Meet The Writer Who Keeps Bourdain On Track
That'd be Laurie Woolever.
December 14, 2016 ● 4 min read
For those of you who have either already devoured Anthony Bourdain's latest cookbook or are in the process of doing so, you may have been struck at times by the frank, grab-you-by-the-collar gorgeousness of the sentences within. Odds are, Laurie Woolever had a little something to do with that. We sat down with the co-author of Appetites: A Cookbook to see what it's like to write alongside one of the most verbose chefs in the industry. This one's for you, word nerds. —CF
Can you explain what you do?
I handle communications, scheduling and special projects for Tony Bourdain, which basically means that when people in his business or TV worlds, or journalists, or whomever, want something from him — an interview, a meeting, a blurb, some feedback — they find me or are routed to me. I answer what I can on my own, and route the rest to Tony, trying to parse things into as few words as possible. I keep a calendar for him that we can both check and make changes to remotely. And then I do whatever else needs doing. I don't love the term "assistant," but I guess that's what the job is.
I also work as a writer, but that rarely pays well enough to cover the bills. Working for Tony has afforded me the luxury to be a little choosy about writing assignments, and has also opened up doors to editing opportunities within his book imprint, and the opportunity to co-author Appetites: A Cookbook with him.
What are your writing habits? What do you find works for you in terms of getting your work done?
I am 100% deadline and payment-driven. I can't take the time to write something on spec, hoping that someone will publish and pay me for it. I just don't have the time to work like that. In terms of getting the work done, once I've done the research, I try and take a few days to just ruminate on the thing before I start writing. Then I sit down as early in the day as possible, and accept that what's going to come out first is garbage. I try to give myself way more time than necessary to look out the window, get up and down from my chair, curse a lot, prepare snacks and dick around on the Internet. Somehow I bang out an acceptable draft and send it to the editor, prepared to burn the whole thing down and start over. It is almost always a painful process, but most of the time I'm satisfied with, or at least not mortified by, what comes out at the end.
What kinds of voices do you feel like are underserved in writing currently?
Members of disenfranchised groups are still not getting their voices heard or reflected at the same rate as those in positions of privilege and power. However, with the web having become a fully-legitimate way to make one's voice heard, I'm hoping that that continues to change. There are far fewer barriers to putting one's writing out in the world than there were 20 years ago. Of course now it's a popularity game online, which sometimes means that the loudest voices, or the most controversial, get heard more than those who are telling the story in the best way, with the most skill, or most thoughtfully.
What sort of writing do you feel like is becoming played out?
"10 best/worst" lists, or other types of listicles, can, at best, be useful service journalism, but they also enable real laziness on the part of the editor, writer and reader, and they tend to be written in this breathlessly superlative style that renders everything "the best," or "genius." I know why web publications like them — they drive traffic and are cheap to produce — but I really like that places like Eater are now publishing longer-form, more thoughtful content.
What’s the biggest mistake an aspiring writer can make?
Apart from not writing out of fear, or giving up too quickly, I think not being true to one's own voice, and getting caught up in posturing and bluster, trying too hard to hew to a certain style without delivering enough substance, can be deadly for a piece of writing.
Cooks and chefs are typically elbows deep in their kitchen work. If you were to recommend good writing habits for them, what would you tell them?
Don't feel that you need to devote hours and hours every day to writing. Set a manageable goal — 300 words per day, maybe, or 60 to 90 minutes of work — and try to hit it most days per week. Do this for a week or two, then take the next two or three days for editing.
Who are your favorite food writers?
Sam Worley is writing some of the smartest, most hilarious, poignant and yet still quite useful stuff over at Epicurious. I love everything Gabrielle Hamilton has published, and John Birdsall always does amazing work. I loved Bill Buford's Among the Thugs and Heat and am really looking forward to his next book, Dirt, about cooking in France. The late, great Gina DePalma was as brilliant a writer and thinker and teacher as she was a chef, and she left behind an excellent unpublished manuscript that I'm really hoping gets to see the light of day.
The best food writing you've read in the past year?
Walter Green's "Fancy Butter Taste Test" in the Fine Dining issue of Lucky Peach made me very happy, as did Sam Worley's piece about pumpkin spice items that should be the final word on the subject. So much food writing is really boring and self-serving — and I'm sure I've been guilty of producing this kind of writing myself — so I really respond to something that makes me laugh. On the complete flip, however, I was blown away by Rochelle Bilow's painful and honest essay about struggling with an eating disorder for The Lonely Hour. And I was riveted and horrified last week to read an article by Azam Ahmed in the New York Times about widespread food shortages and outrageous price gouging on basic staples in Cuba, as a result of all the new tourism, which can be summed up in this line: "Tourists are quite literally eating Cuba's lunch."
For the cook out there that wants to be the next Bourdain: Do you even think that’s a thing?
I'm sure there are many cooks and chefs who, like Tony, are smart, funny people and great writers with their own stories to tell, and they should be encouraged to tell their stories, and ideally be paid as much as possible for doing so. Cooks and chefs wanting to transition from the kitchen to television should really think hard about why they want to be on TV, and what they're willing to do to get there. Just as in writing, there are so many more platforms for broadcasting TV and video now, so anything is possible, but positioning oneself as "the next Bourdain" is probably not going to get as much traction as an original idea.