REVIEW: Bourdain, the Definitive Oral Biography

October 1, 2021

By Karen

Anthony Bourdain’s assistant Laurie Woolever has pulled off another remarkable feat with Bourdain: the Definitive Oral Biography, although I wonder how “definitive” it will ultimately be. I still have 100 pages to go, but I can’t wait to tell you about this book.

Woolever interviewed 91 people Tony knew throughout his life. Some are his famous friends or career-related contacts whose names I recognize, but many aren’t.

Most notably, Woolever spoke at length with Tony’s first wife Nancy (who also contributed touching never-before-seen photos) and his now-14-year-old daughter Ariane. Cats Working readers who have always wondered about these two important females in his life will be gratified by how openly they share their memories.

The book’s format surprised me in the best way. I expected 91 straight interviews, which risked becoming dull and redundant. Instead, Woolever pulled off the Herculean task of breaking each interview down by topic, then reassembling those pieces under 59 page-turning chapter headings into a miraculous chronological narrative.

Instead of picturing each person sitting across from Woolever with a tape recorder between them, it’s more like she gathered a room full of people to casually share notes on Tony topics like, “I Absolutely Always Saw a Talent in Him,” “I’m Not Gonna Censor the Guy,” “He Was a Man of Extremes,” and so on.

This, coming on the heels of her previous project, where she stitched together World Travel: An Irreverent Guide from Bourdain’s vast trove of published materials, makes me think Woolever does 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles for fun, like those geniuses on YouTube who solve Rubik’s Cubes in 5 seconds.

Tony’s brother Chris and mother Gladys (who died in 2020) are included, and they sketch out the most complete picture yet of Tony’s father, Pierre Bourdain, and Tony’s relationship with him. The closest I’ll come to a spoiler is to say that you’ll see Tony’s parents in a whole new light, particularly Gladys.

Of course, Ottavia pops in throughout, although Nancy naturally dominates the early years when she and Tony were together, and we learn some of her side of that story for the first time. As the person who “outed” Nancy online back in 2008 in an old episode of A Cook’s Tour, I was stunned (and chagrined) by her revelations about traveling to Spain with Tony.

Nancy connected Woolever with friends who knew Tony in high school and at Vassar, but the one period where there seems to be a hole is during his CIA years (the culinary school, not the spy agency), and what kind of student he was there.

With 100 pages still to go, I haven’t quite gotten into his final years and what I know is coming, although late last night I touched the edge of that on page 330 when someone said, “And then fucking what’s-her-name entered his life…”

Woolever, keeping the wagons circled, didn’t interview “fucking what’s-her-name,” nor, I’m curious as to why, Tony’s most notorious “fixer,” Zamir.

My next observation isn’t to fault Woolever in any way, because I’m gaining (and confirming) many insights into Tony’s behavior and events.

Weirdly, many people speak of him in present tense as if he were still alive. But even so, because they and Woolever are two layers between the reader and Tony, I feel like I’m in one of those dreams where you’re searching for someone. You keep meeting people who say, “Oh, he was here a minute ago, and he did this…” but he’s always just around the next corner and out of sight and you wake up without finding him. I guess there’s no escaping this detached quality, given the secondhand material Woolever’s working with. But the people she talks to tell myriad great stories about him.

The other thing that surprised me physically about the book is the rough paper, which seems destined to turn yellow. You’d think anything with Definitive in the title would have some archival quality, but I’m guessing it was a cost decision.

Bottom line: If you’re still curious about Anthony Bourdain, this is a book to read sooner rather than later.

PS: On Tuesday, October 5, we have another Bourdain book coming out, In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind-the-Scenes with Anthony Bourdain, by Tom Vitale, who directed 100 episodes of Tony’s various travel shows. I’ve already read it and will have much, much more to come on it, so stay tuned.

Trust me, there’s virtually no overlap between these books, even though Vitale is interviewed in the Biography. I found Tom’s to be the more satisfying book because you can call it anything but detached. However, both are must-reads if you want answers to many (not all) of the questions Tony left us with. I hope we’ll have conversations here about both books, so get reading!


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