"They all want you to try their food." That's the last quote from Anthony Bourdain on the last page of his last book, World Travel, a travel guide from a world traveler who hated travel guides, out today. He's talking about the vendors at the Ben Thanh Market in Vietnam, but you could take it as a final message on being a good tourist from Bourdain, who died in 2018 after building a towering reputation as the best tourist. More or less, he's telling you to engage with the people, to be daring but contentious. That's the Bourdain way, and this book, which his assistant and co-author Laurie Woolever painstakingly stitched together from past Bourdain quotes, her own research, and interviews with people who worked with Bourdain on the ground, marks his last word on the subject.
The timing couldn't have been better. This far into April, restless Americans are eyeing flight prices and getaway destinations, if not without inhibitions, then certainly with fewer of them. It's been a long, boring, grief-stricken year of staying put. The travel industry is readying itself for a boom. Many could use the Bourdainian reminder to be, frankly, not shitheads while they travel. Others could use a refresher on cultivating a sense of worldly wonder.
That is perhaps the best use of World Travel—a travel guide that's more of a traveler's creed. You won't read it straight through. I found myself flipping to locations that I share in common with Bourdain, like New York City, so I could relish his description of a certain cocktail lounge in midtown Manhattan: "I believe people have died there." I also wanted to read about Myanmar, where long before the latest turmoil, Bourdain noted: "Burma, now Myanmar, where Orwell had once served as a colonial policeman, where he'd first grown to despise the apparatus of a security state, became more Orwellian than even he could have imagined."
For the 43 countries Bourdain visited that are included in the book, there are also logistical recommendations (which airports to book taxis from ahead of time, what hotels are the coolest), followed by food stops and cultural sites Bourdain was especially taken by. If you want to travel literally in the way Bourdain did, you can.
"I think it's also for people who just really who miss Tony," says Woolever, who herself gravitates toward the chapter on Sardinia, Italy, where she gets a sense of Bourdain as a young father traveling with his daughter. In that way, it can be an emotional read, too.
This isn't what Woolever had in mind four years ago. She and Bourdain had just come off of promoting his 2016 book Appetites—Woolever worked with Bourdain as his assistant and then co-author since 2009—when they started thinking about this one. It took another year before they sat down in Bourdain's Manhattan apartment in March 2018 to brainstorm. "Tony chain-smoked and free-associated for over an hour, recalling best-loved dishes and hotels and people," Woolever remembers in the introduction to World Travel, while she took notes. Turns out, those notes would be the only original ideas from Bourdain she'd have to work with. They became her "blueprint" for a travel guidebook that pulled heavily from episodes of No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown to keep about half of its text in Bourdain's own words.
"I'm very, very happy to have the book out in the world now, but it's obviously very bittersweet," Woolever told me over the phone last week. "I would much rather he be doing these interviews and promoting it than me, because really it's still his story."
Bourdain was generous with what he knew about the world—he wasn't one to phone in a show, give a bad interview, or water down an opinion. The well's run dry of new shows about new locations with those characteristically vivid, borderline outrageous, descriptions. It's a good thing, then, that this book recounts the many hits. Woolever talked to Esquire about Bourdain's way of traveling, his interest in pandemics, and the legacy that'll last beyond his final quote.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ESQ: When you were going through these years and years of TV shows and interviews, was there anything you learned about Bourdain that you hadn't known before?
Laurie Woolever: I wouldn't say it was new information, but I think what was really reinforced to me is that he made himself so well-informed before he went anywhere. He would read a novel written by somebody from the place to really get a sense of the atmospherics. He would watch films from the place. I don't think it makes him unusual to say that he did his research before he went to do a show—I think that's what any good travel host should do—but he just took it really seriously.
He was such a sponge for knowledge, because he really wanted to show respect to the people who were taking their time to be on camera with him. Sometimes it was a business owner, and sure, they got a bump from being on television, but oftentimes it was a former political prisoner or someone who maybe was taking a risk by appearing on camera with him. And I think he wanted to make sure that he was not going to waste their time and was going to be able to ask them the kinds of questions that would let them tell their own stories. I hadn't thought too much about that in the day-to-day of working for and with him, but in going back and realizing just how, for all the jokes and drunken hot dogs and silliness, there was a real seriousness of intent behind what he did.
