From the day I read Kitchen Confidential (KC ) right through to today, Anthony Bourdain has been a huge influence on how I cook, eat, and think about cooking and eating. He motivated me to try new things, which has led to some amazing meals at Per Se, St. John, Au Pied de Cochon, and Lechonera Los Pinos. Just last night I cooked Hainan chicken rice, now a family favorite, inspired by his No Reservations Singapore episode. I gave the book to friends who were considering going back to cooking school, and frequently cited the “So You Want To Be a Chef?” chapter in response to being told I should consider a cooking career.
Reading KC was like having a nuclear bomb go off in my head, an event I rank on the level of hearing Ramones, seeing A Clockwork Orange, tasting truffles, or viewing Da Vinci’s Annunciation. I had no idea what the world of cooks was like, or that the stories could be told with such a level of anger, wit, and badassery (which has now been eclipsed by David Chang and the Momofuku cookbook, about which see later).
The book got Bourdain a TV show, A Cook’s Tour, which was criminally mismanaged by the Food Network. His current show, No Reservations, is what happens to the Cook’s Tour premise when produced by a sympathetic venue. There’s a A Cook’s Tour book which compiles the commentary from the episodes, and a No Reservations book which is an annotated photo essay collection. The Nasty Bits, released in 2006, collects Bourdain’s online and print essays written since KC. I’ve had to wait ten years for Medium Raw, the true sequel to KC, to be released.
I read the book in one sitting, thought about it for a week, and reread it with the intent of reviewing it here. That was seven weeks ago, a time span that has had me change my opinion of the book at least a dozen times. The “bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook” has resisted my efforts to characterize it as a mid-life crisis confessional, a meditation on the end of an active career as a chef, a bully pulpit from which to denounce crimes against food and cooking, or an rationalization for selling out. It is all of those things and none of them, but at its heart Medium Raw still shows how much Bourdain cares about food.
There’s expected but dismissible material about how his second marriage and his daughter have changed how he thinks about his career. He grapples with the “you’re no a chef anymore, you’re a TV host” accusation. He considers how jaded he’s becoming about his dining experiences, taking the time to point out the flaws in dinners at both Per Se and Alinea. More than once he asks “Am I helping to kill the things that I love?” What prevents these ruminations from becoming completely maudlin is his acute awareness that he is projecting a persona, one that is now expected of him when he goes on lecture and book tours. (And here’s what happens when you meet one of your heroes.)
The book finally picks up momentum at the halfway point with “Go Ask Alice,” a chapter-long excoriation of Alice Waters that rolls right into “Heroes and Vilains,” a hit-and-run roll call of the best (Fergus Henderson, Jamie Oliver!, Grant Achatz, Wylie Dufrense) and worst (Gael Greene, Broke Johnson, Alain Ducasse, the James Beard House) in the food business. The following chapter — an entire fifteen pages — is reserved for a the greatest villain of all, laid out in five words: “Alan Richman is a Douchebag.”
With the testosterone-and-snake-heart-wine-fueled ranting out of the way, Bourdain bares his soul in a pair of profiles of two people in the industry. The first, David Chang, of the Momofuku restaurants, is a study in what drives the wildly successful but conflicted chef (“I run on hate and anger”). The second is Justo Thomas, the man who butchers fish at Le Bernardin in a basement hallway. After watching him butcher and portion seven hundred pounds of fish in just five hours, Bourdain uses his long-standing friendship with chef Eric Ripert to arrange for Justo to eat a luch tasting menu at the restaurant, a major exception to staff policy.
In 1990 I finally managed to see the Ramones, but the incarnation with Marky instead of Tommy on drums. They played their hits, falling back in comfortable routine for most if the set. But when they dug into the obscure number or two, you could see a brief glimpse of what made them The Ramones. Like his favorite NYC musical institution, despite all of his ranting and posing, we still see Bourdain’s love for food and the people who cook. As long as he maintains that heart I’m willing to forgive him a few more years of shtick and bile.