BOOK REVIEW: In the Weeds (with Bourdain)

October 8, 2021

By Karen

This book’s full title is In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain by Tom Vitale, who spent well over a decade working as an editor, director and producer on all four of Bourdain’s travel series: A Cook’s Tour on Food Network, No Reservations and The Layover on Travel Channel, and Parts Unknown on CNN.

When I first wrote about this book back in May, I dissed this cover…

But now that I’ve read it, I think the cover is just right.

We’ve had a Bourdain avalanche lately. Last week it was his Definitive Oral Biography by his assistant Laurie Woolever. And now we have the inside scoop on his TV life.

Both books add considerably to what we thought we knew about Bourdain. What sets Vitale’s book apart (and above, I would argue) Woolever’s is its sometimes almost painful sense of immediacy and intimacy. Vitale’s writing seems infused with Tony’s darkly funny snark. For example, in describing a furious exchange Tom had with a member of the security squad in Libya, he writes…

“Damien reminded me he hadn’t been just any old soldier, but one of those specially trained killy soldiers.”

Vitale also has a keen eye for description and paints vivid pictures of the countries they visited. Of filming in Naples in 2010, he writes…

“Tony walked across the pebble beach and sat on the gunnel of a bright turquoise-and-red-striped fishing boat. It was one of those overcast days that did something strange to the light, amplifying rather than muting color. Clouds obscuring the sunset glowed an almost cotton candy pink and reflected off the shore.”

If you’ve seen the shows (Vitale directed about 100 of them in total), he makes you want to binge-watch them again.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter, “Jamaica Me Crazy,” where they filmed Parts Unknown in 2014. It was one of the rare times that Vitale and other crew indulged in a zany adventure that Tony was largely unaware of. (I happen to know the Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville in Ocho Rios where much of the action went down.)

In the Oral Bio, we get recollections of those who knew Tony, as told to Woolever, as told to us. But Vitale was THERE, in the weeds. His is a firsthand account of working, often under ungodly pressure, with Bourdain, who had conflicted feelings about even being on TV, and it often wasn’t pretty.

For all of Tony’s empathy with the people he met in his travels, much of the time he seemed oblivious to, or even deliberately fed, the crew’s tension and frustration. While filming in Baja, Vitale recalls Bourdain saying to him…

“Jeez, you never give up, do you?!” he joked. “When I die, you’ll be there at my funeral, poking me with a stick, asking, ‘What are your first impressions of being dead?’”

But I don’t want to give the impression that Vitale is out to trash Bourdain. It’s the opposite. In spite of everything, Tom loved and was devoted to the guy and never dreamed it would end so horribly.

Vitale is unsparing in exposing his own personal phobias and weaknesses, and is probably unaware that his efforts to overcome (most of) them seems almost heroic. He was willing to sacrifice anything to serve what he considered a higher purpose: helping Anthony Bourdain tell his stories.

Another difference with the Oral Bio is the chronology. Weeds opens in the immediate aftermath of Bourdain’s death, then Vitale weaves past and present together in a seamless way that totally makes sense.

Cats Working even gets a shoutout, but no spoilers here.

Vitale’s research involved immersing himself in the vast trove of documentation he’d collected — logs, notes, video. As a result, he could vividly recreate that life in a way that makes you almost forget Tony is no longer wandering the planet.

In the first few pages, Vitale describes an incident with Bourdain in Manila that’s never explained, but it foreshadows what happened to Eric Ripert when he entered Tony’s last hotel room France.

Vitale also recounts a violent incident during their second trip to Borneo that also never gets explained, but it shows a side of Tony darker than anyone has ever seen.

Such was Bourdain’s life. His public persona was all about confidence, love and acceptance, but privately, he was filled with doubts, insecurity and possibly self-loathing. Vitale saw it all, and tried to alleviate the bad stuff when he could.

I’m grateful that Tom Vitale chose to work through his pain and regrets by putting them on paper, giving us a better understanding of the man who entranced the world while thinking so little of himself.

BONUS: Coming up next week is my interview with Tom Vitale.


Bourdain Would Be on Medicare Today

June 25, 2021

By Karen

Today would have been Anthony Bourdain’s 65th birthday and he’d have his Medicare card. Seems hard to believe, doesn’t it?

In 2019, Tony’s friends Eric Ripert and José Andrés began the tradition of June 25 being #BourdainDay to celebrate Tony’s memory, if you care to. Latestly.com proposed five ways to honor Bourdain that I like, so I won’t repeat them, but I recommend them.

Instead, I’ll share some new and personal tidbits I’ve gathered…

Tony’s Last Home – His apartment in the former Time Warner building, now called Deutsche Bank Center, is available again. Bourdain paid $13K a month, the next tenants paid $14.2K. The cachet has apparently worn off because the asking price has dropped to $12K. I immediately wondered if the place is haunted.

I think I’ve been watching too much Paranormal: Caught on Camera.

