by Greg Bolton
The first question is so obvious, I’ll ask it for you: Why in hell is anyone writing a book review of Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who CookIt’s almost August. The book came out months ago. Everybody’s already talked about it. It’s made the rounds. It’s old news.
Fair enough. If you’ve already read it – or already decided you won’t bother – then I hereby release you from reading any further with no hard feelings.
For everyone else, I’m going to try to convince you to go grab this book immediately and devour it. You might be disappointed; you won’t be bored.
Ten years ago, when Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential dropped, I heard about it immediately. I was told repeatedly that it was a must-read for a former restaurant trench worker and lifelong food nut like me. More than once, I was also told that Bourdain’s potty mouth and proclivity for words like “proclivity” – as well as his overall comedic cruelty – were right up my alley.
I was intrigued, but not enough to shell out twenty bucks or whatever the book cost at the time. I was too busy eating, drinking and living to delve into some goofy best-seller which, as far as I’d heard, was full of so-called shocking tales I’d seen first-hand in my teens. I didn’t need some mouthy New York hack to tell me that brunch was a dastardly plot to suck easy money from people too lazy or too stupid to poach eggs, or that said brunch was prepared by bitter miscreants only hours removed from an epic bender, and so low on the totem pole that they couldn’t foist the dreaded shift upon some lesser grunt.
I also didn’t feel I needed a new window into the unoriginal, self-mythologizing, macho energy that permeated many kitchens. In fact, given the largely civilized environment of a lot of the places I worked, it frankly irritated me that a prat like Bourdain – by his own admission, never really good enough to stand out as a chef – was profiting from the idea that the restaurant industry was, taken as a whole, a pirate ship populated by junkies, drunks, hacks, prima donnas, disgraced oddities and assorted misanthropes. Having worked in a few restaurants, I knew that Bourdain had a valid point. But I also worried that he was putting that point on steroids to move books.
The more I heard about Kitchen Confidential, the more I worried it was a fraud. And then, one day – in a single sitting, in fact – I finally read the fucking thing. And it was, as everyone had been telling me, totally brilliant – a perfect reminder of what I’d loved, hated and feared in my kitchen days, as well as a lovely skewering of the scene at the time.
More than that, I discovered the most important thing about Bourdain, which was, curiously, something nobody had bothered to tell me: the guy could flat-out write. All along, I’d been thinking he’d written this scandalous tell-all book because, by his own admission, he wasn’t much of a cook and needed a fall-back strategy. Having never really succeeded in his true calling, he’d fallen back on writing.
As it turns out, of course, his true calling was writing. It might pain him to admit it, but all his time behind the stove was just really kick-ass research. He was never a true chef so much as a culinary embed.
Since then, I haven’t been moved to read anything of Bourdain’s since Kitchen Confidential. I have no time to visit Vietnam or Transylvania, so reading about it would only make me more jealous of Bourdain’s job than I already was. And I was already sold on offal, so reading about it, I reasoned, wouldn’t exactly open any doors for me.
But one day, not too long ago, somebody I really trust told me that if I didn’t read Medium Raw, I was missing out.
That person was right. I grabbed it and tore through it in a night, much as I had with his first book a decade ago.
And now, at last, begins the book review.
We’ll start with the bad, because it’s faster. As a whole, the book is poorly edited and at times a bit rudderless. Kitchen Confidential had the precision of a man who realized it might be his only shot; Medium Raw is the work of a very busy person – and in Bourdain’s own words, a “very lucky” one – who really didn’t need to write anything, but did it anyway.
As well, while Bourdain continues to do the tell-all thing very well (his mostly painful experiences at the Food Network, for instance, are hysterically well-rendered) there are times when he drifts into an uncomfortable self-psychoanalysis that left me cold and feeling awkward. If you’re one of those people who has the feeling that Bourdain is, at heart, a good guy, then you can forgive him the self-indulgence to some extent. Those less inclined to sympathize with him as a person may find his more soul-searching passages irrelevant, if not downright pompous.
Bourdain is at his best when he positions himself somewhere just outside the centre of the action, and when he sticks to talking about food. He sometimes strays outside these guardrails. The chapter on his trip to an anonymous Caribbean island with a drug-addled, vaguely menacing girlfriend, for instance, makes for pretty tasty light reading. But thank God it’s not the main course.
Such quibbles aside, when the book’s at its best, it’s brilliant, and every bit as interesting as his first, if for different reasons.
The opening sequence about eating the most sadistic and notorious of foods, ortolan, sets the tone nicely. In it, Bourdain describes eating something truly weird with the boyish delight that is his trademark; but through it all, he’s constantly pinching himself, more gobsmacked than anyone at the fact that he’s rubbing elbows with the world’s culinary elite (none of whom are directly identified, so trying to figure out who they are makes for a bit of fun.)
The book is nothing if not wide-ranging: he talks extensively of his loathing for the Food Network; stumbles into an analysis of classic kiddie culture (calling Old Yeller “cynical and unconscionably bleak”); outlines, with devastating candour, the financial pitfalls of running a restaurant and of becoming a chef; raves about industrial meat and vegetarians with equal relish (albeit in different chapters); and offers an excellent list of things every cook needs to know – among them, chopping an onion, roasting a chicken, and making an omelet.
In the last instance, Bourdain notes a practical consideration that reaches beyond the kitchen: “I have long believed,” he writes, “that it is only right and appropriate that before one sleeps with someone, one should be able – if called upon to do so – to make them a proper omelet in the morning…Perhaps omelet skills should be learned at the same time you learn to fuck.”
Bourdain spends some of his best chapters exploring the effects of the recession on the world of fine dining, and seems to end up deciding that while many worthy establishments have perished, there are certain benefits to the devastation: “If there’s a new and lasting credo from the Big Shakeout, it’s this: people will continue to pay for quality. They will be less and less inclined, however, to pay for bullshit.”
Most sensible people already knew this, of course; but it’s still nice to read it in a bestselling book, where it might take on the status of a war cry.
This leaves us with an important question, of course: what is quality, and what is bullshit? For Bourdain, it’s a complex question, but he knows each when he sees it. Quality, essentially, can be reduced to hard work with good ingredients, regardless of price point. Quality is honesty, simplicity, and food that is, no matter how fancy, fun. Bullshit is earnestness, preciousness, and an over-developed sense of gravitas. This is why, though he respects superstars like Alice Waters, Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz as brilliant chefs, he’s disappointed by their overall output: for Bourdain, the biggest crime one can commit is taking oneself – or one’s brand – more seriously than the simple, un-sexy task of, say, cleaning a fish to absolute perfection every single day.
That simple observation, to me, is worth the price of admission on its own, and should be shouted from the rooftop of every restaurant in the universe. Like so many people, Bourdain thinks about food all day, every day. It is his passion. It drives him to apoplectic fits and flights of ecstasy. It can be intensely political. It sustains families and brings people together.
But at the end of the day, Bourdain seems to be reminding us – and even himself, as a new father and reformed junkie – that at the end of the day, it’s still just food. Yes, it’s central to life. But even for those who spend their lives making it and enjoying it, it’s not life itself.
Life, rather, is what each and every one of us has to bring to each and every table. In Medium Raw, we’re offered a peek into a pretty interesting life indeed.
Greg Bolton is a man of many appetites. Follow him at twitter.com/pantryto