Food industry veteran, writer, and keeper of the keys for Anthony Bourdain, Laurie Woolever dishes on their new joint project, Appetites: A Cookbook and early lessons learned in the Babbo kitchen.
TA: How many years have you been in this post with Anthony?
LW: It has been seven years since I started working with him as his gatekeeper, communications director, right-hander—whatever you want to call it.
TA: I like gatekeeper. How did you end up in that role?
LW: I met him back in 2002 when he was working on his first cookbook, Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, and at that time I was just wrapping up my work with Mario (Batali). Tony and Mario had just met, and Tony asked Mario to recommend someone to get his recipes in order and do some of the editorial work—which was very much like the work I had been doing for Mario at the time. So Mario introduced us, and I worked with him initially on that book, which came out in 2004. It wasn’t until 2009 that I took on this post.
TA: What were you doing in the meantime?
LW: After that book, I worked as a private cook, did catering jobs, and freelance writing. Then I started working as an editor at Art Culinaire, and then Wine Spectator. I had a child while at Wine Spectator (my son just turned eight!) and after he was born I went back to the magazine, but honestly I was not happy working full time while he was so little. I still wanted to work and needed to work, but I preferred something a little less intense than a daily commute into Manhattan from Queens and leaving my infant with a day care provider. It just didn’t feel right for me, so I started reaching out to all my contacts, Tony included, and it just so happened that his current assistant was on her way out.
TA: He seems like a good guy to work for.
LW: He’s great. I will say that we don’t interact in person that much. He’s in town maybe 100, 125 days a year. In a way, this has made it easier to get the work done—to just get the business done and go about the day. That being said, I really like him. He is a very generous employer. He paid his dues in the restaurant business for almost thirty years before moving on to the writing and entertainment phase of his career, and therefore is very cognizant of the hard work of others and is very grateful for the opportunities that have come his way. He describes his transition from a working chef to author and TV personality as sort of a lightning-in-a-bottle type of experience. He knows what it’s like to be an average working person, to be well compensated–or not. He’s funny and smart and is very willing to share what he has learned. He holds everyone to a high standard, especially concerning loyalty and hard work. I do remember feeling as though I had taken a step down when I initially took on the position–moving from being an editor to an assistant–but I knew it was the right thing to do for my family at the time. Now I feel very lucky to work for him.
TA: Working for him and now also with him—you recently coauthored a book together. Can you tell me about how Appetites: A Cookbook came to be?
LW: About two years ago, I got an email out of the blue from Tony’s agent, Kim Witherspoon, who is now my agent. She said, “Tony’s going to write a cookbook, and he wants you to be his coauthor, what do you think?” It took me about a half second to say yes.
TA: So he didn’t ask you himself?
LW: No, but he did reach out shortly after, asking me if I wanted to do the book. Initially, the publisher wanted us to get the whole thing done in three or four months, which is crazy. But eventually cooler heads prevailed, and we were able to take a little more time with it.
TA: What kind of stuff is in there?
LW: The conceit is that it contains recipes that he cooks, or would like to cook, for friends and family. It’s really a book for home cooks, for entertaining. It runs the gamut from very basic things—even things that aren’t even recipes, but guides, like the best way to cook bacon—which is to cook it in the oven, and drain on newspaper, not paper towels. These are the things that he took from being a working cook and chef for 28 years. If you’re making bacon for god knows how many people a day for decades you become a fucking bacon expert. Then there are “homey” sort of things like tuna salad and cream of tomato soup, the things that you almost don’t need a recipe for, but it’s instructive to see how he does it, and often funny to read what he has to say about it. Also included are things taken from his travels around the world. There is a Korean fried chicken recipe, a couple of Vietnamese recipes, as well as French and Italian classics, and greatest hits from his restaurant career.
TA: How long does it take you to produce a book like this?
LW: The initial writing and development period was about six or seven months. Then several rounds of edits happened over the course of a year, along with photography, design, and production. The shooting alone is also intense; it was about ten days of shooting, preceded by a solid six weeks of planning.
TA: That is a lot!
LW: I think that is pretty normal for a book like this. A lot goes into it.
TA: The first time I met Mario was actually in the middle of the shoot for the Babbo Cookbook back in early 2002 at the restaurant. It was a very tense atmosphere. He was running up and down the stairs with a trail of people behind him. He brought me the plate of shiitakes and red onions they shot for the book once they were finished with it. I remember he was so filled with pride when he gave it to me. It was like he was presenting me with a solid gold bar on a plate. I think it was this immense pride that made me bite my tongue and just eat it as I had a serious aversion to onions back then. They were ice-cold but delicious. I was reformed on the spot.
LW: Well some people are so much up their own ass they wouldn’t have known to play along and eat the food that the boss is giving you, whether you thought it looked good or not. I think having that kind of emotional radar is a helpful skill to have in this type of job. Especially if you are working for someone who is powerful or high-profile. You have to remember that they’re also human, and no matter what, short of disposing of a corpse, your job as an assistant is to be there for them. That’s the point. I learned that from Mario actually when I was younger and much more malleable. This was back in 1999 when I started with him. I was 24 and a few years out of cooking school. He was not an unknown, but more of a rising star at the time. Sometimes people would want him to do things that he didn’t want to do. And I would go back to him and plead their case. One day he just looked at me and said: “Who do you work for?” And I realized that the job is to work for your boss and to do as they would, on their behalf, and not be drawn in by friendly people with an agenda that’s counter to your boss’ agenda, or needs, or preferences.
TA: What is one of the most valuable things you learned from Tony?
LW: He is someone who has very strong opinions and is not hesitant about expressing them, yet he is always willing to be proven wrong, and he listens to the other side. Tony is not above being totally turned around by a reasonable argument from the other side, and I respect that a great deal.
Some ridiculous opportunities for him come across my desk–interviews or appearances with people whose views he abhors, or whose style is just so at odds with his. In the beginning, as I’d pass along an email from some bad TV show or cheesy magazine, I’d occasionally type something semi-snarky and derisive about the outlet, only to have him say, “You know what, I actually like that person, and sure I’ll do the interview.” I quickly realized that, if I didn’t know the landscape or the history, it would behoove me to keep my opinions to myself, and not assume that I knew what he’d say yes and no to.
TA: I read somewhere that you traveled to Vietnam with Tony.
LW: The first few years after I had my son I didn’t do any traveling, but at some point when he was maybe three or four, I started traveling again on my own. I went on a solo trip to Cartagena, Columbia and did a story for Lucky Peach. Of course, I asked Tony for his picks on what to do and see in Cartagena. Shortly afterward we were at some event, and he said, “If you’d like to go along with us when we shoot, I’m happy to take you along. Pick one location a year. You can hang out with us while we shoot, or do your own thing, write about some aspect or wherever we are.” So I got the schedule for the next year, saw Vietnam and knew that was it. That was my first of three trips so far with the crew—Vietnam in 2014, which I wrote about for Lucky Peach, Okinawa in 2015—I got a cover story for Saveur magazine out of that one. Then, last spring, I went to Kanazawa and Tokyo, and wrote about it for Roads & Kingdoms, and Eater. Kanazawa was amazing. It has this intense geisha culture, and the buildings were virtually untouched by the WWII bombing that destroyed so many other parts of Japan. And of course, Tokyo was incredible. It was my first visit, and I can’t wait to get back there.
So on each of these trips, Tony pays my travel expenses, and basically says, take this opportunity to do whatever you want with it. I don’t know many employers who would do that. Or any, for that matter.
Photographs by Nicola Farinetti