Anthony Bourdain's Valentine to Cooks and Food

Nov 092010
 

You know that secret smile you carry around after reading a good book? Especially one that makes you laugh and ponder the food world we love so much? I just finished Anthony Bourdain’s memoir, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food, and I’ll be smiling all day.

He’s toned down the macho swagger I staggered through 10 years ago in Kitchen Confidential, but he’s still writing about his man-filled, foul-mouthed food world. Expect brutal honesty about what constitutes exciting restaurant food, why we should cook and what, no-holds-barred opinions on selected food writers and chefs, and dirt on restaurant reviewers who suck. In this self-deprecating, thoughtful memoir, Bourdain also looks back at his life and how he got to be so lucky to be a best-selling author, dad, and world traveller with a TV show.

You can’t help but laugh out loud, and often. After consuming an elaborate tasting menu at Per Se in New York by the chef he respects most, Thomas Keller, he writes:

“But look across the seat at the woman with you. Do you really think she’s breathlessly anticipating getting back to your apartment to ride you like the Pony Express? Or do you think it far more likely that (like you) she’s counting the seconds till she can get away for a private moment or two and discreetly let loose with a backlog of painfully suppressed farts?”

Vintage Bourdain. So outrageous and hilarious. If you’ve ever made it through an upscale restaurant’s tasting menu, you will relate.

Not only did he make me laugh, he made me think. He looks at food writers, particularly Alan Richman, to whom he dedicates an entire chapter called “Alan Richman is a Douchebag.” It’s because, after Bourdain called him the “Douchebag of the Year,” Richman wrote a negative review of Les Halles, the restaurant where Bourdain was once the chef. Here’s Richman’s side of the story.

In that essay, Bourdain writes thoughtfully about restaurant reviewers from his days as a chef, about how easy it is to “turn them” if you feed them for free:

“They’ll remember. It’s like giving a bent cop a Christmas turkey. They may not be able to help you directly — but the’ll at least make an effort not to hurt you. And if you can make a journalist or a Webmaster your ‘special friend,’ you have a powerful ally. In addition to singing your praise early and often from the rooftops, they can act as your proxy, shouting down those who might question your magnificance.”

This freebie comes, he continues, during the pre-opening tastings at the restaurant, where the writers are not officially reviewing, and therefore are ethically off the hook. Bourdain says food critics count on appearing on the restaurant’s A list. If they give the place a bad review, they worry they might not be invited to free meals at other restaurants.

Elsewhere in the book, “So You Wanna Be a Chef,” gives a cogent, passionate argument about whether readers have the balls to make it in a restaurant kitchen. You won’t have to buy the book to read this essay in full. Bourdain’s friend Michael Ruhlman (who makes a few cameos) got permission from Harper Collins to reprint it on his blog.

Another favorite is a journalistic profile of the Dominican chef who filets fish at the upscale Le Bernadin restaurant in New York. By featuring him, Bourdain shows deep respect for the Spanish-speaking workers who make restaurants around the country hum.

I only have two complaints. With Bourdain, it’s all-men-all-the-time. His only real discussion of women are where he recounts hooking up with a coke-head model on a Caribbean island; and his complicated feelings towards Alice Waters, whom he once compared to the Khmer Rouge (see last paragraph of interview). The book also sags a little in the middle, when he devotes two essays to being a dad. He’s such a softie, writing one piece about the evils of Ronald McDonald and another on dancing with his daughter. Still, I skimmed past. I hope he doesn’t call me a douchebag.

Disclaimer: Five years ago I interviewed Bourdain for Will Write for Food, and he wrote a generous endorsement that appears on the first page. I was already a fan, and nothing has changed.

  24 Responses to “Anthony Bourdain's Valentine to Cooks and Food”

  1. That Pony Express line stood out for me too; so hilarious and so perfectly true. Thanks for linking to Richman’s response. I hadn’t seen that before and it is rather illuminating. You’ve got to give him credit for a degree of candor in admitting that his reason for writing about Les Halles was vengeance.

  2. I too read Medium Raw a month ago. It’s no Kitchen Confidential, but then again, it’s not supposed to be. I think Bourdain admits in the book that it’s impossible to duplicate that type of wild success. Medium Raw to me was just an expanded version of the monologues he gives in No Reservations, without the censoring.

    Actually I liked the parts about his kid, because it was a small part of a bigger picture that showed how much he’s changed since Kitchen Confidential… in the same way the food industry has changed. Perhaps even matured.

    However, lucky for us, in some ways, at least as a writer, he’s still the same, salty mouthed sailor we’ve come to know and love.

