Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography by Laurie Woolever
Published by Ecco
Publication date: October 12, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Non-fiction, Biography, Food
Suicide is always shocking to those left behind, but when it’s someone famous, someone with what looks to be a “dream” life, it feels even more inexplicable. This was the case June 2018 when Anthony Bourdain killed himself. Bourdain was a chef turned television personality who created the iconic No Reservations and Parts Unknown series. He traveled globally in search of great food, foregoing famous cities and Michelin restaurants to go to remote places and eat things most of us never heard of. What was so special about his shows is that they were less about the food and more about the people. Watching the shows gave the viewer insight into foreign worlds and opened minds.
Laurie Woolever was a colleague, writing cookbooks with him and helping manage all the moving pieces of his life. Now, three years after his death she releases Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography. The book contains interviews with Tony’s wives, his daughter, friends, crew, and coworkers. It spans his life from childhood to his death, largely focusing on his 40s onward, when, after publishing Kitchen Confidential, his fame skyrocketed.
What makes this book unique is that it’s not told from Bourdain’s perspective, just the many varied voices from the people who passed through his life. It’s their memories and, not surprisingly, there are contradictions. Not massive, but everyone remembers the past differently. And everything is covered, including his heroin addiction, which he kicked, but whose presence impacted every aspect of his life. You get a very clear sense of his passion for learning and the world, which, on the surface, makes his death even more surprising. He was most comfortable as the observer, but in his choice of television, he thrust himself into the center of attention. Of all the places he stood it was that one that made him most unhappy.
For me, Bourdain is a piercing, complicated look at a gifted artist, but a man who was not comfortable in his own skin. At heart, he was an introverted, nerdy, perfectionist, self-conscious guy—not the trash talking, didn’t-give-a-damn bad boy he often came off as on TV. The book left me feeling as if his career and all the journeys to faraway places were less about travel and more about running. About what would happen if he slowed down. I’m still thinking about the book and the life it presented.
If you enjoy nonfiction about food and chefs I highly recommend Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir Yes, Chef.
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