‘He was a shark’: Anthony Bourdain’s loved ones reveal obsessions with exes, dr|ugs, tanning
A few months after Anthony Bourdain’s dea|th in June 2018 at age 61, his longtime assistant Laurie Woolever started interviewing his friends and family. Woolever first met Bourdain in 2002 when he hired her to help him write a cookbook. After working with him for so long, she thought she knew pretty much all there was to know about him.
But she quickly learned she was wrong.
There were “stories I’d never heard and insights and observations that were new to me,” Woolever told The Post. “I learned something new from every single person that I spoke with.”
Those emotional, sometimes shocking anecdotes and remembrances form her new book, “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography” (Ecco, Sept. 28). Some 91 people, from journalist Christiane Amanpour to restaurateur David Chang, shared their thoughts on the late writer, whose dark final days were recently recounted in the documentary “Roadrunner.” The revelations include never-before-shared memories and disturbing common themes.
A new book by Anthony Bourdain’s longtime assistant, Laurie Woolever, shares stories from 91 friends and family members about all stages of the late writer’s life. The oral history delves into his junkie days, “darkly vulnerable” relationships with women and strange obsession with tanning.Courtesy of Nancy Bourdain
One surprising thread that kept popping up over and over, Woolever said, was that many of Tony’s friends had the experience of wanting more — and not being able to get close enough to him.
“They always had the sense that he was on his way somewhere,” she said.
“There was this peak period where he seemed happy … and then f–king what’s-her-name enters his life [with] negative energy that fit this weird fantasy character he felt he was.”
Michael Steed, “Parts Unknown” director, on Bourdain’s doomed affair with actress Asia Argento
“He was a shark, always on the move,” recalls “Parts Unknown” director and editor Nick Brigden. “He had to move to survive.”
Even those who had a fame equal to or greater than Bourdain expressed such sentiments.
“Every time I was with him, I wanted it to go longer,” says Anderson Cooper, who worked with Bourdain at CNN. “And I wanted to be friends with him. I wanted him to really like me.”
Woolever also learned about Bourdain’s strange obsession with suntanning, which started in his early days.
“I remember his joking that he would be competing in the George Hamilton Tanning Olympics,” brother Christopher Bourdain told her.
“He would tan, I think largely to hide the pallor of heroin,” recalls James Graham, who worked with Bourdain in various New York kitchens. “He would play hooky . . . and tan aggressively. He looked like a Versace bag.”
Laurie Woolever is the author of “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography.” “[The idea] that he kind of sprang fully formed at the age of 44, as this brilliant writer just, you know, it’s a wonderful myth,” Woolever said. credit: David Scott Holloway
While Woolever served as a producer on “Roadrunner” and her book features several of the same interview subjects, there are several who did not participate in the film, most notably his daughter Ariane and high school sweetheart and first wife, Nancy Bourdain.
Bourdain’s first wife, Nancy, has rarely spoken publicly about him, but she’s featured in Woolever’s book. “When Tony’s dad died, they got some money, and it just went into their veins,” childhood pal Jeff Formosa said.Courtesy of Nancy Bourdain
“I didn’t like the way he looked in the last couple of years,” says Nancy. “He looked like he was being ridden hard and put away wet . . . he seemed to not care about being tan anymore.”
His second wife, Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, expresses similar thoughts. “He was much darker in the last year or so of his life. I stopped watching the shows toward the end, because I could not really recognize him.”
Others note that Bourdain’s romantic dealings with women had always been fraught.
“He had a very nervous relationship with women,” writer Bill Buford says. He alleges that Nancy was almost like his mother.
When he and Ottavia were first dating, Buford recalls Bourdain being overly eager for since-disgraced chef Mario Batali to “see” his new girlfriend. “It was almost adolescent . . . He was profoundly, darkly vulnerable.”
Early in the book, brother Christopher even recalls Bourdain seeing prostitutes after the dissolution of his first marriage.
“He was emotionally immature,” says longtime producer Lydia Tenaglia. “He became this great cultural anthropologist whom everyone so loved, but, fundamentally, he was like a teenage boy with his emotional development.”
Unlike the recent film, which starts at the point Bourdain publishes his memoir “Kitchen Confidential” and rockets to stardom, the book begins in his childhood.
Brother Christopher notes that they didn’t know their mother was Jewish until they were in high school. Details of her Jewish faith were “buried completely,” he says. Only after she died in 2020 did he realize his parents’ wedding photo was in front of a synagogue.
His mom, Gladys, recalls how Tony showed a talent with words very early on. “Tony always had a fabulous vocabulary, and he read early,” she says.
Anthony Bourdain, age 12, at Boy Scout camp in August 1968. “He had a very nervous relationship with women,” writer Bill Buford says. “It was almost adolescent . . . He was profoundly darkly vulnerable.” From the photo collection of Christopher Bourdain
In fact, a key myth about Bourdain that the book dispels is that he went from being a humble chef to a hugely successful writer and TV personality overnight, with the publication of “Kitchen Confidential” in 2000. While that book was certainly a smash, Bourdain had always wanted to be a writer. He had previously published two novels, taken a class with editor Gordon Lish, and he was meeting with Robert De Niro’s production company on scripts. “[The idea] that he kind of sprang fully formed at the age of 44, as this brilliant writer just, you know, it’s a wonderful myth,” Woolever said.
Gladys was a copy editor who worked at the New York Times and even went so far as to call her son’s publisher behind his back to make corrections to one of his cookbooks. “For a long time, Tony had his life run by women. I think that’s a big reason he’s done so well,” Nancy says of the incident.
