For someone who has been a close associate of world traveller extraordinaire Anthony Bourdain, Laurie Woolever has a no-fuss travel philosophy. She swears by his formula of treading the line between spontaneity and preparedness. Follow the U.S. military motto, ‘Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance,’ but also adapt if you meet jammed streets, closed borders, and inclement weather. She also says something called the “Serenity Prayer,” devised by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Anyone who has watched their share of travel and food TV in the past decade will have scant trouble rattling off the crème de la crème of the genre, and the late Bourdain almost always tops the list. Three years after the widely-adored chef, writer, and TV personality died by suicide, we reached out to Woolever, his assistant and editor, better known as his lieutenant and gatekeeper—a person who shared Tony’s scooter seat through narrow Vietnamese lanes when the cameras were off. World Travel: An Irreverent Guide came out earlier this year, a book Tony began and Laurie completed, composed of Bourdain’s commentary as heard on his television shows, trivia and tips on travel, along with heartfelt pieces by the man’s close confidants.
What is it that you exactly did as his lieutenant or gatekeeper when Tony was making those shows?
I handled Tony’s schedule, which was very complicated, made sure he got to where he needed to get to in the time he needed to get there comfortably. I did a lot of coordinating with the pre-production people who worked on his TV shows to make sure that the flights, hotels, and locations all worked for him, and made sense with his schedule. I also did a lot of communications gatekeeping. If there were people who wanted his time and attention, to request an interview or to request help with something, or his participation on a project and so on, I was the first person that a lot of that correspondence came to. I would provide answers to people, (and) communicate their requests to Tony. After a while, I started to help out with some line editing on the books he published under his imprint, and eventually, he offered me the chance to co-author a cookbook, which I was very happy to accept. We wrote and co-authored Appetites, which was published in 2016. The book was a personal reflection of the way that Tony cooked for his family, along with some things that he had picked up as a restaurant cook and chef.
When did you realise that what he was doing with travel, food, and writing was perhaps revolutionary?
Probably from the time when I read Kitchen Confidential, which was published in 2000. I was working as a food writer, and also as Mario Batali’s assistant for a few years at that point, and had really immersed myself in the world of food and travel writing, and was aware of who the major voices were. And Tony’s voice was so different and so irreverent. There was so much truth-telling and personal storytelling in a way we hadn’t seen—it was very warts-and-all. The only book that I could compare Kitchen Confidential to, in my knowledge, was Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell. It was the closest thing along with Hunter S. Thompson and his style of journalism. I think with the publication of Kitchen Confidential, Tony really revolutionised food and travel media.
You earned your bachelor’s at Cornell and then moved to New York and “dicked around for a few years,” says your website. What’s that all about?
I graduated from Cornell in 1996, and my goal was to move to New York and figure it out. I had studied Natural Resources, which was about forest management, population management, systems and habitats, and working with them to maximise and protect them. It was a worthy field, but not one that I was truly interested in. I spent a short time working at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, had a couple of false starts, and then ended up working for two years as a private cook for a family. It was a good fit, and I learned that I wanted to cook for real, and I wanted to be a writer for real. I knew that I needed to get some more education and take some more steps in order to move myself into that world. So, I enrolled myself in cooking school—I had already been taking continuing-education classes in various writing formats—and then from thereon I moved on to working with Mario Batali.
Talking of World Travel, do you have a favourite part of the book?
To me, the real value in World Travel is how much of Tony’s voice is in that book. It was a difficult and unusual thing to co-author a book with somebody and to do the bulk of the work after they have passed on. And I say it in the introduction too—it’s a difficult thing to co-author the book with a world traveller who is no longer travelling the world. That being said, to me, what’s special and different about this book is that it’s got so much writing from Tony in it, so many observations of the places that he loved, general thoughts and observations on what it means to travel, how travel impacts a person, and how we can be good travellers. Overall, putting this book together, I felt lucky to be able to spend so much time with Tony’s rich writing on the subject and to have access to it through my relationships with his publishing partners and his television production partners.
Aren’t the elements of planning and curation associated with travel guides in a bit of a conflict with the spontaneity and subjectivity that Tony often espoused?
It’s true that Tony was a big fan of being spontaneous, following your nose. Like, if you’re jet-lagged in the middle of the night in Tokyo, get up and wander around. The streets are full of people, see what you can find to eat or drink, or someone who is willing to talk to you. But the truth is, when you’re making a television travel show, spontaneity is but one illusion that is created by a lot of hard work, meticulous planning, forethought, pre-interviews, blocking shots, and securing locations. So, it has to be a balance, and I think it really works well when one’s planning their own travels: obviously you need to know where you’re going, when, how to get there, and the things that you hope to see or would like to achieve when you’re there. Then again, it also serves a traveller well to stay spontaneous and flexible, and to understand that sometimes things change, are out of your control, restaurants are closed without warning, borders are closed—as Tony saw when he went to Lebanon with his crew in 2006—weather doesn’t cooperate. It’s a balance, and as Tony used to say, prior planning prevents piss poor performance. It was borrowed from the U.S. military but he liked to apply it to the kitchen context.
Which is your favourite Anthony Bourdain memory?
