Like Anthony Bourdain’s legion of admirers, I was eager to read World Travel: An Irreverent Guide (Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins), authored by Bourdain and his long-time assistant, writer and editor Laurie Woolever.
Food and travel enthusiasts were shocked by the unexpected death of the strikingly handsome, inspiring storyteller who seemed to be having the time of his life pursuing his passions. People around the world felt as if they had lost a friend, even if he was one they never really had met.
Woolever compiled this much anticipated book after Bourdain’s death, by suicide, at the age of 61 in June 2018. It is scheduled for release on April 20, 2021.
World Travel: What’s inside the book
The 480-page book is divided into 43 chapters, each covering one of Bourdain’s favorite countries (among the 93 he visited before he died). Most of these chapters are further broken down, with descriptions of two or three cities. Both the writing and organization make for a breezy read and easy reference.
All the chapters are quite brief, usually not more than ten pages with lots of white space, although there are several exceptions. The lengthy chapter about the United States is almost a hundred pages, but it, too, is broken down; in this case, by various states and cities. The descriptions of destinations, restaurants and accommodations are well-curated although some readers may find them limited in number and detail.
Woolever recounts that although she and Bourdain had talked about doing the book for some time, his busy schedule precluded them from collaborating to the extent she might have liked. In fact, she mentions that the book took its shape from a single, hour-long meeting with him.
An intimate portrait
However, Woolever’s close association with Bourdain dates back almost two decades. She first began working with the storied chef in 2002, when he hired her to edit and test recipes for his book, Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook. She became his assistant in 2009; Bourdain playfully calling her his “lieutenant.”
Although Bourdain was a prolific and talented writer, it was she who often polished his words. She traveled with him many times, occupying a front-row seat that allowed her to know the man, his interests and sensibilities. From her description in the book, her relationship with Bourdain sounds to me much like that of a “work-spouse.”
The chapters highlight some of the most memorable people, places, hotels, sights, and foods, of course, of Bourdain’s travels. Interspersed are reflections from Bourdain’s close friends, family and colleagues.
For example, author and journalist Bill Buford’s essay, “On Lyon,” talks about the Parts Unknown episode focused on that gastronomic mecca. Another essay by his brother, Christopher Bourdain, entitled “A Child’s View of Paris,” details intimate memories of the brothers’ first trip abroad in 1966, when Christopher was just seven and Tony ten years old.
The book is at its best when Woolever makes copious use of Bourdain’s actual words, sourced from his writings; from the 104 episodes of his 12-season CNN series, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown; his eight-season show on The Travel Channel’s No Reservations, and her personal observations. The choice of vignettes capture his voice and tone, including some of the profanity that challenged censors and some followers.
An unusual book
Although probably an asset rather than a drawback, it’s hard to categorize this book. It isn’t a guide book, per se, because the narratives are so personal and compelling. It’s part travelogue, part memoir, part ethnography, part poetry, and a posthumous tribute to a culinary icon. If you are traveling to one of those places, it can be used as a roadmap pointing you to some of Bourdain’s favorite places with descriptions of not-to-be-missed local foods and recipes.
Complementing the text are whimsical pen-and-ink illustrations by Wesley Allsbrook that appear throughout the volume. These include Bourdain riding a motorcycle in Cambodia, entering a temple in Taiwan, and fishing off The Malecón in Cuba.
Distracting and feeling somewhat superfluous in each chapter was the inclusion of “Arrival and Getting Around” information. It isn’t likely that readers will use this book to focus on the nitty gritty of airports and local transportation, especially when travel is currently in so much flux. Given the choice, I would have preferred Woolever to use that space to include more reflections about Bourdain’s takes on people and places.
To whet your appetite:
A sampling of some of my favorite Bourdain-isms in the book
“Outside of Asia, this is it: the best and most exciting place to eat in the world…How can ham be this good? How can something that comes in a can be that terrific? Simple things—an anchovy, an olive, a piece of cheese…Really really simple things…”
On Eating in Taiwan
“A steamed bun filled with melt-in-your-mouth pork belly braised in soy sauce, wine, shallots and five-spice powder, served with pickled mustard greens, cilantro, and crushed peanuts.”
“It’s nuts driving into the Serengeti. After a short while, you actually get used to the Jungle Book scene playing out in front of your car. Giraffe and wildebeest, zebra—they all seem to hang out with each other. No conflict at all.”
Just in time
Although the release date for the book is April 20, 2021, I was fortunate to snag an advance review copy. The publication is especially welcome at a time when travel is on pause and intrepid travelers are relegated to either reading about destinations or seeing them virtually, in photos or videos.
If you have already been to some or many of these countries or cities, you’ll welcome Bourdain’s witty, unvarnished insights.
For those who haven’t traveled widely, the chapters offer an inspiring bucket list. Bourdain always had an unusual ability to increase the breadth of our understanding of the foods, cultures and traditions of people around the world, which is more needed now than ever.
About the author
Laurie Woolever is a writer and editor who has written about food and travel for The New York Times, GQ, Food & Wine, Lucky Peach, Saveur, Dissent, Roads & Kingdoms and others. She has worked as an editor at Art Culinaire and Wine Spectator.
In Food & WIne: “What It Was Like to Eat with Anthony Bourdain“ by Laurie Woolever
World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Bourdain and Woolever is available for pre-order now, both in hardcover and Kindle format. It is currently ranked #1 in the categories of General Travel Reference, Culinary Biographies & Memoirs, and Travelogues & Travel Essays.
Disclosure: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This is a fair and honest review based on my personal opinion.
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