    • He’s written a few books since Kitchen Confidential, so at least he wasn’t paralyzed by its success. I once knew someone who had been an Olympic athlete in her 20s. It was the first thing she told people and she never did anything after that to compare. What a thing to have to live up to.

      Yeah, he’s mellowed. He even has grudging respect for Alice Waters now. That amazed me. Maybe it was because he likes to feed his kid organic food.

  3. You almost convinced me to buy his last book and give him another change.
    I read year ago “A cook’s tour” and I found it too macho sometimes. I must admit that at the time I was just a confused and beginner foodies.
    You review anyway it’s really great.
    I find curious the title, it seems to ridiculised the title of a current Italian bestseller (Cotto e mangiato, alias Cook and Eaten) followed by another book title Crudo e mangiato (Raw and Eaten).

    • Hi Rosella, I have problems with the macho tone too. When I read Kitchen Confidential I had to put it down often because of the high testosterone level. This one is a little less.

      Re the origin of the title. Publishers spend hours on these things. Were they aware of Italian bestsellers? No way to know.

  4. What a great review, I am a huge fan of Bourdain’s laconic wit, and this is now top of my Christmas list. Having thoroughly enjoyed Kitchen Confidential (although not so much the short lived tv show!) I look forward to a more considered biography.

    • Thanks Rachel. Hope you get your Christmas wish. I can’t say I ever watched the TV show based on Kitchen Confidential.

  5. I read Raw and I think Bourdain writes some of the best food porn. The kind you want to read aloud. You are so jealous that you weren’t there but thankful that you at least get to experience it vicariously.

    The rants get a little old but he certainly has never pulled any punches on himself or anyone else. I don’t always agree with him but I am almost always amused and hungry after reading him or watching on TV.

    • He does, doesn’t he. He’s opinionated and doesn’t fear telling the truth, which makes him so much fun to read. Ex. he trashed Alinea, with all its silly apparatus and gimmicks, even though he respects the chef. I was so happy to read that.

  6. I would probably have not been interested in this one before your review, Dianne. Now I want to read it! You did such a great job giving us a taste of both the compelling and the funny parts in Bourdain’s book. The foodie/cooking world is such an intriguing one sometimes.

    Thanks!
    Shirley

  7. Meh. I liked the book, yes. And I like him, yes. But there are far better food writers, in my opinion. While I love profanity and vulgarity, sometimes his make me cringe a little (such as the “fart” reference above). When I’m reading about food, I really, REALLY don’t want to read about farts. Yes, I’m a douchebag.

    Also, I’m SICK TO DEATH of his railing on the Food Network. Let’s get on with it. We all know the FN sucks. Why alienate himself by making enemies across all lines.

    He DID write about women — Sandra Lee, in particular.

    I do love Bourdain being Bourdain. And he HAS grown up a lot, particularly since being a dad. I’m a huge fan. But I get tired of people-bashing. I want to know what makes him passionate (besides bashing people), what are some amazing meals he’s had recently, what’s it like to film No Reservations and travel the world?, etc. Sure, he briefly touched upon the Carribean and Asia, but a lot of it was achingly sad. I want to know more. I feel he has such a capacity to be sooooo much deeper than his latest book, and his fart and Food Network jokes.

    Just me.

    • Jackie, yes, I see your point, but no one writes about the vulgarity of eating such a huge amount of food, and the effects on the body. We’re all so careful not to offend or tell the whole truth. I’ve been so sick to my stomach after those kind of huge meals, and certainly I would not talk about it. Not polite conversation. But I love that he does.

      I guess he doesn’t care about making enemies either.

      Oh right, Sandra Lee. It’s just that women seem to be an afterthought.

      p.s. Enjoyed your blog post on Bourdain’s Seattle event.

      You might like A Cook’s Tour, which is based on his travels.

  8. I read and sort of enjoyed the book but I’m thinking, “Well said Jackie.” I don’t profess to love profanity and vulgarity but also don’t think I have a problem with it. Good thing.

  9. I enjoy this man’s writing, his wit and shenanigans. The only macho man I like.

  10. Oh my word i can’t imagine anyone calling you a douche bag! Thanks for the great review….I was debating whether to read, now I think I might.

  11. We are so lucky to have a few smart, honest, and courageous people like Bourdain who talk about everything openly. I admire his openness and saying whatever is on his mind, not holding back anything. I wish I could do that (and stay alive) :)
    More frequently what I see is a kiss ass approach or a you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours… So sad.
    Hurray to Bourdain, and yes, I wish there was a female-Bourdain out there too. Where is she hiding?

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