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Anthony Bourdain's assistant reflects on her accidental dream career

Updated 9:53 AM ET, Thu October 11, 2018

(CNN) - Close to a decade ago, I had a baby. A few months later, dissatisfied with my full-time editing job, and despondent at having to put my newborn into daycare for 50 hours a week, I began looking for part-time and freelance opportunities. On a whim, I emailed a brief entreaty, my resume, and a photo of my chubby-legged, smilingly toothless infant to Tony Bourdain, for whom I'd worked on "Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook" several years prior.

Given his status as a bestselling author, sought-after public speaker and world-traveling television personality, I expected no reply, but in fact, he wrote back right away. His assistant was leaving; would I be interested in replacing her? Although it was not exactly the type of work I'd been seeking, I happily checked my ego and accepted the job.

I'd been planning to lean out, in defiance of Sheryl Sandberg's career advice for women, but somehow, in taking a part-time job that Tony had described as "keeping my schedule and making the occasional restaurant reservation," I found myself leaning in to a kind of an accidental dream career, a combination of administrative tasks, writing and editing, cooking and travel, enabled by his legendary generosity, and his equally legendary crankiness.

About the crankiness: For all that Tony shared about his life on the page and onscreen, he was a private person. He liked to say that he didn't want or need anyone chasing him around with a phone and a hairbrush, so I wasn't that kind of assistant, and probably couldn't have been, anyway.

We didn't keep an office, communicated largely by email or text, and, in those early years, saw each other so infrequently that I'd inevitably have to re-introduce myself to him at the rare party or screening that we'd both attend.

This was ideal. I spent lots of time with my child, kept Tony's calendar organized, and pursued other writing opportunities, with his blessing and often with his help, a tacit expression of his aforementioned generosity.

A good boss helps his employees grow, and Tony was a very good boss. I began expanding into an editorial role, first by line editing some of the titles in his fledgling book imprint, and eventually co-authoring "Appetites: A Cookbook," which was published in 2016.

By inviting me along as an observer on far-flung "Parts Unknown" shoots in places like Vietnam, Japan, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, Tony helped me start a sideline in travel writing, while giving me a taste of the thrills and challenges of a life lived in airports, hotels and production vans, and on scooters, ferries, and crowded around food stalls, eating some of the best of whatever was on offer around the world.

Because I quite happily live in the New York City borough of Queens, and enjoy a day at the races, Tony and I shot a funny, beer-enhanced horse racing scene together one Sunday afternoon in the stands of Aqueduct Racetrack, for the Queens episode of "Parts Unknown."

And when I casually mentioned that a partner and I were developing a food-focused podcast, Carbface for Radio, he offered to be the executive producer, and appeared in an advice segment on each of our first eight episodes, uncompensated, just because he found it fun.

Safe to say, I no longer had to introduce myself to Tony at parties.

It's worth noting, too, that I was hardly the only creatively ambitious person who benefited from Tony's generosity. He'd often publicly expressed a sense of awe at his own good fortune, and was happy to use his own high profile and deep industry connections to help others get the recognition and opportunities he felt they deserved.

Before Tony died, we began co-authoring a second book, based on his nearly two decades of world travel. It's been a wrenching, lurching struggle to get back to that manuscript, as I grieve the enormous loss of his kind, profane, surprising and brilliant existence; I've been buoyed and motivated by the work that my colleagues have done to manifest a beautiful, if heartbreaking, final season of "Parts Unknown," without the usual expository writing and post-production input from Tony.

He was 44 years old when "Kitchen Confidential" was published, its success releasing him from hard toil in restaurant kitchens and into the life of a writer and TV host.

I'm 44 now, too, my mentor and my job gone without warning; I've been released through Tony's untimely death into the life of a full-time writer. It's an utterly daunting prospect, to stare down this uncertain path without his guidance, but he set me up for success, and I owe it to him to try.

YouTube video featuring Anthony Bourdain and Laurie Woolever discussing Appetites: A Cookbook is courtesy of YouTube.com/TalksAtGoogle.


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