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.