Anthony Bourdain’s Assistant Won’t Chase Him Around with a Hairbrush
If you want access to the coolest man in food media, don’t buy Laurie Woolever a drink.
These days, Anthony Bourdain’s “gatekeeper” (a more appropriate term than “assistant”) is stone-cold sober. Well, except for the special-occasion toke every once in awhile.
As the right-hand woman to a man known for his drug and alcohol habits, Woolever is no stranger to booze. Not because she’s behind the scenes as he explores unknown parts of the world, drink in hand, shots lining the table. In fact, Woolever rarely sees Bourdain in person (their correspondence is mostly limited to email, with the rare face-to-face interaction).
Before Bourdain (or, as a superfan might say, BB), Woolever worked as an associate editor at Wine Spectator until her employer pulled the plug on her maternity deal, which allowed her to stay at home one day a week to be with her newborn son. She and her husband got married, pregnant and bought a house in Queens while she was full-time at the magazine. But this was all after Batali (AB).
In 1998, Mario Batali opened his second restaurant, Babbo, and received a three-star review in the New York Times from Ruth Reichl. Woolever had recently graduated from the French Culinary Institute with a $24,000 debt and a failed attempt as a pastry chef. Her career counselor got her an interview with Batali. She had never seen his Food Network show (she couldn’t afford cable), but she knew who Ruth Reichl was. This, coupled with her culinary education and experience working as a private cook, landed her a job as Batali’s assistant for the next three and a half years.
Batali’s name on her resume continues to open doors for Woolever today, but she ultimately wanted to write. She moved on to catering, private cooking and working on cookbooks, which led to her first project with Bourdain. Woolever hosted dinner parties in her apartment while recipe testing and editing Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook for $50 per recipe (plus grocery reimbursement). Years later, Bourdain, who is buddies with Batali, was looking for someone who “wouldn’t chase him around with a hairbrush,” and Woolever knew he needed someone with writing chops. They settled on $400 a week to start, and now she is in charge of his life’s general organization, gatekeeping (aka weeding out the weirdos from ongoing opportunities), editing books for his imprint and taking one trip a year with his CNN “Parts Unknown” film crew (she uses it as fodder for her own travel stories).
Woolever and Bourdain are a lot alike. They indulge in solitude and dark humor and have lived their adult lives in the city. Both exchanged nuptials in 2007, and had kids about one year apart (later they enrolled their kids in jiu jitsu at the same place). Bourdain’s seemingly tough exterior doesn’t hint at his role as a father. His face, aged with experience exceeding what’s disclosed in Kitchen Confidential, has seen dark corners of empty bars; his hands, worn from his years as a chef, have held arguably as many cigarettes as chopsticks around the world. But as he writes in Appetites, the “monster of self-regard” loves being a father. Everything about it, for that matter. Woolever’s wandered in her past too, taking time to get “good and broke while going on a bunch of Nerve.com dates,” though her life is more maternal now. Neither subscribes to conventionality.
“What do ‘normal’ people do? What makes a ‘normal’ family happy?” Bourdain asks in the introduction after quoting Leo Tolstoy’s book Anna Karenina, which opens with: “All happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Bourdain argues this point, citing staples of his unorthodox life. But Appetites is a family cookbook, and though he and Woolever may be in different places (literally) during their 9–5, at the end of the day, they both must feed their families. This, aside from their pre-established shorthand and seamless correspondence, made Woolever the obvious choice as his co-author on Appetites.
Woolever says she has been “incredibly lucky” in her career, crediting good timing and connections, but she’s earned it. Her bylines date back to 1998 (BB), appearing in the New York Times, Food & Wine, Saveur, GQ, Wine Spectator, Los Angeles Times, Lucky Peach and, now, alongside Bourdain’s on the cover of Appetites. Her writing is sharp, smart and brave, publicizing personal experiences like riding the subway with breast milk leaking from a “sour-smelling freezer bag” strapped to her body or Googling “geriatric limbless porn.”
Ask Bourdain about his assistant and he’ll describe her as quiet, professional and serious. Ask a handful of people in the food world and you’ll settle on one answer: Laurie Woolever is no bullshit. Woolever is wise in avoiding an attempt to “be Bourdain” to impress him (that’s embarrassing for everyone, she says), brilliant with her one-liners like “Brooklyn is expensive and not real” (and “Queens is the future,” for the record) and certified-shrewd enough to scout talent to publish under his name.
While she schedules the life and times of one of the most wildly popular (and wild) personalities in food, Woolever is wanting for more words under her own name. She’s working on a podcast that will go live “sometime between now and the apocalypse” and the possibility of her own book, though she isn’t sure the world needs another food memoir by somebody who hasn’t done something “extraordinary.” In the meantime, Woolever isn’t looking to leave Bourdain’s side anytime soon. She’s even making her “Parts Unknown” debut as the crew tours Queens in the new season. But when with Bourdain, even President Obama was inclined to have a beer over dinner.
In part, this dish from Appetites is the leading candidate for Bourdain’s last meal on Earth because you “won’t have to worry about garlic breath in the next life,” but it is also, as he says, delicious as hell. During our interview, Woolever made a version of his recipe with littleneck clams from American Pride Seafood, a year-round staple at the Jackson Heights farmers market. She added fresh asparagus, simply blanched and finished in a little olive oil, to accompany an already approachable dish. It’s surprisingly light (we ate it for Sunday lunch) despite pasta’s sedative effects, though Bourdain attributes it to a final meal before an eternal sleep. Ask Woolever what her final meal might be facing the apocalypse? Chocolate cake. Store-bought frosting. No bullshit.