If you’re interested, it’s a two bedroom, two bath, 1,200-square foot unit with a downright blah kitchen and no charm whatsoever except its panoramic river view. Photos.

Les Halles, the PopUp – Tony’s pre-fame employer, Brasserie Les Halles in NYC, is reopening as a popup from Friday, July 9 through Sunday, July 11 to serve a $95 three-course prix-fixe meal that includes French onion soup, steak frites au poivre and dessert. Reservation required. The restaurant has been closed since 2017.

Roadrunner Documentary – This film is out there now, having premiered June 11 at the Tribeca Film Festival, but it’s hitting theaters and HBO Max July 16. I’ve heard it may have a limited run, so it may be on CNN by this fall?

I get HBO Max, so I’ll probably watch it there in private in case I’m overwhelmed. But if you can’t wait, the American Film Institute is showing it TONIGHT only at 8 p.m. – midnight EDT online. I think admission is $15. Sign up here.

I don’t want to give away spoilers (not that I know many), but I’ve read some disturbing reviews of it. Director Morgan Neville gave this insightful interview to Firstpost.com.

I think it’s OK to share that three women in Bourdain’s life do not NOT have substantive roles. They are: 1) first wife Nancy, 2) Italian girlfriend, and 3) daughter Ariane.

Reasons: 1) relevance to the years covered; 2) we know this could have gone either way, but Neville realized she’s written her own script, and it wouldn’t have added clarity; and 3) privacy.

Upcoming Bourdain Books – Publication of Laurie Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography has been advanced from October 12 to September 28. That gives you two weeks to read it before Tom Vitale’s book, In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain, is published on October 12.

I wrote about both of these back in May, and I’ve learned a bit more about Vitale’s book. It’s a memoir of his many years filming with Tony, so behind-the-scenes stories galore, probably many we’ve never heard. The cover that currently appears on Amazon, which I dissed in May, is actually THE cover.

Almost forgot: Cats Working gets a mention in In the Weeds. In what context, I don’t really know. Apparently, my years-long coverage got Tony’s attention more than I ever imagined.

To finish on a personal note with the books, I’m almost finished with World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, and when I got to Trinidad and Tobago, a line Laurie Woolever used from Parts Unknown made me put the book down for a week to process it. Tony is quoted as saying…

“Tobago is what you hope for when you waddle away from the buffet on the SS Norway [bold mine] cruise ship. Lazy beach days, boat drinks, villas, all set to a calypso beat.”

Except that I just watched the episode on HBO Max (with earphones) to write this and what he actually said (at 37:18) was, “SS Norwalk.” Close enough to be suspicious, but I’m taking it as random.

Context: the Norway was “my” ship from 1988–2003. I sailed 23 times and had life-changing experiences, but I’ve published almost nothing about them. It stunned me to think that he could have read enough of my work to mention the ship because it had been long destroyed by then.

But as it turns out, he didn’t.

Tony presumably on Tobago

The Cats Check In & New Bourdain Book

May 21, 2021

By Karen

It’s TGIF here today. I snapped pics of the crew this morning so you can see how they’re doing. After finally shoveling a mammoth editing project out of here, this week I was finally able start reading World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Laurie Woolever, channeling Anthony Bourdain. I’m enjoying it and awed by the research. But the dips into each country are so brief, I want to rewatch the shows she sourced to see the meals and restaurants again.

AND this week I happened upon a second worthwhile Bourdain book coming out on October 12, same day as Woolever’s Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography, which now has a cover…

Tom Vitale, Tony’s longtime director and producer, has written In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain. It’s being published by Hachette in hardcover (not Bourdain’s Ecco imprint). At only 6” x 9”, I assume it’s more narrative than the oversized photo books previously published about the shows, which is great. I hope Hachette does better with the cover art and this is just their Amazon placeholder…

Amazon’s also peddling at least three unauthorized Bourdain “biographies.” One is 53 pages, has no named author, and you can get it free with Kindle Unlimited. Another is only 17 pages by a writer — probably fittingly — named Dumm. And the third bio is supposedly 30 pages of “interesting facts.”

A fourth 152-page book is an English translation of “Reflections” on his death “by Suicide????” (question marks are in the actual title, so, believable????). The original is in Spanish and seems to be a dredging of the conspiracy delusions we were fed by certain parties in Italy, if you get my drift.

I’ve decided not to read these because it means buying them, and I don’t want to support them. Also, it wouldn’t surprise me — but would totally piss me off — if I found material lifted from Cats Working. Better for them that I never know.

But back to the cats…

Tony says, “Party this weekend like it’s 2019!” He’s got a birthday coming up. Does he look more grown up these days?
Roc says, “Take it easy by curling up in your favorite perch by a window and soak in some rays on your tush.”
Max says, “Relax in your Man Cave or anywhere else you can get away from the crazy frat boys.”

%d bloggers like this: