How fitting that Anthony Bourdain’s final book is actually titled “World Travel: An Irreverent Guide.” Isn’t that just like him?!? Unabashedly insolent, even from the grave. I guarantee that “World Travel” will make you miss him even more.
Just to be clear, this book was compiled and finished after Bourdain’s untimely death in 2018. Laurie Woolever–whose name is in too-tiny print on the cover jacket–started in 2002 as Bourdain’s editor and recipe tester for his Les Halles Cookbook, before taking on the role of his assistant (he preferred “lieutenant”) in 2009.
They worked well together…so well, that she co-authored Appetites in 2016. They discussed doing another book, this time about travel and the world through his eyes. Woolever wasn’t sure; did anyone really want or need another travel book? Even if it was written by a master storyteller like Bourdain? (As a side note, a couple of years ago, I took a writing workshop taught by Spud Hilton, former travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, and damn good writer himself. I wrote down word-for-word what he said about Bourdain: “Anthony Bourdain did structure perfectly.”)
So…Bourdain and Woolever decided to plunge ahead with this project. It was a very loose and fluid concept. The book would be a mix of “people, places, food, sights, markets, hotels, and more that had stuck with him, without the aids of notes or videos (emphasis mine), throughout his twenty years of traveling the world in the service of making television.” Because of Bourdain’s over-packed schedule, it would take a year from their commitment until they could finally sit down and start to plan.
One meeting on a perfect, sunny spring day
When they could finally coordinate their calendars–Bourdain’s, mostly–they met on a beautiful spring day to do the outline, made a list of topics to be researched, who to contact, timeline, and how to proceed. She left with an audiotape and a sort-of plan. He went back to his television show, Parts Unknown.
They would not meet again. Anthony Bourdain died by suicide on June 8, 2018. Two days after he left us, I wrote a tribute: Anthony Bourdain: He Inspired Travel.
The world grieved after his death. He was larger-than-life, and we all lived vicariously through him. It was impossible to match his appetite for exploring dark alleys, drinking until dawn, and eating anything with gusto. But it sure was fun to watch.
Woolever never expected this: “The sheer magnitude of his cultural impact became clear to me only after he died…Maybe the world could use another travel guide, full of Tony’s acid wit and thoughtful observations…”
Anthony Bourdain’s “World Travel” is a different kind of guidebook
This book is a treasure, a delightful jumble of descriptions, facts, actual travel tips and prices, and food recommendations. That may sound ordinary enough, but Bourdain’s quotes about each place are inserted in bold blue print. Let me tempt you with a few of his wise and cutting remarks:
- Advice for travelers: “About to get on a plane? Eat something good before you go to the airport, something big and good that’s going to knock you on your ass.”
- Vienna: “Any country where they speak German, I’m already ambivalent about.“
- Hong Kong: “China, but not China. Basically, if you can’t enjoy Hong Kong for a few hours or days, there’s no hope for you.“
- New Orleans: “There is no other place on earth even remotely like New Orleans. Don’t even try to compare it with anywhere else. Even trying to describe it is tricky…no matter how much you love it, you don’t really know it.“
- Chicago: “Chicago doesn’t ever have to measure itself against any other city. Other places have to measure themselves against it…truly one of the most awesome cities in the world. They do not fuck around in Chicago.It’s one cultural Mount Everest after another. This is the city without an inferiority complex.“
- And, finally, on food in Paris: “In the English-speaking world, there has always been a certain ambivalence about taking pleasure at the table. There has been this notion that if you take too much pleasure in your food, then it might somehow lead to bad character. It might lead to harder stuff, like sex, for instance. I think the French have always understood that, yeah, hell, yeah, it does lead to sex, and it should…“
And the essays…
When Bourdain and Woolever planned the book, he was going to write essays about his favorite places, countries that didn’t want him back, observations about people around the world, and so on. To be true to the spirit of the book, Woolever went to Bourdain’s family, friends, fellow chefs, and those who had traveled with him. Their essays add a definite layer of richness that may have made the book even more memorable, given the circumstances. Here are a few teasers:
- Bill Buford, on Lyon: “Lyon brought out Tony’s softness…”
- Jen Agg, in Toronto: “The director asked me to do a bone luge…I was skeptical, very skeptical…I was fearful that I’d be a shooter girl, and if we did it on the show, I’d be doing it for guests forever. I wasn’t wrong…”
- Nari Kye, on South Korea: “Tony said, ‘We’re going to visit your family and you’re going to be on camera’…Before this episode, I was a different person: I was ashamed and embarrassed to be different. After that experience, I realized this is what makes me who I am.”
