Laurie Woolever - 'Bourdain - The Definitive Oral Biography'

Laurie Woolever - 'Bourdain - The Definitive Oral Biography'


The cover for *Bourdain*

The Beginning

As I write this, it’s not yet been three years since Anthony Bourdain died. His production was massive, spawned several TV series, books, world tours; heck, he even did stand-up comedy. He made a child.

This book shows very different sides of Bourdain, mainly due to how his friends and co-workers talk about him: this book is not hagiography. When Bourdain was young, he wanted to illustrate. When that failed, he turned to cooking. To his credit, he never claimed to be a great cook. And he wrote from a fairly young age.

I must be honest: I’ve never enjoyed all of Bourdain’s writing circa Kitchen Confidential; I thought his style was too macho, too showy, too much a riff on Hunter S. Thompson. It was, to me, all very like Bret Easton Ellis’s writing: every note was—technically speaking—in the right place, but the song lacked soul.

The Change

After a while, I sensed a shift in Bourdain’s writing: he turned inward and politically. He started, to his TV viewers, to display true care for the people he met in his journeys. His writing also started to change. It was always obvious that he cared very much about what he wrote about, but to me, the style that made him famous was used much like an old, trusty leather jacket on a middle-aged white man: it was easy for him to pawn off. This changed as he seemed to start become more of a humanist through his journeys.

Let’s not forget that Bourdain wrote two fictional books before Kitchen Confidential. To change his style and simultaneously look inwards while empathising with the plights of other people, that is real.

What this book reminds me of

I reviewed World Travel: An Irreverent Guide and felt it lacked depth. Sure, it’s a travel guide: how far can you really go? I considered other writers who had travelled: Douglas E. Harding’s On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary, Fran Lebowitz’s Metropolitan Life.

A gist of the book

This book complements Anthony Bourdain’s life in ways that will never be bested for isolated viewers outside of Bourdain’s personal circle. I mean: this book shows that Bourdain could be a highly isolated person who never or rarely let his guard down to some people; others seem to have seen him more clearly than he did himself.

ERIC OVERMYER: I remember we were at some Spanish restaurant in the warehouse district [of New Orleans]. Lolis handed Tony the wine list, and Tony handed it right back, and said, “I don’t know shit about wine.” That it was a very endearing moment, just genuinely modest. And he was fond of saying that being invited to write for us on Treme was like playing shortstop for the 1927 Yankees, which was such great hyperbole. He was a master of highly entertaining hyperbole.

Laurie Woolever has carried this book with a deft touch, nearly an extraordinary task for somebody like herself, who has worked closely to Bourdain for years, writing with him, filming with him, travelling with him.

From her introduction:

Though filled with words of love, admiration, respect, and gratitude, this book is not a hagiography. Tony was extraordinary, but mortal. He did great things, and made a lot of people very happy, and he made some bad choices, and he hurt some people. As he insisted in the introduction to our 2016 cookbook, Appetites, again with a touch of that characteristic hyperbole, “I am a monster of self-regard.”


One thing apparent to many persons is Bourdain’s charisma. He seems to have been the type of person who could engage with others by first quickly gauging their state; he could also be a very hard manager.

ROBERT VUOLO: He was such a charmer. Tony’s ability to get wherever he needed to get was very much because of his persona and his ability to talk and charm. It was a little dangerous, it was seductive, and very exciting. What he was always able to do was make everyone excited about the thing that we were all involved in.

LYDIA TENAGLIA: He was prone to hyperbole, though. He had that amazing gift of taking a story and turning it into an epic adventure.

Addiction (in one way)

Anthony Bourdain’s brother, Christopher, speaks candidly about him and their relationship throughout this book. It’s heartbreaking to early in the book read Christopher’s words on Anthony’s ability to hide his emotions as I consider the surprising and harrowing end of Anthony’s life:

CHRISTOPHER BOURDAIN: I did not realize that Tony was going through heroin addiction. I didn’t know that. Other than being scarecrow skinny, he hid it very well. I mean, I knew he was into weed; he’d smoke that in front of me. I didn’t give a shit. I remember being kind of horrified when I found out about the heroin. You have an image in your head of somebody who’s strung out and is completely useless; somebody who is holding up grocery stores to feed his habit. Tony went to work every day, though I did learn later that he had been desperate at points, and was basically selling his books on Broadway to get a few dollars to go find more heroin. But, as far as I know, I don’t think he robbed any bodegas or anything like that.

