At first glance, it’s not clear how one should read the latest—and last—book by Anthony Bourdain. Coming in at nearly 450 pages, and that’s not counting the thorough list of citations and appendix, World Travel: An Irreverent Guide is not really a travel guide, despite both those words being part of the full title. It’s also not a comprehensive overview of all the places Bourdain traveled to or all the destinations featured on No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown.
It’s not big nor glossy either, so no poring over photos of Bourdain eating pho with Barack Obama in Vietnam or Bourdain sweating it out over a spicy bowl of noodles in Sichuan Province, which Bourdain described as “the spicy, sensualist heartland of all the things I love about China. Man, I love the food here.”
Laurie Woolever, Bourdain’s co-author and long-time assistant, deftly inserts lines like this to bring the book alive in a way that requires no visuals except for the ones you craft in your own head.
Indeed, the prominent feature of the book is Bourdain’s words. In a recent phone interview, Woolever described the book as containing his “brilliant observations,” his “expressions of anguish clearly meant for comic effect,” all of which she believes shows him as a “complete human.”
Cherry-picking which quotes to use, Woolever immersed herself in Bourdain’s complete body of work: reading his books and listening to them too, poring over his interviews, and of course, re-watching his television programs. Access to the shows’ written transcripts provided Woolever with the connective tissue in which to piece together the book. “I hope they feel Tony’s voice,” she says.
But, in spite of this impressive wealth of Bourdain material to cull from, it’s fair to say Woolever had her work cut out for her. She’s upfront about the fact that she and Tony only met formally once to discuss World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, a meeting Woolever describes in frank detail in the introduction: “One spring afternoon in 2018, I sat across from Tony at his dining table, in the Manhattan high-rise apartment he had lovingly styled into a reasonable facsimile of a suite at his favorite Los Angeles hotel, the Chateau Marmont.
“If I’d known that the single meeting would be the only one we’d have about the book, I would have pushed him for more specifics in those places where he’d said, ‘Let’s come back to it,’ or ‘See what you can pull up.’”
“He wrote nearly impeccable prose, but on the occasion when it needed a bit of tidying or fleshing out, I was able to do that, I think, without detection.”
The places discussed in their single meeting are the ones you’ll find within these pages. They’re not, Woolever explains, inclusive of all the places Bourdain loved. For example, you won’t find a section on Okinawa in the Japan chapter—not because Bourdain didn’t have a great experience in the island prefecture; rather, because his most memorable experience there wasn’t one a traveler following in his footsteps could easily replicate. It involved jiu-jitsu training and a unique meal on a beach, “an outdoor party [with food] cooked by people that live on the island,”—a dining experience not open to the public, Woolever points out.
“He had a great time [in Okinawa], he loved it and wanted people to visit. But there just wasn’t enough from our discussion that really that warranted a chapter,” Woolever says.
It seems Bourdain wanted World Travel: An Irreverent Guide to provide elements of service and practicality, which helps make sense of Woolever’s decision to include seemingly random airport or public transportation info. Woolever views the Arrival and Getting Around sections as a necessary component: “You owe it to the reader to have practical travel information.”
Plus, Bourdain liked this kind of stuff, according to Woolever, who traveled with him on several occasions. Though “getting there and getting around” scenes rarely made it into episodes—too little time, too much mouth-watering food and scintillating conversation—Bourdain often opined on some of the more mundane yet integral parts of travel: traffic, taxis, trains. Depending on where he was traveling, he interacted directly with public transportation and if “there was something notable about the way in which people got around a place, he would talk about that,” Woolever explains.
“Maybe I just got lucky…[but] I think I just approached people who had great experiences with Tony and had a lot to say and had demonstrated a willingness to be kind of helpful…”
He offered this piece of advice on navigating London via taxi: “Something you should know—never take a minicab, only black cabs. Black cabs have a meter…Minicabs, they pretty much charge whatever the hell they like…”—useful advice for the London traveler.
But, says Woolever, you don’t have to be an avid traveler to enjoy the book.
Others, including Woolever’s mother who Woolever says has never missed an episode of Bourdain’s travels yet isn’t able to travel for health reasons, can find something in An Irreverent Guide that’s for them as well. When asked how she thinks people ought to read the book, Woolever says, “Depends on your relationship to travel and level of fandom. Some will come to the book as Tony fans.”
Interspersed with those inimitable Bourdain lines, self-deprecating soundbites, and sharp observations are Woolever’s words, used kind of like glue to shape each chapter’s food recommendations, hotel suggestions, and cultural musings. As she writes in the introduction: “He wrote nearly impeccable prose, but on the occasion when it needed a bit of tidying or fleshing out, I was able to do that, I think, without detection.” Here, Woolever doesn’t so much finesse Bourdain’s assertions as bring them to life. The bold formatting used for all of Bourdain’s quotes aids this quest.
Irreverent Travel also contains a number of essays written by Bourdain’s friends, family members, and colleagues. Christopher Bourdain has penned three of these; the author Bill Buford another; and restaurateur Jenn Agg as well. Woolever describes the essay compilation as happening organically. “Maybe I just got lucky,” she says because no one turned her down, though it’s possible that has more to do with who she enlisted. “I think I just approached people who had great experiences with Tony and had a lot to say and had demonstrated a willingness to be kind of helpful.”
Through these essays and Woolever’s purposeful prose which above all highlights Anthony Bourdain, the irreverent traveler, the guide is one to savor, and perhaps inspire future travel the way Tony would have done it.