“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.” Anthony Bourdain
The world appears to be opening up again and summer is the time when the smell of charcoal floats through the air tickling our taste buds, while we imagine a vacation to someplace near or far. While enjoying that burger and dreaming of travel I recommend a delightful book, “World Travel: An Irreverent Guide” (Ecco) by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolover. It’s an odd, bittersweet mixture of a travel guide, covering a lot of countries (Argentina to Vietnam) that Bourdain, a celebrity chef, reported on during his 16 years as a food correspondent for networks including CNN, the Travel Channel and Food Network.
Bourdain tragically took his own life three years ago at the age of 61. I miss him and probably many others do too. The host of shows such as “Parts Unknown” and “No Reservations,” he challenged viewers to leave their comfort zones and travel to unusual places using food as a way to break down cultural barriers and bring people closer together. His hunger for stories of the marginalized is a quality so few have, and Bourdain didn’t just want to walk in someone’s shoes, he wanted to learn how they got those shoes and why they wear them.
Bourdain trained at The Culinary Institute of America, and jettisoned to international fame in 2000 with his book, “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” a no-holds-barred exposé of the high-pressure restaurant culture. He later travelled the world to make several award-winning documentary series about food and travel. He died alone in a hotel room while on tour in France in June 2018 where he was filming an episode of "Parts Unknown."
Before his untimely death, Bourdain had begun the manuscript for “World Travel” with co-author Laurie Woolever, his long-time friend and assistant who collaborated with him on his 2016 cookbook “Appetites.” After he died, Woolever took on the overwhelming task of merging Bourdain’s distinctive words, perceptions and unique wit to honor Bourdain and produce this book. Woolever included recollections of her own on-the-road experiences with Bourdain but also added very special interviews with a hundred or so of his family, friends and colleagues. They included Bourdain’s late mother, ex-wife, wife and their daughter.
The book has a somewhat shapeless vision, an “atlas of the world as seen through his (Bourdain’s) eyes,” Woolever writes in the introduction. It’s meant to read like a travel guide, even if it would be a stretch to use it as one. Drawn mostly from Bourdain’s various TV shows, it covers 43 countries featuring advice on how to get there, what to eat, where to stay and, in some cases, what to avoid. Occasionally Woolever adds her own recommendations based on her travels and knowledge, but “World Travel” provides essential context that will help readers further appreciate the reasons why Bourdain found a place enchanting and memorable. Bourdain never admitted to being a fan of travel guides and, before this book, he had never really expressed much interest in writing one. “I like atmospherics,” he said. “I don’t want a list of the best hotels or restaurants; I want to read fiction set in the place where you get a real sense of what that place is like.”
The choice of what to include came mostly out of one recorded conversation in the spring of 2018 between Woolever and Bourdain at his NYC apartment, which he had, according to the author, decorated to mirror one of his favorite hotels, Hollywood’s infamous Chateau Marmont. The conversation was supposed to be the first of many sessions, but it became Woolever’s only blueprint. Facing all of the unwritten essays, she reached out to others who knew Bourdain.
Bourdain saw more of the world than nearly anyone. His journeys took him from his hometown of New York to a tribal longhouse in Borneo, from multinational cities like Buenos Aires, Paris, and Shanghai to Tanzania’s stunning beauty and the exquisite desert solitude of Oman’s Empty Quarter –and many places beyond. In Cambodia, readers get suggestions for several hotels, two food markets and a strong recommendation to check out the temples of Angkor Wat, the country’s most famous attraction. It isn’t exactly the list of hole-in-the-wall spots with no addresses that Bourdain fans may be hoping for, but those fans will find his rant against American military involvement in Cambodia. (“Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”) Having those passages – the uncensored monologues that were a hallmark of his television shows – in one place is one of the book’s greatest assets.
Many places Bourdain loved were left out, although it’s hard to say where he and Woolever might have traveled for research as their book took shape. “Tony loved Thailand,” said Woolever. “He had one place in mind in northern Thailand that he wanted to include, but there really wasn’t enough to make a chapter.” Indonesia was another example. “He went to Indonesia several times, and he had really interesting experiences there,” she said. “But the most fruitful experiences he had were not easily replicable by someone going as a tourist or traveler.” Iran too. “There aren’t really a lot of Americans going to Iran for leisure travel right now,” she added. “So it didn’t make sense to include a chapter.” Chicago was another story. Bourdain loved that city and is quoted at the beginning of the chapter: “This is one of the most awesome cities in the world. They do not (mess) around in Chicago.”
Woolever notes that “Bourdain was not irreverent in the sense that he didn’t take people seriously. But he was irreverent in that he was willing to question established wisdom.” She refers to the Paris chapter, where Bourdain endorses the unstructured plans – walking a bit, getting lost, drinking some wine over any "have-to-see" tourist sights. “Most of us are lucky to see Paris once in a lifetime. Make the most of it by doing as little as possible,” he advised. In other words: go your own way. “World Travel” is by no means a true travel guide, but anyone who enjoyed and misses Bourdain will want this book.