At the time of his death in 2018, Anthony Bourdain was in the early stages of writing a guidebook to his favorite places. Hell-bent on bringing his vision to life, his longtime assistant and collaborator Laurie Woolever decided to finish what they started, pulling Bourdain’s own words from episodes of No Reservations and Parts Unknown and calling on his closest friends to round out the rest. The result is World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, out April 20. Here, Bourdain’s brother, Christopher, writes the essay “A Child’s View of Paris,” offering heartwarming — and heartbreaking — tales from the place that meant the world to them both.
In 1966, when I was seven and Tony was ten, our French-born grandmother died (in New York City, where she lived most of her life) and left our father the life savings she had squirreled away over four-plus decades working as a high-end custom dressmaker. Our dad had worked a few not particularly lucrative jobs in the classical record business and selling hi-fi equipment at retail; our mom was what we used to call a housewife. Now, with a sudden infusion of cash in hand, they took us on our first really big trip, to France, and in style: Tony and I, two kids from New Jersey, got to cross the Atlantic with our mom on one of the great ocean liners, the Cunard ship Queen Mary.
Tony and I loved that ship. Our cabin had bunk beds; a round porthole that opened to the sound, smell, and spray of the sea; and a phone booth–size bathroom. For kids, what wasn’t to love? We wandered around for hours on our own, occasionally sneaking into the first class section. There was a gym, equipped with punching bags and rowing machines. A movie theater. A big saltwater pool, somewhere in the lower levels, where the rocking of the ship would randomly transform the shallow end into the deep end. The service was amazing; everywhere on the ship, we were magically attended to by nattily uniformed British staff, called “stewards.” One of those professions that’s been lost to time, like Pullman porters.
Our itinerary was to include a stay in Paris, and visits with relatives there; a road trip through central France; and a stay with our dad’s aunt and uncle, who, in retirement, had moved back to the original small Bourdain family house near Arcachon, in southwest France. (You can see that house, and the areas nearby, in season 1, episode 9, of A Cook’s Tour.)
We disembarked in Cherbourg, on the coast, and took the train to Paris, where our dad joined us. The luxe experience continued with a stay at Hôtel Le Royal Monceau, near the Arc de Triomphe, then as now one of the poshest hotels in Paris. Tony and I loved the breakfasts there: bottomless baskets of croissants, brioches, pains au chocolat, and pains aux raisin. And the butter, that amazing French butter.
Other things Tony and I loved in Paris: First, that we got to wander a bit on our own, near the hotel. We loved the subway platforms, almost luxurious, by New York City standards anyway, and the swooshy sounding rubber-tired trains on the Métro Champs-Élysées line. We loved the WHSmith English bookstore on the Champs Élysées, where we loaded up with cool books we’d never seen in the States. At age seven, I loved the oh-so-British Paddington books. And, as Tony wrote in Kitchen Confidential, we both became totally enamored of the Tintin books, and the amazing global adventures they contained (almost proto–Parts Unknown). I still have every one of them, and I love them still. We bought the five-language Insult Dictionary, which provided weeks of laughs and plenty of cross-cultural bonding with French kids.
But most of all, we loved the food. I was, for sure, less adventurous than Tony or our parents in 1966, but even so, there was so much wondrous food to be had. What was, in hindsight, a fairly generic and touristy two-story restaurant/café near our hotel called Quick Élysée (not to be confused with a Burger King wannabe chain called Quick, spotted now throughout France and Belgium) was, to me, amazing. Tony and I both loved the steak frites — I found the crosshatched grill marks peculiarly pleasing — and the maître d’hotel parsley-laced butter, melting on the steak. Perfection, as were the french fries — the best we had ever tasted.
Another revelation was the quotidian jambon beurre: a few thin slices of fresh, almost sweet, ham, plus that wonderful French butter, on a fresh crusty baguette. It was pure awesomeness in its simplicity, and even better when accompanied by a fresh-made citron pressé (fresh-squeezed lemon juice, water, sugar to taste), or perhaps the popular lemon soda whose bottle-opening onomatopoeic name, Pschitt, always made us American kids giggle to hear it.
And then there was the ubiquitous smell, and of course the taste, of the waffles sold out of street carts or small storefronts, seemingly everywhere. We would get our parents to give us a few francs for waffles, and we’d load on the confectioner’s sugar, a new pleasure in itself. Why couldn’t we get these simple, wonderful things in the United States?
Our dad had been to France as a very young child in the 1930s, and again on leave from US Army service in Germany, in the early 1950s, but for Tony and me and our mom, these first trips to France in 1966 and again in 1967 (a less deluxe but still fantastic follow-up trip after our great-uncle died) opened our eyes and changed our lives forever. We all became enamored of, or in love with, or even a bit obsessed with, France, to varying degrees. We got the food bug, the travel bug, and the understanding that you could hang out with people from foreign countries, and learn things, and take pleasure in coming to understand them. This is where it all started.
Copyright © 2020 Christopher Bourdain and printed with permission of Christopher Bourdain from World Travel: An Irreverent Guide by Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever (Ecco). Copyright © 2021 byAnthony M. Bourdain Trust UW.