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Revealing the Ideal and the Real in “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography”

Revealing the Ideal and the Real in “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography”

  • A review of Laurie Woolever's new book, "Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography."

Anthony Bourdain was a much beloved storyteller who happened to cook, and tell his stories through food. His career began in kitchens, but his breakout success came with the publication of his memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. The book’s success inspired imitators and launched his career as a television presenter. Perhaps his greatest talent was in his ability to relate to people, both the subjects of his interviews and the viewers watching from home. It was this quality that allowed audiences to believe they knew him. 

In June of 2018, while shooting an episode of Parts Unknown, Anthony Bourdain hung himself. His crew was waiting on set. Bourdain was dead. 

For fans of Bourdain, his suicide was a saddening shock. He had brought the world into the living rooms of television viewers for sixteen years, from his first series, Anthony Bourdain’s a Cook’s Tour, to his final series, Parts Unknown. He had traveled the world eating delicacies and home-cooked meals while conducting interviews with everyone from food stall owners to presidents. Three years after his death, a biography, a documentary, and posthumously published book have appeared, all part of the Bourdain expanded universe. Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography is the latest of these projects, edited by Laurie Woolever. Woolever has known Bourdain since 2002 when they collaborated on a cookbook, and worked for him as  his assistant, editor, and producer. She also collaborated with him on the posthumously published World Travel, released in April.

In Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography, Woolever has chronicled Bourdain’s life from early childhood up to the finality of his death by combining interviews with people from his life. The interviews have been organized to craft a well-rounded—read: flawed—portrait of Bourdain. The narrative builds toward his inevitable suicide, as if attempting to come to terms with his decision, if not to justify it, at least to explain it. Woolever is successful at finding a narrative from these interviews, and she takes us on an emotional journey. The book offers a compelling story, and not just for fans of Bourdain unsated by his untimely end. For many onlookers, Bourdain lived an aspirational, globetrotting lifestyle, but Woolever makes clear it was less than ideal. 

Woolever has gathered interviews from a wide cross section of people, including his family, his film crew, and celebrities from his time on television. Woolever’s skill as an editor is in merging these disparate voices to appear as though the whole cast is engaged in one great conversation with each other. The interviews flow together into coherent scenes. At times we are transported to moments from Bourdain’s life, such as with the final unaired episode of Parts Unknown Bourdain was shooting with Eric Ripert. If you listen carefully, you might just hear the gentle tambour of his voice.

What is perhaps lost in the text is the individuality of the contributors. It’s difficult to assess who is truthful and who is exaggerating, who is sugar coating Bourdain and who is remembering him with greater fondness after his death. Bourdain was clearly troubled. But also loved and adored by the people in his life. Perhaps nobody wants to speak badly of the dead. There seems to be agreement among the contributors that Bourdain was loving and caring, if not always spectacular at expressing those emotions. 

The people who worked with Bourdain generally liked him. Time and time again, they speak of his loyalty. But another recurring theme is their hesitancy to bother him, to spend time with him, or make requests of him. Even his brother laments how little time they spent together. Put together, it all suggests Bourdain led a lonely existence. 

He positioned himself as the underdog. The people who worked for him adored his brazen, anti-establishment attitude while management was afraid of him. They let him do what he wanted, and then he proved he was right, creatively, over and over again, whether it was controlling the introduction title credits to the television show or pursuing expensive-to-publish books for his imprint. But the success only isolated him. 

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If there is a villain of this story, it is Asia Argento, Bourdain’s girlfriend. The book gives us a sympathetic picture of Bourdain, but points the finger at Argento. She is, if the thesis of the book is to be believed, the catalyst for Bourdain’s decision to end his life. She made enemies within the Bourdain universe, and at one point while directing an episode of his show, demanded he fire favorite long-time employee Zach Zambroni, a cinematographer who shot more than a decade of Bourdain’s shows. Creating Argento as a villain provides energy to the narrative and creates a tension we as readers want resolved. Bourdain’s death in this narrative is inevitable, but the reasons for it are a mystery. Argento provides a reason. 

There is not much of an intimate picture created from these interviews. There is no dark secret to the life of Anthony Bourdain put on display. For fans of Bourdain, and for that matter anyone familiar with his body of creative work, much of what might be shocking about another person is merely par for the course. Bourdain wasn’t secretive about his drug use or kitchen shenanigans. Across his media platforms he told and retold many of these stories. These interviews aren’t showing us something we didn’t already know about him, but the book does offer the opportunity to prolong the time we spend with Bourdain, a personality so many people already believe they knew. 

The redundancy is reassuring. It’s the kind of book that feels like slipping into conversation with a long absent friend. It expands the Bourdain industrial complex. It’s different but familiar. If the objective is finding an answer to all the questions leading up to Bourdain’s death, of course it fails because explaining why a person takes their own life is an impossible task. But the book does succeed in showing us a more three-dimensional person, and for many fans who convinced themselves Anthony Bourdain lived an ideal life, these interviews illustrate faults many may not have realized he possessed. 

Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography
Edited by Laurie Woolever
Ecco Press
Published September 28, 2021

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