We're looking at a post-pandemic traveling spree that could be kind of wild. With what you've learned through Bourdain and your own travels, do you think there are ethics to traveling that people ought to keep in mind for 2021?
I think the example that Tony set in his life and as a traveler was to enter a place respectfully, to understand the cultures and customs before you arrive, to accept things that are offered to you, and try and have a sense of what the offensive hand gestures are—the things that you might do that inadvertently cause offense. But beyond that, it's obviously a fast-developing situation. I don't think he would be crazy about people going around maskless and going against whatever the local [government] guidance is. But unfortunately he's not here to say his piece on that.
What do you think he would have made of the last year?
One of the things he was really interested in was stuff to do with medicine and pandemics and the way people respond to them. He wrote a whole book about Typhoid Mary back in 2001. He was interested in her life and how she was treated by the government and her odd defiance that ultimately infected a lot of people. He did this deep, deep research into typhoid, so I think from a purely objective, academic perspective, it would be very interesting.
There's so many things to lament and regret about him not being around, but I always think, God, I would just love to see him again and tell him, like, "Dude, there's a global pandemic." That would just blow his mind. Of course he would have opinions about the way people are behaving toward each other and the need for rising above individual needs and trying to address the common good. But he was not easily predictable, so I don't want to say I know really what he would think or what he would say. Sometimes he would veer very sharply against whatever the prevailing wisdom was. It's just one of those things that we're left to speculate about.
Has working on this book or just the last year in general made you incredibly antsy to travel?
For sure. When it's safe, I'm really looking forward to all the places on my list and so much of the United States I still haven't seen yet. I see that reflected around me, that people are recognizing that there's a lot of interesting stuff closer to home. We used to maybe be a little nonchalant about what's in our own home state or our own region, but forced to stay closer to home, we're rediscovering some of those smaller pleasures.
Speaking of hometowns, there's a big section on New Jersey—Bourdain's brother writes an essay about growing up there—and recently, New Jersey was ranked the third worst state in America by Americans.
What do you think Bourdain would have had to say about that?
He probably would've very vigorously defended New Jersey. It's a lazy stereotype that New Jersey is terrible. I mean, every state has great things and terrible things, but I think it became a very easy punchline in the '80s and '90s that New Jersey is terrible. But it's not. It really isn't. In the realm of small states, it's a fairly large state, and it has mountains and ocean and horse country.
What do you hope the legacy of this book and your work with him will be in the food and travel space?
I hope that people take his example of traveling respectfully and trying to learn something about a place before you arrive, trying to understand what makes a place different and special. At the same time, that can be taken to an extreme that he probably didn't intend. He still was somebody who would enjoy a room service hamburger. Or when we were in Sri Lanka, he got KFC and a bottle of whiskey for the whole crew and had an evening wrap party, because they had a really tough shoot day. There was no shame in just relying on the comfort of Western fast food. So what I would hope is that the people who are consuming travel media and looking for guidance would take that combination of treating people in places with respect, but not taking oneself all too seriously.
I bet there are plenty of folks aiming to fill his shoes. Do you think anyone will be able to?
Anyone and everyone can make a travel show that reflects their own personality and charisma and insights, but I think he's got impossible shoes to fill. He was really just that one guy. I don't know that there is anyone else like him, which is okay. What Stanley Tucci is doing is fantastic, and he's doing it in his way. I don't think anyone that's doing great travel TV now is overtly trying to imitate Bourdain. They might be taking the best qualities of making thoughtful travel television, but I don't think anyone who's doing it well has any delusions that they're going to replace him.
Is there anywhere in this book that is on your travel bucket list right now?
I'd really like to get back to Vietnam. I just went one time with Tony in 2014 to central Vietnam, and I'd really like to see Hanoi and Saigon and the places that he really returned to again and again and loved so much. I'd like to get back to Italy. And then also Oman. He was so enthusiastic about Oman. He just made it seem so appealing. That's number three for sure.
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