Anthony Bourdain was an asshole. He was also a generous person, a deeply troubled man, and a frustrating mystery, even to those who knew him.
It’s been over three years since Bourdain died by suicide. At this point, there’s something like an entire media solar system revolving around his former existence. The intense documentary Roadrunner was released earlier this year, and multiple books by and about him have been released as well, like World Travel (by Bourdain and longtime assistant Laurie Woolever), and Bourdain: the Definitive Oral Biography, also by Woolever.
But one that hasn’t been discussed as much is In the Weeds: Around the World and Behind the Scenes with Anthony Bourdain by director of multiple Anthony Bourdain travel shows, Tom Vitale. The book, released October 12, isn’t just about Anthony Bourdain, but it also serves as a memoir from that time in Vitale’s life, whose working experience in travel TV was wilder and even more stressful than you might have imagined.
Vitale’s storytelling is, in a word, frenetic. The sometimes disorganized stories he tells criss-cross countries and are loosely organized in thematic chapters that cover the moods of an entire shoot. Imagine locales like Congo, France, South Korea, and an outpost of Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, in Jamaica, of all places.
In the Weeds is also a revealing snapshot of what a television director has to do behind the lens to turn raw, unpolished travel footage into a glittering Emmy-winning gem. When you’re watching TV at home on your couch dreaming of visiting the countries Bourdain did on Parts Unknown, you’re relaxed and enjoying your evening. But once you read In the Weeds, you won’t see the show the same way ever again, because holy shit, did this filming crew put themselves in a lot of serious, imminent danger. We’re talking potential kidnapping, constant threats, environmental hazards—you name it, the crew was probably dodging it. The chapter about Libya was particularly wild, and you can read one of the most engaging excerpts at Vanity Fair.
And who knew, filming food was harder than it looked.
The truth is, the food part of our food show never ceased to trip me up. It was a central element of each episode, but food was a fleeting and perishable resource that was logistically difficult to work with. Worse, I didn’t actually like a lot of it. I found most of what Tony ate on camera, well... less than appetizing. In fact, I was probably the only person in the world who could go on an all-expenses-paid food tour with Anthony Bourdain and lose weight.
You might be quick to judge, but Vitale was highly embarrassed about this. He’d had food phobias since he was little, so a job that looked so good on paper was sometimes a nightmare to Vitale. And in logistical ways too.
The blunt truth was that I basically had to film all the food three times: first in a wide shot while Tony ate it at the table; after he left, we’d film preparation in the kitchen, then back out at the table, this time getting insert beauty shots, which required lens changes and a hand model, often Josh [one of the cameramen] or me.
Then, of course, there was dealing Bourdain himself. It turns out Bourdain was often moody and unpredictable at times, which complicated Vitale’s job as director. Sometimes getting valuable dialogue from him, those off-the-cuff thoughtful gems that made his shows so wonderful sometimes, was impossible.
We called these riffs ‘content’ and Tony hated them, but he was just so good. When in the right mood, he could fucking talk, elevate the mundane into high art Extreme, subtle, sentimental, amused, apoplectic, or sarcastic, his reactions spanned the gamut, and it was ideal when the content flowed naturally, but sometimes he needed a little help. The challenge was to keep Tony interested and stimulated.
Despite his disinterest at times, Bourdain’s creative vision steered the ship, eventually resulting in dazzling television, as Vitale kept the wheels from flying off the bus during shoots, often by the seat of his pants. But at times, it sounds like Bourdain was a lot to handle, if not too much.
There is one story that Vitale recounts that caught me so off guard that I’m still dealing with it, days after completing the book. It involves a terrifying confrontation Vitale has with Bourdain during a night of drinking (which they do a lot of in the book). While I won’t spoil the details, let’s just say it tarnished the image of someone I revered very much. But it’s a story I’m glad Vitale told, because time and time again, like so many people, I need to be reminded that Anthony Bourdain was far from the role model I thought I wanted.
Vitale also covers the subject of his grief over Bourdain’s death, which is fractured and inconclusive, because of how abrupt that death was. There’s no conclusion to anything, just a hollow emptiness that Vitale tries to understand. Even an uncomfortable confrontation with actress Asia Argento, Bourdain’s ex-girlfriend who many people blamed for Bourdain’s death, just raises more questions than answers. Then you realize that the people closest to Bourdain in life don’t have any more answers than the rest of us.
Despite the fact that the entire book centers around Bourdain, in the end, remember, this is Vitale’s memoir. He grapples with the legacy of a single person, Anthony Bourdain, who defined his identity and working life for 13 years. Someone who was insecure, angry, and imperfect. But also someone who could be wonderful, generous, and loyal to a fault.
In the Weeds is emotionally exhausting, exhilarating, and fascinating, and at under 300 pages, it’s not a long read, but the most intense I’ve had in ages. And all I hope now is that Vitale finally got a long stretch of rest, because god damn, making TV with a legend sounds harder than I could have ever imagined, in every way possible.