Spending over a decade working with the legendary late Anthony Bourdain, writer Laurie Woolever has helped carry the chef and television host’s mantle after his passing in 2018. Earlier this year, she released the best-selling World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, chronicling some of the world’s most fascinating places that Bourdain traveled to. And in September, she released Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography, a comprehensive, 59-chapter book that interviewed 91 of his close friends, family, and confidantes including the likes of Eric Ripert and Nigella Lawson.
Having known Bourdain so well, Woolever is able to help demystify the godlike status he held, pointing instead to his human qualities. Her writing tells not only of the joys and pleasures for which Bourdain was known, but also of the struggles and challenges that he faced — up through his final year. Yet, though Bourdain’s life was more complicated than any of his television shows could ever reveal, it’s his warmth and his ability to connect with anyone, anywhere in the world, that lives on as his legacy.
One of the places Bourdain frequented most often was Vietnam, and over the years, he became one the greatest western cultural ambassadors for Vietnamese food. In a moment that would go viral all over the world, he took President Obama to go eat bun cha, a proud Hanoian specialty, at a local establishment. Indeed, that would be the last episode of TV Bourdain ever shot. “One of the great joys of life is riding a scooter through Vietnam, to be part of this mysterious, thrilling, beautiful choreography,” he said in a 2014 episode of his CNN show Parts Unknown, also calling Vietnam: “My first love, a place I remain besotted with, fascinated by.”
This 2014 trip to the former imperial capital of Hue in Central Vietnam was one of Woolever’s best memories traveling with Bourdain — and her own very first time in the country. So emblematic was Vietnam for Bourdain that the cover of Woolever’s World Travel depicts an illustration of Bourdain in his element: sitting on plastic stools enjoying noodles at a Vietnamese street food stall.
We sat down with Woolever to learn more about her experience in Vietnam, her recent work, and her time traveling with the inimitable Anthony Bourdain.
You’ve been quite busy — two books in one year! But I’m sure it’s been tough since you’re dealing with material that is so close and personal to you. How have people been reacting to all these memories and reflections on Anthony Bourdain’s life?
A lot of people were really affected personally by Tony’s death. Of course, I’m coming from a very personal perspective, and I’ve had my own process of grief. And I’ve been steeped in this material for the last 3 years. But I think he left such a big impact that a lot of people had questions. So I think it’s been helpful for people to know more of his story, and what was going on behind the scenes.
People in Vietnam revered Bourdain for spotlighting Vietnamese culture and cuisine through his global platform. Before him, Americans really weren’t familiar with it. What do you think he loved so much about Vietnam?
It’s pretty well-documented in Kitchen Confidential: for much of his life, Tony never traveled much. He didn’t get to see much of the world. But he was a history and politics buff who learned through reading and film. So he knew about the war, the espionage, everything that led up to it — and even the devastating effects for the Vietnamese people. So when he was finally able to travel in his forties, Vietnam was one of the first places he wanted to go.
Vietnam was the second place he went to when he was shooting A Cook’s Tour in early 2001. His producers Chris and Lydia talk about this in Bourdain: Tony was kind of a reluctant traveler at first. When they were shooting at their first stop in Tokyo, he was nervous and awkward and a bit unsure. Once they got to Vietnam — a place that really captured his imagination — they saw him kind of relax and become much happier and lighter. Being on television was a way for him to break out of his shell and fulfill the dreams he hadn’t been able to when he was a restaurant chef. He also really loved the experience of riding around on a scooter, and the crew always got one for him to use.
“Vietnam more than lived up to Tony’s ideals and what he expected it to be — he spoke of the beauty of the countryside, the pace of the cities, and the warmth of the people. He was enchanted during that first visit, and went back again and again.”
Vietnam more than lived up to Tony’s ideals and what he expected it to be — he spoke of the beauty of the countryside, the pace of the cities, and the warmth of the people. He was enchanted during that first visit, and went back again and again. And he made lots of lasting friendships: Mr. Nguyen, his government-assigned handler from the first trip, became a friend. Ha, the longtime fixer and translator appeared in 2016 on that last trip he ever shot on TV.
You got to travel to Vietnam with him! How was that? Did you choose Vietnam?
