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!

Letterman Gives Bourdain a Pass

November 9, 2011

By Karen

On Monday, November 7, TMZ published a few pictures of Anthony Bourdain naked in a swimming pool with a sous chef while he was on vacation in 1999 on St. Martin. That same night, Tony appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman.

Bourdain pre-empted TMZ the previous weekend on Twitter by posting one of the photos himself, complete with TMZ’s tasteful red star obscuring his “nasty bits.” Tony mentioned that the photographer was his former wife, Nancy. Given the year, I assume Nancy was using film and got prints.

What I’m wondering is: How did TMZ end up with them?

It seems unlikely that Tony gave friends prints of himself floating in a pool naked with another man. So that leaves Nancy. While they were married (remember, at this time, he had dedicated two novels to her and fictionalized her as a heroine with near-super powers), would she have shared nude photos of her husband with anyone?

Fast-forward to 2011: Bourdain has moved on with a new family and we’ve never heard a peep out of Nancy. Could she have surfaced and tried to embarrass him, or did someone else have the photos and use them? If so, why?

Tony and Ottavia are rightfully treating it all as a big joke (Ottavia tweeted he looks like “beef jerky”). After all, he posed long ago for the provocative “boner” picture which is far superior, if seeing Bourdain naked is your thing.

Commenters on various websites have noted that the circumstances in St. Martin seem gay.

If Dave Letterman hadn’t been asleep at the switch, he could have asked Tony to enlighten us on this incident and been among the few to ever get Bourdain on the ropes. Instead, Dave did a ho-hum promo for Tony’s new show, The Layover, and lobbed in a few softball questions about food. Here’s the whole interview:

In other news…

On Sunday, November 13, cartoon Tony guest-stars on The Simpsons in an episode where Marge becomes a food blogger.

Eater posted an hour-long video of Bourdain with crew members Tom Vitale, Zach Zamboni, and Todd Liebler, at Google NY on October 20. Tony’s in fine form discussing why No Reservations is the best travel show on TV.

The Dallas Observer reported that ZAMIR, of all people, appeared on stage with Bourdain there on October 27. PS: If you’re on the fence about whether to watch Top Chef Texas, which just started its season, in case Tony drops by — Tony confirmed he won’t.

Tony’s new show, The Layover, begins Monday, November 21, in his usual 9 p.m. slot (barring Travel Channel yanking it for no reason). Eater did some good speculation on any possible symbolism in the bizarre promotional poster.

No Reservations has been nominated for a Taste (Tasty?) Award as Best TV Food Program. The ceremony is in Hollywood January 3.

HuffPost asked Tony 10 questions, to which he provided some interesting responses, although nothing out of character.

Do Bourdain’s Wives Really Choose Obscurity?

August 22, 2008

By Karen

Apologies to Alan Jay Lerner, but… When Bourdain’s in Spain, he must think wives are a pain.

After watching No Reservations in Spain, it appears that Ottavia Bourdain has either developed “Nancy Syndrome” when it comes to appearing on camera, or she’s the second woman to be deliberately pushed into the background by Anthony Bourdain’s ego.

Tony has claimed that first wife Nancy hated being filmed, even though she looked content cuddling with him for People magazine, and on A Cook’s Tour played an anonymous extra in San Sebastian, Spain, and joined him for dinner during another episode in Oporto, Portugal. Here she is in Oporto:

During that scene, the other man spoke to Nancy, and you could hear her mumbling, but she was never identified, and it was edited so Tony seemed to ignore her.

Now he’s back in San Sebastian with Wife No. 2, Ottavia, and it was déjà vu as he dined in the last scene with his friends Juan Mari and Elena Arzak at their restaurant.

His tablemates looked at and spoke to Ottavia, and even included her in their toast, but shots of Tony were tight so he appeared to be sitting alone. But then a telltale plate of food was served beside him, and the mysterious diner even said something unintelligible.

And then as the credits rolled, Ottavia got her “Nancy moment” on the edge of the frame. For the rest of the episode, he wandered around alone with various female guides.

Just about two years ago, when Ottavia and Tony’s love was new, Ottavia appeared prominently in two NR scenes in Tuscany and he didn’t seem to mind.

Since Bourdain was already famous when they met, it seems unlikely it’s Ottavia’s wish that his fans never see them together. If Tony’s trying to cling to his “free spirit” image, the cat’s out of the bag. We now know it wasn’t authentic from Day One.

It always struck me as odd that, during his intro on Cook’s Tour, he said, “I’ve got nothing to lose,” when he had a wife sitting at home. That attitude probably didn’t help his first marriage.

Now I wonder if he’s doing it again with Ottavia. If so, he’s wrong if he thinks female fans can’t accept him as a married globe-trotting rebel. What we aren’t crazy about is watching him diss his wives in crowded restaurants.

Has Success Spoiled Anthony Bourdain?

May 23, 2008

By Karen

Anthony Bourdain’s turn as head judge in the “Restaurant Wars” episode of Top Chef left me scratching my head.

I first noticed a difference in him on David Letterman in March. He was there with Ottavia, and his interview and demeanor seemed so subdued, I wondered if they’d been fighting.

Now after Top Chef, I’m sure he’s off his game. Describing Lisa’s Mango Sticky Rice as “baby vomit garnished with potpourri” was classic, but the best he could do with Dale’s Butterscotch Miso Scallops was that the plate looked like a “melted candy bar?”

Dale and Lisa had the poor judgment to go with an Asian theme, knowing Tony, an expert on Asian cuisine, could rip them to shreds. But Tony really didn’t take the bait, even though all their dishes were bad. And then he sent Dale packing, even though Lisa’s shown at least twice that’s she incapable of cooking rice but always blames it on sabotage.

What was he thinking?

To answer my own question, I don’t think success has spoiled Anthony Bourdain. I think it’s his new, kinder, gentler lifestyle. Becoming the patriarch of a very young family may be killing him – on several levels.

People have written nasty comments here about Tony’s former wife, Nancy. But I wish she were still around. Married to Nancy, he wrote the scintillating, hilarious Kitchen Confidential, A Cook’s Tour, and several novels, and earned his reputation as a snarky adventurer on TV.

Post-Nancy, he wrote The Nasty Bits, which wasn’t as well received. And with Ottavia, he basically produced photo captions for No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, a book that would have greatly benefited from more text.

For better or worse, something about his relationship with Nancy seemed to give him the edge that made him famous. Now I’m wondering if he has – deliberately or not – put his best days behind him.

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