Friendship, and how fame can change one

There are both stories of how Anthony Bourdain would help any friend in need and was fiercely loyal. There are also stories of how he stopped communicating with friends after Kitchen Confidential was released.

ROBERT VUOLO: When Kitchen Confidential came out, I hadn’t really been in contact with him; we’d left messages on each other’s machines leading up to that point. But once that book came out, he was untouchable, and never returned any of my calls.

In the interviews throughout the book, while swimming through carefully placed quotes, it seems that Bourdain swallowed himself whole, much like Hunter S. Thompson became when fame hit after publishing artfully-crafted books: he became his own mythos, a solepsistic, narcissistic stereotype of the artist as alcy.

PHILIPPE LAJAUNIE: After Kitchen Confidential was published, in a very acute way, he tried matching the persona for himself, maybe for the people working in the kitchen. Now we could hear him screaming in the kitchen, which had never happened. He would throw things in the kitchen, which had never happened. But funny enough, I could tell that it was just a game; in other words, it was not natural. He was trying to scream, but shyly. He was throwing something, but being very careful not to hurt anyone. He was exactly how he described cooks and chefs in the book, but not at all what he was. Even the vocabulary kind of changed, and he was using stronger words.

His two ex-wives both talk in this book. I feel as though they’ve given testimony to a devoted father (when he wasn’t away, which was more than 200 days per year when he started doing TV) and an addict personality.

NANCY BOURDAIN: Everybody went to El Bulli, and I wasn’t allowed to go. And I said, “Tony, can’t you just pretend I’m somebody else, and I’ll take notes?” It was like, I couldn’t be the girl just taking notes at the restaurant; I couldn’t even go. I said to Tony, “I want to be included.” Tony would do terrible things like make me sit on the damn floor, because he didn’t want a camera guy to not have a seat. I mean, I just felt like I was the lowest of the low, and after that happens a while, you don’t want to go. When we were teenagers, we made fun of TV. Ted Baxter was on Mary Tyler Moore, and everything was goofy. It wasn’t something you aspired to, the little screen. But that changed over the years. Once it was offered to Tony, he grabbed it, and he was pretty selfish with it. I think he was confused a lot. Looking back now, he handled it as well, I guess, as he could. No, that’s not quite true, because, he [could] be very iron door, you know? Once Tony’s closed that iron door, it’s never coming up again.

Josh Homme gives a very kind and open view on Bourdain, all throughout their relationship, which lasted until Tony’s death.

JOSH HOMME: It’s hard to make friends when you don’t know why someone wants to know you, because you have some notoriety. He was in the beginning stages of that, which really, at the end, was a major contributor to why we’re talking about him, and not to him.

Nigella Lawson, the TV chef, says many insightful and lovely-spoken things about Bourdain:

NIGELLA LAWSON: There are so many people whose lives he did try and make better. That’s what I mean about kindness. The worst sort of charity is giving and wanting to be applauded for it. He was very much at the upper echelon of the Maimonides table, because he didn’t make a noise about it. There were so many people he helped, silently.

Anderson Cooper, TV reporter for CNN, says very insightful things in the book.

ANDERSON COOPER: I think people who are drawn to a lot of the places that he went, and that I’ve gone, tend to be drawn, it comes—I think it comes from a similar place. I always felt that about Tony. It’s hard for me to put this into words without sounding like an idiot or a jerk, but there are people who are attracted to the edges of the world. And at the edges of the world, a lot of stuff is stripped away, a lot of bullshit, a lot of falsehoods, a lot of the stuff that anybody deals with in his normal life. Things are more elemental, or feel more raw, or more alive in some ways. The desire to travel to those places, I totally understand the appeal. I also understand the pain associated with it, and that it comes from—Just as comedy often comes from a dark place, if you are entirely content, you don’t spend two hundred days a year traveling the world. There’s a certain restlessness I think that is inherent in that desire.

There’s some lovely reminiscence where different people put their finger on what made their relationships with Bourdain into friendship:

MIKE RUFFINO: Some of my fondest memories are days [at Chateau Marmont]; we’d just sit at the pool, and hang out, and read. And at some point, he’d get up and go, “OK, I’m taking a nap. Dinner at eight?” “Yup. See you.” There was no need to even talk; you could just silently comment. It was just a good friendship that way.

