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Missing Travel? This 'Irreverent Guide' Visits Anthony Bourdain's Favorite Places

Apr 20, 2021
Originally published on April 20, 2021 9:50 am

The new book World Travel: An Irreverent Guide is credited to Anthony Bourdain. But it was not really written by the bestselling author, chef and TV personality who died in 2018.

World Travel: An Irreverent Guide was assembled by one of Bourdain's associates, Laurie Woolever, based entirely on his previous writings and an hourlong interview conducted shortly before his death. Bourdain had collaborated with Woolever on 2016's Appetites: A Cookbook, and this project was conceived of shortly thereafter, she says, with the intent to spotlight some of Bourdain's favorite places around the globe.

Given the dearth of original writing by Bourdain himself, World Travel contains a handful of tributary essays, by the likes of Bourdain's brother Christopher, music producer Steve Albini, and Nari Kye, who worked as a production manager on Bourdain's TV show, No Reservations. She describes, in her essay, how her former boss profoundly changed her life.

"The South Korea episode of No Reservations started as a joke," she writes. "At the end of Season 1, I said, 'We're all going to eat Korean barbecue, and drink lots of soju.' I got us a huge table in Manhattan's K-town, and Tony came. We went outside to smoke, and in my drunken soju haze, I said, 'Tony, you have to swear you're going to Korea.' And he said, 'Of course. And you have to come with me.' "

What happened after that drunken conversation was not a joke, Kye says.

"It's hard not to get emotional when I talk about Tony," she says, wiping away tears during a Zoom call from her Brooklyn home. Kye explains she was surprised not just to come along for the South Korea episode, which aired in 2006, but also to be its focus, along with her family there.

The show follows Kye and Bourdain as they explore Seoul's famous Noryangjin fish market, visit a village famous for its kimchee, peer at soldiers guarding the DMZ and drink copiously at a karaoke bar. (Off-camera, Kye says, Bourdain performed a Billy Idol number.) The two sat down with Kye's grandfather over a bowl of spicy fish stew as part of the episode. He described the trauma of escaping from his home in what's now North Korea in 1951.

"If I could go back there once before I die," her grandfather explains in Korean, "I would have no other wish, if I could just see my parents' graves and just cry my heart out. There's nothing that can be done, though. That's just the way it is. That's my fate."

Kye and Bourdain listen, rapt. "I might not have learned these things had it not been [for] Tony and the show," Kye mused to NPR. "I was one person before I made the show. I was a different person afterwards."

As she recounts in her essay, Kye did not grow up feeling proud of her family's history or culture.

"I moved to the States when I was 5, from Korea, and after that, I lived in a predominantly white, Anglo-American community," she writes. "As a kid who already looked different from everyone else, I was trying to fit in as an American and was mortified by my Korean heritage. My mom cooked only Korean food. My parents spoke only Korean to me ... We basically lived in Korea in our house in a very American town."

Before Kye's friends would come over — "white, blond-haired girls named Jenny and Erin who would wear shoes inside their houses" — she would hide everything in her house that looked Korean. She was a recent college graduate, still in her early 20s, when she traveled to South Korea with Bourdain. His full-throated enthusiasm for Korea's spectacular history, culture and food transformed her perspective about something she had dismissed and taken for granted — and ignited her own sense of creative potential. Now Kye works on a children's television show for Korean American families, and she's writing an autobiographical screenplay, including her travels with Bourdain, filtered through learning about food.

Laurie Woolever and Anthony Bourdain at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, N.Y.
CNN / Ecco

"I didn't know this had been so important to Nari until after [Bourdain] died, and we were talking about his impact on us," Laurie Woolever told NPR. "Had Tony lived and written his own essay for the book — which was the original plan — I never would've gotten to hear from Nari. And I think it's important, and I want people to understand how deep [Bourdain's] legacy is."

Part of that legacy, says Nari Kye, comes from how Bourdain reflexively stood up for underdogs, his embrace of those who get marginalized. "He always made people feel like they belonged," she says.

