Bourdain's Grillby Katie Rolnick
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
By Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain made his name as a chef, but today can barely survive a Tuesday double shift at Les Halles, the Manhattan brasserie he helmed while writing his 2000 New York Times bestseller, Kitchen Confidential. In that book, he played the rakish tour guide, shining a light on the restaurant industry’s darkest crevices and characters. Yes, restaurants reuse leftover bread, and yes, the cooks are filthy animals who finish most evenings (and early mornings) satiated with booze and drugs. Today, Bourdain may still be fluent in kitchen lingua franca, perfectly placing each “wank-worthy,” “douchebag,” and “fucktard,” but in Medium Raw, his latest book, he’s more likely to toss around obscenities while discussing the tedium of tasting menus than the depths of a particularly hellish coke binge.
In the decade following Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain has become “Anthony Bourdain”: celebrity chef/writer/TV host/resident rebel. Medium Raw reveals his discomfort with this public persona, apparent in the pains he takes to point out his every flaw and pretense. It’s a clever and seductive tactic. When you doubt Bourdain and Medium Raw, which is less a cohesive book than a loose amalgam of thoughts, he chimes in to agree with you. “Let’s face it,” he confesses, “I am, at this point in my life, the very picture of the jaded, overprivileged ‘foodie’ (in the very worst sense of that word) that I used to despise.”
The book opens with a small coterie of chefs, a who’s who of the industry, gathering to collectively commit an illegal act: they eat (or rather, climax while chewing) Ortolan, a small bird which, until named an endangered species, was a mainstay of French country cooking. Considering the aberrant path that led to this moment—from heroin-addled line cook to successful author—Bourdain concludes, “I am the peer of no man nor woman at this table. None of them—at any time in my career—would have hired me, even the guy sitting next to me. And he’s my best friend in the world.” Bourdain doesn’t belong, and he knows it.
Appealing as his candor may be, don’t be fooled into thinking it has protected his integrity. Rather, he admits that his ascent has proven the nominal fee for which he can be bought. “Rachael Ray sent me a fruit basket,” he writes. “So I stopped saying mean things about her. It’s that easy with me now…To be nasty to someone after they sent you a gift of fruit doesn’t fit my somewhat distorted view of myself as secretly a gentleman.”
This comes as a surprise given the book proclaims to be “a bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook.” If Rachael Ray can gag Anthony Bourdain with fancy apples and pears, whom could he possibly pillory? His many targets include Food Network president Brooke Johnson (evil genius), chef Alain Ducasse (pretentious Frenchie), and Chez Panisse co-founder Alice Waters. Like Waters, Bourdain would thrill to see school kids eating chemical-free produce. But he recognizes that for some students, there are more pressing issues. “A healthy lunch is all fine and good—but no use at all to Little Timmy if he gets shot to death on the way to school,” he writes. “I, for one, would be very satisfied if Timmy gets a relatively balanced slab of fresh but nonorganic meatloaf with a side of competently frozen broccoli—along with reading skills and a chance at a future.” Regardless of whether or not he’s right, moral zeal doesn’t suit him. His perspective on the vile practices of mass production meat processing (by now well-trodden territory) feels perfunctory and out of place. Such weaknesses are only enhanced by Medium Raw’s sprawl, the missing thread that should tie together a chapter on fine dining’s downfall after the economic collapse and another profiling a former “Top Chef” contestant.
Bourdain is at his best as a shameless smart ass, his social commentary much more convincing when filtered through personal vendettas. Now a father, Bourdain describes how he and his wife whisper purposefully outside their daughter’s bedroom door, enumerating the faux atrocities (kidnapping, cootie-spreading) committed by Ronald McDonald. These unconventional methods, he explains, form the foundation of a well-intentioned campaign. “I want her to see American fast-food culture as I do. As the enemy.”
This is one of the rare moments in Medium Raw with the unruly energy that carried Kitchen Confidential. More often, Bourdain’s rants feel shallow; you can sense him groping for something that truly enrages or inspires. Surely, there are successful passages. (In one, he paints Le Bernadin’s prep cook, Justo Thomas, with care and compassion.) But perhaps Anthony Bourdain should have a go at Anthony Bourdain. He offers a self-assessment while detailing the ins and outs of a feud with GQ food writer Alan Richman. If you want to take an honest shot, Bourdain suggests, try this: “A loud, egotistical, one-note asshole who’s been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long and who should just shut the fuck up.” There’s the angry son-of-a-bitch we know and love.
Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer and co-editor of the Brooklyn Rail Books section.