JOSH FERRELL: I did the Ukraine episode of No Reservations. We went to Chernobyl. It was such a sad day, because it’s fucking Chernobyl. At the end of the day we’re like, “Well, that was terrible, let’s all burn our clothes, and everybody take the night off.” I called Tony and said, “Everybody’s doing their own thing,” and he said, “Let’s go to McDonald’s.” So me and Tony went to McDonald’s in Kiev, and had this little lonely meal, and talked about what a shitty day it had been. We both needed comfort food, and not to be alone, and to acknowledge that that was fucking heavy and terrible, over a Big Mac.

The Id?

There are many paragraphs on loneliness.

JEFF ALLEN, PRODUCER: He would always stay in the nicest room, and that often meant he was isolated. It’s probably depressing to be in the castle all alone. He would be in the palace, and we would be in the horse stables. That’s literally where we stayed in Laos. Tony was in the Amantaka hotel, living in the villa, all alone, and the crew stayed in the former horse stables, which had been converted into a shitty little hotel. We made a point to go over to Tony’s room once in a while. It was a challenge, because the nature of the beast is constraints. We had budgets and time to deal with; we can’t all afford to stay at the nice hotel with Tony, but we also can’t afford to not get face time with him, because that’s how we make the show—have a beer at the end of the day and talk to Tony about all the creative, and informing him who he’s gonna meet the next day, and talking through ideas. And when we didn’t get that, there were repercussions. He would get cranky, or come in pissed off about something.

Christopher Bourdain’s words on his and his brother’s relationship with their mother is quite disturbing and seemingly very honestly and viscerally told:

CHRISTOPHER BOURDAIN: It drove both me and Tony crazy that our mother just seemed convinced that “my son is now prestigious, and famous, and making a lot of money, so I deserve to have him give me all sorts of money.” Where do you come off with that attitude? There was always some story about why she was out a huge sum of money. She redid her apartment, and the contractor went flaky on her and left her in the lurch with a half-done job, and she was out $15,000. Every few years, something like that would go on, where she had the idea and the energy to get the thing going, but meanwhile wasn’t attending properly to the financial details or protecting herself.

And then Tony would get an email, like, “Oh, I need $50,000 in dental work, and I can’t afford it, I have no money at all. Can you help?” And he did, at times. There was one dinner we had where she presented the grand plan that Tony and I were going to bail her out, mostly Tony. I had found out a few months earlier that she had falsified my signature on a document, and had basically yanked our dad’s ashes out of the place where we had them stored. She was technically still his wife; they never divorced. Even though she’d basically kicked him out, she had convinced herself, wrongly, that he had forgiven her, and they should have their ashes scattered together on Long Beach Island. So just having her plop down that night at some restaurant and say, “This is what you’re going to do for me: you’ll buy my apartment, and Tony, you’ll give me a stipend,” I think Tony’s jaw dropped, and I went kind of ballistic about the ashes, which I very rarely do, and I said, “That’s the shittiest thing you’ve ever done, you should be ashamed of yourself.” She walked out in a huff, and Tony and I stayed and had dinner.

Patrick Radden Keefe, author and journalist, wrote a big profile story on Bourdain for The New Yorker in 2017. Actually, the only thing Radden Keefe was not allowed to ask about was Bourdain’s mother. But he seems to put the finger on how come Bourdain was always moving, like a fish:

PATRICK RADDEN KEEFE: Another of the big questions that I asked him about a half a dozen times over a year is, “What are you chasing? Why do you keep doing it? Why not slow down?” He had shifting explanations, and honestly, I thought, for a guy who was so adept at diagnosing himself, none of his explanations were very persuasive. “Well, you go back to the same place you’ve already been before, but it’s changed in the interim.” Or, “Even if the places don’t change, our filmmaking techniques do, and so we want to see it in another way.” We talked a bit about Iggy Pop in one of our conversations, because I think he saw the fact that Iggy was out there, and didn’t quit, as inspiring. To me, the most persuasive answer in the [New Yorker] piece came from Eric Ripert, when he said, “I think Tony keeps moving because he’s afraid of what would happen if he stopped.”

The Beginning of The End of The Beginning

The book paints a story of how his life turned for worse when his final girlfriend entered his life.

MICHAEL STEED: There was this peak period where he seemed happy. That addictive personality was just all focused on jiu-jitsu. He wasn’t asking about my family or anything, but he looked great; he had all this energy. At one point, at the end of a scene, he almost hugged me, and I was kind of like, “What the hell?” And then fucking what’s-her-name enters his life, and he starts smoking again, and it just sort of got back into that negative energy that fit this weird fantasy character that he felt he was, and needed a counterpart to.