And wherever he traveled, she says, Anthony Bourdain managed to belong as well.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Fans of Anthony Bourdain will appreciate this next story. One of his former collaborators helped put together a travel book based on Bourdain's own global adventures over the years as a TV host, author and chef. The book is out today. It's called "World Travel." It comes nearly three years after his death by suicide and is filled by excerpts of Bourdain's own notes, observations and, of course, his biting wit. There's also an essay from a producer whose life was changed by working on one of Bourdain's shows. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NARI KYE: The South Korea episode of "No Reservations" started as a joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: NO RESERVATIONS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Here we go.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Producer Nari Kye had just graduated from college when she got hired by the company that made "No Reservations."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: NO RESERVATIONS")

ANTHONY BOURDAIN: I'm Anthony Bourdain.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing) That's right.

BOURDAIN: I write. I travel. I eat.

ULABY: Tall, shaggy, prolific and profane - Anthony Bourdain was in his 40s when he wrote his first bestselling book, "Kitchen Confidential," that made him a star. Nari Kye did not believe this titan of food and entertainment would take her seriously when she suggested his show visit the country of her birth. But Anthony Bourdain threw himself into South Korean gastronomy with gusto.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: NO RESERVATIONS")

BOURDAIN: Kimchi - the heart and soul of Korea, the principal dish.

KYE: It's hard not to get emotional when I talk about Tony.

ULABY: Kye says Anthony Bourdain treated the food and cultures he encountered as sublime.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: NO RESERVATIONS")

BOURDAIN: From a field full of kimchi urns to hanging bricks of dried and molding beans, I love the dark forces of rot, of aging, of fermentation, the divine game of chicken between light and dark. But the difference between the divine and the rotten is entirely in the hands of a talented artist.

ULABY: To Nari Kye's surprise, Bourdain insisted she co-star in that episode. Kye had spent much of her life trying to hide her Korean-ness (ph) - what made her feel like an outsider growing up in New Jersey.

KYE: (Reading) My mom cooked only Korean food. My parents only spoke Korean to me.

ULABY: Kye reading from her essay in the new book "World Travel."

KYE: (Reading) We basically lived in Korea in our house in a very American town. All my friends were white, blond-haired girls named Jenny and Erin, who would wear their shoes inside their houses.

ULABY: Before they would come to her house, Kye would run around hiding anything that looked Korean. But she said the South Korea episode of "No Reservations" changed her.

LAURIE WOOLEVER: I didn't know that this had been so important to Nari until after Tony died, and we were talking about him and his impact on us.

ULABY: That's Laurie Woolever, who wrote "World Travel: An Irreverent Guide" based on older material from Anthony Bourdain.

WOOLEVER: Had Tony lived and written his own essays for the book, which was the original plan, I never would have gotten to hear that story from Nari. And I want people to understand just how deep his legacy is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: NO RESERVATIONS")

KYE: (Speaking Korean).

ULABY: In the South Korea episode of "No Reservations," Anthony Bourdain sits down with Nari Kye and her grandfather, who escaped from what's now North Korea in 1951. Kye asks her grandfather if he ever thinks about his life there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: NO RESERVATONS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Korean).

ULABY: "If I could go back there once before I die," he says, "I would have no other wish, if I could just see my parents' graves and just cry my heart out. There's nothing that can be done, though."

KYE: I might not have learned about these things had it not been Tony and the show. I was one person before I made the show, and I was a different person afterwards.

ULABY: Kye credits Bourdain for changing her creative focus towards celebrating her heritage. She is making a Korean American kids' show and writing an autobiographical screenplay. And she'll never forget showing Anthony Bourdain a perfect South Korean evening.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTHONY BOURDAIN: NO RESERVATIONS")

BOURDAIN: This is just a - it's an irresistible recipe for heaven. I mean, really, just look.

KYE: I know.

BOURDAIN: Pork, beer, soju. And I owe it all to you.

KYE: He always made people feel like they belonged.

ULABY: And Anthony Bourdain was someone who belonged everywhere. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.