After Anthony Bourdain’s tragic death in June 2018, it became clearer just how many lives he had touched—and how his shows, books, and sense of curiosity and adventure helped us think differently about the world.
For Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography (Ecco/HarperCollins $30), Laurie Woolever—Bourdain’s longtime assistant, co-author, and friend—interviewed nearly 100 people, from celebrity chefs and his television crew to his family and inner circle. The result is a candid, compelling look at the man and his work.
Here, Woolever reflects on their time together.
Why do you think Bourdain’s approach to life and travel resonated with so many people?
He encouraged us to push a little bit outside our comfort zone. When we were in Vietnam filming Parts Unknown, he told me, “If you can, find a motorcycle taxi driver to take you around.” I was quite hesitant at first, but eventually I got on the back of this guy’s bike and we went out into the countryside, where he brought me to temples and ate lunch with me at a little roadside place. Tony really redefined what adventure could be.
What was the best meal you had together?
In Huế, on the same trip, we had bún bò Huế, a rich, meaty noodle soup that’s fortified with lemongrass and spices and garnished with tons of herbs and shredded banana blossom. There’s usually some kind of meatball, and in some versions, cubes of gelatinized pork blood called huyết. Such a complex, delicious bowl.
What trip stands out among the rest?
Japan. Okinawa was interesting because it was just so unlike the rest of the country—the highlight there was going to a Japanese bullfight, a more humane form of the sport and a really exciting cultural event. Later, in Tokyo, we walked around the Golden Gai, in Shinjuku, and Tony wanted to show me all the little bars that seat like four to six people. No cameras, no expectations. It was just a fun night with a friend. That’s a memory I really, really cherish.
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What might surprise people about him?
He actually was not afraid to lean in to true relaxation. When he had time to just be with his family, he would go someplace very normal and private, hang by the beach or the pool, watch TV, order room service. I think people sometimes think he had an all-or-nothing approach, like, Well, Tony wouldn’t want me to be getting a cheeseburger by the pool. Yes, he would. What a pleasure, what a privilege that is, right?
What did you take away from working on this project?
Even though I knew he was quite famous and quite loved, I saw how much bigger his influence was than I realized. I learned something new about Tony in every single one of the interviews that I did. Even if someone is sharing what seems like their entire life, there’s always much more to the story.…
A version of this story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline What Tony Taught Us.