MICHAEL RUHLMAN: He was a great correspondent. One of his last emails was in response to my inviting him to my wedding reception. He said, “I’ve fallen in love, too.” He briefly described it, and the last words I have from him are “love abounds,” which was so uncynical and so—I was surprised by the just heart-wide-openness of it all. He truly was a romantic. It was part of what was so great about him—he was a cynic who loved the world and always expected the best.

JOSH HOMME: The last year of Tony’s life was really tough for me to watch, because he was saying this thing that was like, “You know, I’ve put myself way out there, and I could totally be destroyed by tomorrow.” I was worried.

There are traces of when Bourdain seems to have done anything to keep his new girlfriend happy, even at the expense of his integrity with his friends (just see where he condemns Josh Homme passive-aggressively over Twitter) and how he acquiesced to his girlfriend’s ideas that he would never have let his TV crew get away with.

Of course, I’m following a thread that is constructed partly in my mind, but evidently in this book: the end of this book is edited so that it is evident to everyone that Bourdain spiralled towards his end: loneliness, the brunt of being responsible for his crew’s paychecks, irrational thoughts, and then, reading about his girlfriend’s supposed infidelity.

ARI KYE: The beautiful thing about Tony, he’s very passionate about something, and he really gives it his all, you know, in his work, in his writing, in his shows, in everything. And I think that’s what happened with this woman. He got obsessed, and the obsession got dark.

MIKE RUFFINO: There was a brutal moment, in the last year or so, when Tony just outright said, “I have no friends.” And it just killed me. I know what he meant, that he just didn’t have the opportunity for normal friendships. It just made me think about how much he did for me, how many people he was protecting and helping; that also is gonna alter any relationship at least a little bit. It’s been a strange realization, to recognize how much normal friendship, that thing that didn’t fit, just got kinda chucked off to the side. These things that are interfering with a normal life, you just accept them, but they have this impact that you can’t change or predict. People around him, myself included, would like to think that that’s exactly where we could have helped, but how?

DAVID SIMON: I will say, in my last conversations with him, especially that one at [Coliseum], where we drank ourselves silly, he was head over heels for [Asia]. And if it didn’t work out, it would put him in a trough, as it might have put anybody in a trough if you’re in a relationship with somebody whom you really care about. I also know that he was a tangle of emotions about his ex-wife and his daughter. He had upended a lot, and he was spinning. He was living life at a high rate of speed, and at some pretty acute vectors, bouncing around. Grafted onto all of that was the travel. He was living life in a metal cocoon, traveling from one part of the world to the next. All of that can unground an even very sensible person. But I’m speculating now, and I’m doing it in retrograde, because I didn’t have any sense of it.

HELEN CHO: Up to his very last few days, he was still posting Instagram stories of empty hotel rooms with soundtracks from films; he was telling about what had just happened, the [tabloid] pictures that came out. He posted a story with music from the film Violent City. It has a very ominous soundtrack. Essentially, it’s a revenge film, a story about betrayal and revenge.


This book is one of the best ‘oral’ books that I have read, and I have gone through dozens of them. Why? Much like watching ‘reality TV’, reading hagiographies, and overhearing casual conversation in cafés, the most mundane can be the most valuable.

There is an extreme amount of value, care, and love in this book. And much-needed critique. Anthony Bourdain was human and therefore imperfect. This book lays a lot of memories out bare.

Laurie Woolever deserves praise for having made this book. It invokes laughter, triumph, desperation, frustration, anger, irritation, and mainly, it inspires to bring out the best in ourselves, whatever that may be: of course we don’t know, and we will stumble as we try, just as this book shows.

There’s an ephemeral feeling left at the end of this book: sadness, life, death. I wish he hadn’t died this way. That he’d gotten help. But there are a lot of very lovely and truthful recants at the end of this book to remind us all that Death is not the End.

ARIANE BUSIA-BOURDAIN: I want people to remember my dad as a person who would just open people up to a world outside their apartments, or wherever they’re living, and show them that there’s another side of the world, they might not even know it. And someone who makes people not afraid to explore and adventure into new things, and do new things, and not to be so scared, but to be very open-minded about everything. It wasn’t until he died that I realized how important he was to some people. I had no clue he was this important or famous or whatever. I didn’t know that he really meant something to some people. People who didn’t even know him sometimes acted like it was a best friend who died. On TV, he kind of acted like he was your best friend, taking you around the world. With me, of course, he would always try and show me the world around me, by [helping] me experience new foods and new things, telling me about his trips. That’s how I experienced him. And of course, I would see him on television, and from people’s feedback, I could hear that he inspired them a lot, too.