Anthony Bourdain, 2010, HarperCollins, New York
Review | Anthony Bourdain has become a cultural icon and a big hero to such diverse communities as counter culture freaks and high net income foodies. A noted smart ass and former junkie, Bourdain has gone from strength to strength over the last decade as he pursued the muse of writing all the while hoisting one of the most interesting shows on TV. “Parts Unknown” is arguably the best show on CNN and is a crazy mix of foodie, travel and cultural commentary/documentary all beautifully filmed and edited.
Medium Raw is Bourdain’s ninth book since his break out hit Kitchen Confidential, a catalogue that includes three novels, and right out of the gate it opens with some food-lit porn. A clandestine description of a forbidden meal of Ortolan, a small bird, native to France, the Ortolan is a “Classic of French cuisine.” It is also an endangered species, illegal to trap, shoot, bother, sell, own, cook and just about anything but look at. The meal takes on a sort of Star Chamber aspect as a bunch of famous but un-named chefs break the law in order to experience one of the worlds most coveted meals.
“Everyone at this table knows what to do and how to do it. We wait for the sizzling flesh and fat before us to quiet down a bit. We exchange glances and grins and then, simultaneously, we place our napkins over our heads, hiding our faces from God, and with burning fingertips lift our birds gingerly by their hot skulls, placing them feat first into our mouths-only their heads and beaks protruding…”
Medium Raw is a winning collection of scathing short articles and pointed observations on the food world, chefs, foodies, celebs and Bourdain himself. It is also a love affair with food that manifests in some shamefaced food porn. Bourdain’s critical commentary on some of the sacred cows and beloved figures of the food world is hilarious. The thing that saves him from being a total prick is his willingness to be open and critical about himself and his past, and current, failings. His description of being a shameful self loathing druggie brunch line cook is familiar and cringe worthy to anyone who has worked in the kitchen; for anyone who has done a shift while dealing with a brutal hangover.
There he is on the cover, well dressed, fingering a boning knife and you can’t quite tell if Bourdain is trying to look threatening or just trying to pull off an inside joke.
His chapter entitled How The Rich Eat Differently Than You And Me is a counter intuitive blast at the 1% that everyone supposes to have superior class and taste but in Bourdain’s view are so vacuous and tasteless as do be worthy only of contempt. He slips in the dagger as he shows how one-percenter money and fame have an almost inverse relationship with taste.
“The Ciprianis, along with a few other operators and imitators, made, a long while back, a remarkable discovery: that rich international fucktards like to hang out with each other and eat marginally decent Italian food-and are willing to pay outrageous amounts of money for the privilege. Better yet, all the people who want to look like they, too, are rich international fucktards will want to get in on the action as well. That’s the customer base dreams are made of.”
Ever since the wholesale adoption of manufactured and processed food, good food, crafted with skill and dedication, has meant so much more. High-end gastronomy has carved out a new and much more visible place in the world. Because of cable television, chefs who toiled for years known by only a select few students and patrons of fine cooking are suddenly household names and international figures. Look at Bourdain himself. He was never a star quality chef, more the Hunter S. Thompson of food writers, but his ability to look at the whole scene from a different angle, the of a jaded kitchen lifer that can write well, and his willingness to talk about it in a critical way, has made him a star, even if he seems a bit reluctant about it. —M. B.