Ten years has done a lot to Anthony Bourdain. His trip-ride following Kitchen Confidential has made him more mellow, more thankful, and seared him from gritty-raw to medium-raw.
Ten years ago, the cover of Anthony Bourdain’s unexpected mega blockbuster book Kitchen Confidential (KitCon) pictured him in chef’s whites brandishing a machete or somesuch medieval scimitar. A tiny hoop embedded in his earlobe is seen in the black backlight, and his eyes glint with barely suppressed mischief. Contrast this with the cover of his latest book, Medium Raw (subtitled A Bloody Valentine To The World of Food And The People Who Cook) where a more “seasoned” Bourdain is gazing out yonder at some undetermined spot above my left. The scimitar’s been replaced with a steak knife and the man is in a suit and tie, for god’s sake (!) Finishing the ensemble, his formerly dark hair is now shot through with white and yes, that’s definitely a wedding ring on his finger; appropriate, since he’s dedicated this book to his second wife (KitCon was dedicated to his first).
Medium Raw is a series of relatively straight-shooting soliloquies, stand-alone pieces that sometimes veer into [a] discourse or diatribe. In 19 chapters, Bourdain details the monumental changes that have occurred (mostly in the US) food industry: the rise of chefs as celebrities (Selling Out), the 2008 US stock market crash and the restaurant carnage that ensued (The Fear), a call to cooking (Virtue), and a lengthy, livid, lashing-out at large food companies (Meat). Tossed in are focused rants on Bourdain’s archenemy, food writer Alan Richman, and his searing but begrudgingly admiring views on Alice Waters (whom he once infamously described as “Pol Pot in a muumuu”). One of the more interesting profiles is that of madly popular David Chang, whose well-documented apoplectic temper and creativity fueled by “… hate and anger…” makes me suspect endears him terribly to Bourdain.
Naturally, there’s a return to the question asked in KitCon, “So you wanna be a chef?” The answer then as it is now is served with characteristic Bourdain bluntness: “[The answer]…is still no…particularly if you’re any kind of normal,” and appends “If you’re wondering perhaps if you’re too old or too fat, you are.” and then proceeds to discount alternative careers as a private chef, food stylist, and consultant with outrageous flair.
Though KitCon turned a glaring spotlight on Bourdain as a chef and foul-mouthed badass, in Medium Raw, he reverts that spotlight back to his fans, directly answering their question, “Dude, what’s been up with you since then?” My impression of Bourdain is that KitCon’s unforeseen success offered him an alternate career on TV, one in which he became the quintessential everyman, the intrepid eater and fearless documenter of such which effectively erased my impression of him as a toiling cook. He touches on this general “consensus” in one chapter when he narrates an encounter at a bar where he was told, ”You’re not a chef. You don’t even cook. You’re not one of us anymore.” And Bourdain accedes to it.
Apparently, the bad boy’s life post-KitCon wasn’t a bed of truffles, fame and fans notwithstanding. His first marriage went the way of jellied salads and chicken Marengo and he details going through bad times which he describes as being “at loose ends.” These essays chronicling his renegade days are my favorite in the book, especially since Bourdain isn’t shy about casting a harshly introspective light on himself. Admittedly, it’s these exact musings rebounding between cocky- confident to where-the-hell’d-that-come-from-melancholy?! take some getting used to. And his daddy-do-good doctrines brought on by fatherhood (“It’s all about the little girl. Because I am acutely aware…that she’s a blank page…The fact that she’s a girl requires, I believe, extra effort.” unhinge me somewhat. Who is this mellower, more thankful man and more importantly, do I like him?
Aw heck, this is Bourdain and if not for anything, Medium Raw is a ripping read. His writing’s hilariously self-deprecating and let’s face it, the man can write, especially about food. There are a field of “fucks,” however, to wade through, a word I have no doubt is Bourdain’s favorite, some of the more technicolor permutations being fuckwad, clusterfuck, and just plain fuck. Hey, there’s something to be said about appreciating a properly profanity-peppered piece.
Medium Raw is a stand-alone book so it’s not entirely necessary to have read KitCon previously but it’ll make you want to read it or re-read it after you’re done with the newer book. It’ll make you remember why you love Anthony Bourdain so much, and why this less highly-strung, more mature Bourdain is just as likable.
By Anthony Bourdain
(ECCO, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 281 pp)
My special thanks to CJ Regala and Jaime Daez for my advance copy of Medium Raw.