When I had been his assistant for maybe 4 or 5 years, he said, “If you want to come along and travel with us, just choose a location. You can come and hang out and do your own writing.” So in 2014, I traveled with Tony and his crew to Central Vietnam. He had never been to Hue, and I had never even been to Asia at all. I think he was really excited to introduce someone to the country for the first time, the way he had experienced it.
We were supposed to visit Danang, but we had a lot of scheduling changes, so we ended up spending the entire trip in and around Hue, which was amazing. Just simple things amazed me: like the way you have to use a little intuition and faith to cross the street. I was pleased to start in a small city. On days when the crew was taking a break, I spent a day with a motorcycle taxi visiting some of the temples outside of the city. Unfortunately, I never got to go back with Tony, but I do intend to go back on my own at some point.
Beyond just showcasing travel in Vietnam, Bourdain really opened doors for Vietnamese culture and second-generation Vietnamese restaurants in the US to take hold.
Tony was really aware that Vietnamese cuisine hadn’t really gotten its due among western food writers and travelers. They just didn’t know enough about it, and if they did, they lumped it into other cuisines. Vietnamese food in New York wasn’t well represented — it didn’t match the depth and breadth of food in the city. At the time Tony started to make television, people had produced decent facsimiles, but they didn’t have access to the wide variety of herbs that are needed.
It took getting to Vietnam, and seeing how vibrant and interesting it is. He wanted people back home in America to understand this: even if Vietnamese food isn’t widely available in your part of the country, it’s worth seeking out. And beyond how good it is, you can’t separate it from its historical context. He wanted certain people to engage with the cuisine, and in doing so, confront America’s shameful history with Vietnam. When we had bun bo Hue at Dong Ba market, Tony just knew it was a really special dish: it’s so rich, full of texture, and layered with different proteins. And he was a hyperbolic guy — anything he liked he liked to the millionth degree. But he always said bun bo Hue was the holy grail of soups in this part of the world.
“But he always said bun bo Hue was the holy grail of soups in this part of the world.”
Bun bo Hue isn’t the only dish he made famous — after he ate Hanoian bun cha on TV with President Obama, it became an overnight global sensation. They even put the table they ate at in a glass box. How did he feel about all of this attention and veneration?
Just knowing what I know about Tony, and allowing myself speculation, he may have been a bit embarrassed. Anytime that people deified things he said or did, he had a bit of impostor syndrome about it. He could be squeamish about that kind of attention.
But overall, he knew this was a special moment for Hanoi — to have the city’s dish elevated on a world stage like this. And it just turned out that the President was scheduled to be in the region and he was able to make it. You know, when you’re making television with a sitting head of state, you never know if things will go according to plan. Luckily, it was a really beautiful segment and they had some great moments together.
The cover of your book World Travel: An Irreverent Guide features an illustration of Bourdain at a Vietnamese noodle stand. Was this something you chose?
Well, it was a committee decision with our publisher. But Vietnam made all the sense in the world: it was a place that Tony was really happy. He would talk about it on camera, he would talk about it off-camera, and he would write about it. It’s where he came alive. In fact, at one point, he had planned to move to Vietnam for at least a year to write a book about it. Unfortunately between his television commitments and family, he was never quite able to isolate a year of time to go live in one place.
The illustrator took some license with the exact setup, but I think the inspiration of the photo and the way he looks down at the bowl of noodles actually came from a picture of us trying com hen (rice and clams). Some of the details had changed. But the theme of outdoor street-level eating was an iconic image that spoke to the way Tony wanted to encourage people to get out and try new things.
Where will you go when you return to Vietnam?
Having now only been in Hue, there’s a whole country I have to explore. I definitely want to visit Hanoi and Saigon. I feel like I know a bit from reading: I had helped Graham Holiday with line editing on his book before I had been to Vietnam. As much as you can learn by reading, I learned a lot about what Vietnam was like in the early 2000s. So I’d really like to see those two cities as well as Da Lat in the mountains. Tony’s friends in Vietnam are still people I feel I could reach out to. Last time I was there we worked with a woman named Lan, who took me around on her scooter. We had a seafood lunch at the beach. My hope is that I can go back there.