Gosh, there are so many. At a certain point, I was invited to accompany Tony and the crew on a one-shoot-per-year anywhere they went in the world. Tony covered my travel expenses and I was allowed to just come, hang out, and observe, or I could do my own thing. My first instance of this was when we went to Huế in Central Vietnam in 2014, and I had never myself been on the ground in Asia, or travelled with the crew. This was a really formative and exciting time for me, and it was special to get there and see how happy Tony was to be in that country, to share this place that he loved with somebody who hadn’t seen it before. He loved to ride a scooter in Vietnam—it’s the dominant mode of transportation in the cities—and it just made him happy, so they always made sure for him to have one at his disposal. So, he said to me, ‘Whenever they’re not shooting for the camera, you should ride along with me—it’s really fun.’ And I was really nervous at the beginning, as a mother of a young child and without any experience on a motorcycle. And he told me not to worry, that we’d go 30 miles an hour, and if it got dicey, I could just hang on to him. As much as I wasn’t starstruck—I had been working for him for five years at that point—I did still feel like, ‘I am riding on the back of a scooter with literally Anthony Bourdain (chuckles). I know it is my job, and he is my boss, but still, I have to know that this is a pretty singular, spectacular moment.’
Since Tony’s absence, there has been constant search for an absolute authentic like him. Is there something/someone out there that you think keeps his legacy alive or is continuing his style of storytelling?
The short answer is that there will be no new Anthony Bourdain. A lot of people have tried—God bless them—but he’s not a replaceable figure. Anyone who’s trying to fit themselves in his mould is really on a fool’s errand. Many have tried, long before he died, to write books that mimicked Kitchen Confidential, to make TV series that mimicked No Reservations and Parts Unknown. He was a singular, charismatic force shaped by where he came from, who his family was, how he lived his life; somewhat like an Andy Warhol or a David Bowie figure in the U.S. who people will continue to react to, continue to make art in homage to, and continue to try to figure out and document the effect he had while he was here.
You say you watched the recent documentary Roadrunner five times. What do you make of the debate around “reviving” Tony’s voice digitally in the film?
It’s a tempest out of a teacup really. This is a beautiful, two-hour film, full of Tony’s actual voice, speaking Tony’s actual words. The section in question is less than 45 seconds’ worth of digitally recreated voice—of Tony again. I think what it really speaks to is the huge impact Tony had on people, and the way in which he is so relatable, and so much a champion of authenticity, that it had this effect of people believing that they knew what Tony would’ve wanted. I just really want to challenge anyone who believes that they know best what Tony would have wanted, or not wanted—to actually watch the film, pay close attention to the opening sequence of the film. Tony is speaking on camera to a friend in Indonesia, talking about death, and his wishes for his remains and his legacy after he dies, and he is extremely irreverent to the point of being grotesque in how he thinks his remains should be treated and how his death should be treated. And I want to challenge anyone who feels that they’re clutching their pearls over this AI to defend that position after listening to Tony himself talk about his feelings about one’s legacy after his death.
You say you would live nowhere other than New York. Did you and Tony bond over your love for the city?
Tony was born in New Jersey, just across the river from New York, but he grew up in a very suburban, New Jersey existence. I myself grew several hours north of New York City, in New York state, but went to school in a fairly small city that was surrounded by lots of farmland. So, to me, this city had such a siren song and I got here as soon as I could. Yeah, we both were attracted to the chaos and the possibility, the endless renewing resource of people, energy, and ideas. A person can reinvent themselves any number of times here. Reading Kitchen Confidential, you see how many jobs Tony cycled through in a 28-year career as a chef. Tony made his way around the entire city, and had many adventures here. We both needed that, and it’s an essential part of how we function.
What can you share about your upcoming book Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography? What can lifelong fans of Anthony Bourdain expect from it?
As somebody who worked for Tony for nine years as his assistant—and I had known him since 2002—I knew where he was every minute of the day and why he was there and who he was with. I had read his every book, immersed myself completely in his television work, and I felt, too, that I knew everything there was to know about Tony at the start of this project. In interviewing the 90 people whose voices show up in this book, I learned something new about him in every single one of those interviews. And I really tried to include all of that in the text of the book. So, I think even those who immerse themselves in the version of Tony that he generously shared with the world through his writing and his television work, will find a lot to know and learn about somebody who was an extraordinary, complicated, and fascinating person.
Any place you would live in, were it not for New York?
I’ve spent a lot of time in the Catskill Mountains, and it’s beautiful, very quiet, and I can see myself being reasonably happy there. Just this summer, I spent a few weeks working on a new project in Copenhagen, and it was my first time there, and it’s again a place that I could probably spend a fair bit of time. It’s so different from New York, a capital city but so much more orderly and civilised in some ways. Bicycles are privileged over cars and other forms of traffic, and there are ways in which people have figured out how to be good Earth stewards while still living in an urban environment, which is inspiring. But it’s hard to commit.
What are your favourite travel destinations in the world?
I mentioned Vietnam earlier, and maybe in part because Tony loved it so much, but I found it to be so compelling, a place I would love to go back. I only went to Huế in the central part of the country and I’d really like to see Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. There’s also Rome—I spent a bit of time there researching this book. The food is magical, and the way this ancient history coexists so beautifully with the modern city is so fascinating.
And then India—I had been to Sri Lanka and I was so close to India, I could practically touch it but then it wasn’t on the itinerary. I feel like India would take either a year for me to start to scratch the surface of such a massive and varied country, or several consecutive trips planned back-to-back to get a sense of it.
This feature appeared in the print edition of National Geographic Traveller India September-October 2021.
Prannay Pathak dreams about living out of a suitcase and retiring to the island of Hamneskär to watch films in solitary confinement. He is Assistant Editor (Digital) at National Geographic Traveller India.