“Your body is not a temple. It’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
How to appreciate the book
Anthony Bourdain’s “World Travel” is complicated, just like he was. I certainly can’t advise anyone how to get the most out of it. I can tell you how it’s set up and you can decide for yourself.
Thankfully, there’s a sense of order. The 43 countries are listed alphabetically, Argentina to Vietnam. And the Table of Contents gives page numbers for every country and city, just in case you’re in an unfortunate hurry. (I can’t imagine why anyone would want to rush through, but then again, I can’t imagine why anyone would put anchovies on pizza…)
Some countries have an overview, like Macau and Oman. Still–big or small–you get Bourdain’s perspective. (“You probably can’t find it on a map…One of the most beautiful, most friendly, generous, and hospitable places I’ve ever been. I’m talking about Oman.” and some practical information on how to get there, and some hotels.
Always, some recommendations on food. In Macau: “Oozing fried pork chop in delicious bread? Here at Tai Lei Loi Kei…some even say [it’s] the original version, as evidenced by the packed house, eagerly enjoying juicy, savory deliciousness.” Tell me you don’t want to book a flight and head there tomorrow, even if you’ve never given a pork chop sandwich a moment’s thought.
When a country has more than one city to visit, they’re listed right there, within the country’s chapter. I’d love to tell you that the cities are also alphabetical, but that wouldn’t be truthful. Some are (France) and some aren’t (United States). The cool thing is, it made me want to page through the entire country.
Maybe you’ll do what I did–go straight to the places in the book that I’ve been to, to see if I happened to have walked in Bourdain’s footsteps. I can’t say that I landed at the same spots, but I have been fortunate to enjoy the same kinds of foods that he did: Po’boys, tacos, crabs, noodles, oysters, In-n-Out…and Waffle House.
His “Ode to Waffle House” says it all
Anthony Bourdain was an Everyman. You have to love a world trotter who loathed being shut away in 5-Star hotels. In fact, it was a recurring nightmare for him–and one he often lived. “I feel like Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame–if he had stayed in nice hotel suites with high-thread-count sheets. I feel kind of like a freak, and…very isolated.” As a budget traveler, I love that he was never a snob.
But what really made me miss him even more was when I read how much he loved Waffle House. They’re hardly upscale; the tagline is Good Food Fast. 24/7/365. And the prices make you blink twice, because you’re certain a meal can’t possibly be that affordable. There are over 2,100 of them, scattered across 25 states in the U.S. I actually plan road trip routes so I can stop at as many Waffle Houses as possible. Maybe you do, too.
Bourdain fell in love with Waffle House. Imagine–a man who had been everywhere and eaten everything. He instantly understood what that yellow sign by the highway exit means:
“Is the Waffle House universally awesome? It is indeed, marvelous, an irony-free zone where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts; where everybody, regardless of race, creed, color, of degree of inebriation, is welcomed–its warm yellow glow a beacon of hope and salvation, inviting the hungry, lost, the seriously hammered…to come inside. A place of safety and nourishment. It never closes, it is alway faithful, always there for you.”
I can’t help but wonder if things would have been different for Bourdain, had he realized how much he was cherished. How much his fans were “always faithful, always there for him.” And still are.