, World Travel would leave much to be desired if it was a traveler’s only resource. The book recommends just five eateries in all of Mexico City; the entirety of Cuba is addressed in six and a half pages; there is only one recommended hotel listed for most destinations. But in the era of blogs and TripAdvisor and AirBnb Experiences, this book won’t be any traveler’s only resource.

And it’s not intended to be. Rather, World Travel is a global romp as seen through the singular eyes—and palate—of Anthony Bourdain. Woolever has painstakingly combed his musings, memories, and must-eat meals for a gritty, glittering world tour as only Bourdain could present. How to sweet-talk your way to an illicit beer from a halal food stall in Sri Lanka would perhaps not be required information in other guide books, but it certainly belongs in Bourdain’s. In the introduction, a 2012 Bourdain quote sets expectations: “It was never my intention to provide audiences with ‘everything’ they needed to know about a place—or even a balanced or comprehensive overview. I am a storyteller. I go places, I come back. I tell you how the places made me feel.”

Any fan of Bourdain’s will finish the book sharing his feelings about these places. Ahead, writer and editor Laurie Woolever—who also coauthored Bourdain’s 2016 cookbook, Appetites—shares what she intends this book to be, how it can be used, and what it illuminates about Bourdain’s philosophy of food.

(This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)

Anthony Bourdain in Congo

America's Test Kitchen: Emotionally, what was the process of researching and writing this book like for you? And did those emotions change from the book’s outset to its completion?

Laurie Woolever: It was very difficult at first. The first few months were very slow going, and it felt like an impossible task with the added weight of grief and shock. Then as the months went on I got more comfortable with it and picked up a little more mental momentum; it never got any easier necessarily, but you work through the grief. It brought me into contact with a lot of people who had made television with [Anthony Bourdain] and who had traveled with him or who live in these places that he visited. And so I got to connect with people that way to ask them their advice and their experiences and their recollections of things. So it became slightly less lonely, but it certainly wasn't the sort of joyous experience of making the cookbook that I had had with Tony. Now it's out in the world and I'm really proud of it.

ATK: The book’s cover calls this an “irreverent guide,” but the opening quote from Bourdain in the introduction seems to sort of indemnify the book against criticism that it’s supposed to act as a comprehensive guide. How did you approach the idea of a “guidebook” when working on this project?

LW: From the outset, we knew we weren't going to include every single place he had been to. Not only would it have been just a completely unwieldy book, but there were places that didn't make sense to recommend as travel destinations for people who were looking for specific restaurants, hotels, bars, and markets. Some places he really loved, that kind of stuff just wasn't available.

We never wanted to make a comprehensive guide to the entire world. It was always very much from Tony's singular point of view, which was really how he did everything—all of his books and all of his television shows. It’s not straight-reported journalism. It's his storytelling.

Anthony Bourdain in Tbilisi, Georgia

ATK: You’ve worked on a cookbook with Bourdain and on this travel guide, where food features heavily. How does his approach to cooking differ from his approach to eating?

LW: He was a great chef in the sense that he was a great manager and someone that could run a kitchen and could run a service and expedite. But he had no illusions that he was someone that had this incredible overarching creativity and supreme technical skill and talent. He was very much a working chef. When it came to choosing the recipes that we put in the cookbook, it was about ‘What are the things that I know I can faithfully execute again?’ For the most part, the recipes are very workaday.

In contrast, when he was out in the world eating, he was . . . I don't want to say willing to try anything. I think that was the shtick early on, you know, especially with A Cook's Tour. He got very famous and pigeonholed for eating the beating Cobra heart and seal eyeball, these sort of iconic moments. But if you look at the long arc of his career, it was more about eating what’s offered to you and what is endemic to the place. It was about being open to everything and also really appreciating what it was that made a place special, and then asking questions about the food: What do people eat here and why? Why do you have this and not that? Are you getting enough to eat? It’s a very gracious approach to eating. He had beautiful manners.

ATK: In my observations of Anthony Bourdain’s shows and reading this book, I alternate between thinking food is never just about food for him; it’s about atmosphere and people and place—and then thinking it’s about the delicious food and the visceral experience of it. Do you believe he approached it as one or the other?

LW: It’s hard to speak for him on that, but I will say my observation is that it was very place-dependent. There were definitely some places that he went to and it was a hedonistic, very, very food-focused experience. For instance, Marseille and Lyons and Paris. There's plenty of politics and colonial history and labor and stuff that he could have delved into, but just given the abundance of hedonistic pleasure there, it was like, well, let's focus on that.

And then places like Iran, Israel, or Libya—which is not in the book, but it was a place that Tony went in, I believe, 2014—obviously you can’t go and do a simple hedonistic show in a place where the politics are so much a part of every meal, every walk down every street. Of course there is room for pleasure and people do create pleasure out of every circumstance, but there has to be a more full-spectrum approach in a place like that.

ATK: What did you learn about food from him?

LW: He wasn’t always, at every meal, seeking out the most extreme. In Sri Lanka, we had this very intense shooting day at a temple festival. There wasn't a lot of food for most of the day, so everybody was hungry. We got in the car at the end of the shoot to go back to the hotel, and he starts looking for a KFC on his phone. At that moment, he’s like, ‘I just want to get a bunch of fried chicken to share with the crew.’ So we went out and got KFC and a big bottle of whiskey and sat on the roof of the hotel. No, that’s not native Sri Lankan cuisine, but it was good. And it was what we all needed in that moment.

ATK: How do you intend for people to use this book?

LW: For somebody who is getting excited about the possibility of traveling again and really anxious to make plans, I think this is a great jumping-off point, maybe, to choose a location. I can’t tell you how many times people would email me or someone on Tony’s crew to say, ‘I'm going to X, Y, Z place. What would Tony do? Or what are some of the things I can't miss?’ So for those people who already know they want to go to Rome or Mumbai or whatever, these are the few places that Tony really loved.

But also, if someone doesn't plan on traveling or can't travel for whatever reason, this is still a book where you can learn a tremendous amount about a place. Maybe you'll never go to Tanzania or Mozambique, but you can understand a little bit about what it’s like to be there. And for people who have traveled somewhere, I think there's real nostalgia in rereading about a place that you've been to, but seeing it reflected through Tony's experience.

Then finally, I think for people who really love his voice, who just can't get enough of those witty observations and cutting analyses of everything from the local hot dog scene to Henry Kissinger's policies in Southeast Asia, there's all of that there.

World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever is available in finer bookstores.

Photos: CNN, Ecco

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