Scott Bryan, an NYC chef who came up around the same time as Bourdain, says that “Tony saw himself as more of a writer than a chef.” He tended to take higher paying jobs at random restaurants rather than opting to earn his stripes at serious fine-dining establishments, something Bourdain himself admitted to in “Kitchen Confidential.” “He never went through the rigors that I did. I worked at f – – king Gotham. I worked at Bouley,” Bryan says.
Others tackle the mystique around Bourdain’s junkie days. “His addiction was always odd to me,” says onetime kitchen colleague Robert Vuolo. “It often felt part of the person that he wanted to portray of himself.”
But childhood friend Jeff Formosa remembers Tony and Nancy getting high and just sitting around their apartment, not answering the phone, spending whatever cash came their way on dr|ugs. “When Tony’s dad died, they got some money, and it just went into their veins.”
Bourdain photographed as a teenager in Paris in 1973. “His addiction was always odd to me,” says former kitchen colleague Robert Vuolo. “It often felt part of the person that he wanted to portray of himself.”From the photo collection of Christopher Bourdain
No one disputes that he was an enormously talented writer who required little editing.
“The stories were so good, and they were so polished,” says editor Panio Gianopoulos of “Kitchen Confidential.” “The beats were there, and the moments were all there. The editing was fun.”
David Simon, the legendary creator of “The Wire” and co-creator of New Orleans-based drama “Treme,” talks of having Bourdain in the writers’ room on the post-Hurricane Katrina show.
“He was so good. Prose, dialogue; you know he overwrote scenes. ‘Tony, I can’t do four and a half pages in the kitchen scene. It’s got to be one and a half pages. We got to get there faster.’ But it was always there.”
Laurie Woolever’s “Bourdain: The Definitive Oral Biography”
There were also lighter, random revelations about Woolever’s friend and former boss.
Director Alex Lowry recalls the making of an episode of “No Reservations” in Prague, Czech Republic. Bourdain hadn’t liked the food or his sidekick in the city and was in a terrible mood. They were shooting the final scene, a meal at some locals’ house. The travel legend was sitting there grumpy, when the hosts’ dog ran up and jumped on him. The pup wasn’t spayed, and she left a huge bloodstain on Bourdain’s pants. “He didn’t storm out; he didn’t get mad,” Lowry says. “He just bursts out laughing.”
Other recollections delight in
Bourdain’s quick wit. Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson talks of shooting the cooking-competition show “The Taste” in Los Angeles with Bourdain. He would stay at the infamous Chateau Marmont and often order room service, despite the fact that the food was mediocre and the trays weren’t taken away quickly. When she complained, he told her: “Nigella, you’re getting the Chateau all wrong. Obviously they can’t do room service cleanup, but if you kill someone by accident, they will remove the body, no questions asked.”
Around that time at a speaking engagement, a fan asked why he was doing “The Taste,” which many thought was terrible.
“I have nothing to say except that my daughter is not going to community college,” Bourdain quipped to the crowd.
Some of the city’s most legendary chefs reflect on their close friendships with Bourdain.
Le Bernardin’s Eric Ripert touchingly recalls their first lunch together and being glad that he hadn’t been made fun of in “Kitchen Confidential.” They had something of an odd-couple relationship — “he comes from a ship with pirates, and I come from the kitchen of [Joël] Robuchon, which is like the army,” Ripert says — but grew quite close.
Despite contrasting personalities and backgrounds, Bourdain and chef Eric Ripert were close friends.WireImage
They were “extremely comfortable” being in silence together, and Bourdain loved competing against him, whether it was in chopping garlic or playing pétanque. One thing he couldn’t compete with Ripert at was skiing, but for an episode of “P
arts Unknown” shot in the Alps, Bourdain had footage on the slopes edited to make it look like he was a far better skier than he was.
Chang says some of the best times and best meals of his life were spent with Bourdain. “I think all I wanted was to take from Tony; I never gave to Tony,” he says, but also notes there was a darker side. “There were moments where I should have spoken up, and I didn’t, because he’d cut you right out of his life.”
In his later years, Bourdain contemplated quitting as he struggled with his fame and the rigors of his job. But he just couldn’t seem to stop doing TV, despite his longtime producers telling him it was OK to stop. His second marriage — to Ottavia, with whom he had his daughter, Ariane — couldn’t withstand his intense travel schedule. But things ended amicably, and Bourdain was getting healthy, thanks to a passion for jiu-jitsu.
Bourdain’s marriage to Ottavia Busia-Bourdain couldn’t survive his hectic TV travel schedule.Alamy Stock Photo
“There was this peak period where he seemed happy. That addictive personality was just all focused on jiu-jitsu,” says Michael Steed, a director on “Parts Unknown” and “No Reservations.” “And then f – – king what’s-her-name enters his life, and he starts smoking again, and it just sort of got back into that negative energy that fit this weird fantasy character that he felt he was.”
“What’s-her-name” is, of course, actress-director Asia Argento, whose volatile relationship with Bourdain, many believe, alienated him from close friends and contributed to his depression and ultimate suicide. (Argento was not interviewed for the book and has denied that problems in their relationship contributed to his dea|th.)
Friends say Bourdain seemed to be in an “peak” place, until actress-director Asia Argento entered his life.John Salangsang/Invision/AP
His issues with women and emotional immaturity aside, Bourdain was a doting father to daughter Ariane, now 14. He would sneak out to Papaya King with her, or they’d watch “Ratatouille” and make the French vegetable dish, just as they do in the animated Pixar film. Her reflections close out the book.
“He would always try and show me the world around me, by [helping] me experience new foods and new things,” she says. “I want people to remember my dad as a person who would just open people up to a world outside their apartments.”