I haven't had this much fun reading MEDIUM RAW: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Ecco; $26.99; ISBN: 978-0-06-171894-6), Anthony Bourdain's latest culinary hand grenade tossed at the culinary world since...well Kitchen Confidential. It must be fun to be Anthony Bourdain. He has achieved an untouchable status in his field so that he can say anything he likes--good and bad and get away with it. He aims high in a series of blistering, withering, scornful, angry, hilariously funny and mostly well-deserved shots at Alice Waters (I think it is fair to question her chef credentials--it seems to me the only thing I've ever seen her prepare is salad), Mark Bittman, Guy Fieri ("I don't dislike Guy Fieri. I realized, after many viewings of his cooking shows, much soul-searching at my personal ashram, and many doses of prescription hypnotics. I just dislike--really dislike--the idea that somebody would put Texas-style barbecue inside a f- -king nori roll."), Sandra Lee, blogger Regina Schrambling, Alain Ducasse, Gael Greene, and other icons. The James Beard Foundation gets a Bourdain boot in the ass and deservedly so. It has to be galling for a chef to be invited to cook there, bring his staff, food, and equipment along only to find out there's no media to cover it. What's the point of this scam? He devotes an entire chapter to GQ's restaurant critic in an overly-long rant entitled "Alan Richman is a douchebag." Bourdain had me in stitches, but fifteen pages is excessive and while douchebag is a funny word, Bourdain goes too far. Did he have to cap it off by resorting to the "C" word?
On the other hand, maybe he should just hit the sheets with David Chang, the wildly popular New York chef/owner of Momofuku and others, and get it over with. Such a valentine to a chef gets a little weary. Maybe it's Chang's famous rages at his cooks (along with his talent) that appeals to a potty-mouthed bad boy like Bourdain (afterall Chang's cookbook is riddled with profanity). I left New York before I had a chance to see what all the fuss was about over Chang's meteoric rise. And Chang is too revered and respected for me or anyone who cares about food to ignore. But the avalanche of hype does make you wonder. So I'll have to take his word for it. Chang emerges here as a boring, gloomy Gus, who doesn't seem to be enjoying his success.
But let me get to the really good stuff. His hilarious opening intro about a secret gathering of chef movers and shakers to eat illegal Ortolans (disgusting is all I'll say about this ancient French culinary delicacy) that for chefs, Bourdain describes the experience as "wank-worthy, the Great Unfinished Business the Thing That Must Be Eaten..."). Funny, funny man.
"So You Want to Be a Chef," should be required reading for any toque-lusting culinary student. The work is grueling, the hours are horrible, addiction and alcoholism is common to the business, relationships and family life are challenging, and your chances of becoming the next Bobby Flay or Thomas Keller, or Emeril Legasse, are probably not going to happen. Bourdain is not being cynical. It's a brutal business, and culinary school is expensive and the pay for the first years years is rotten, and it requires a singular mind and talent to succeed. Good for Bourdain for telling the truth.
I won't argue Bourdain's list of heroes (as good as his list of villains)--he's got it right. I was especially happy to see the names of Jamie Oliver, Wylie Dufresne, Jonathan Gold, Fergus Henderson, Terrance Brennan, Ariane Daguin, Mario Batali, Eric Ripert and Jose Andres, on this list. It was also satisfying to see the name of Brooke Johnson on his list of villains. "She's a villain for being right, Bourdain declares. "--not only for the cynical, fake-ass, soul-destroying, lowest-common-denominator shit-shows she's nurtured and supported since taking the helm. She's a villain for being, clearly and demonstrably, right about everything." Since Johnson took over the Food Network, their ratings have exploded as the quality of its programming has plummeted. It's no longer about food. Its audience is increasingly made up of the coveted young male viewers who spend big to watch an endless round of competitive cooking shows, Vegas-style cake-baking contests for biggish prize money, barbecue cook-offs, and programming about how a large number of well-known food products such as Doritos and Tabasco sauce are made. Cooking shows that teach are no longer welcome at the Food Network. The network's howling success reduces us dissenters as "old school" type--whiners. Again, Bourdain is right.
Bourdain's discussion of a disappointing meal at Alinea, a Chicago-based restaurant considered one of the finest in America, is illuminating. He describes an excruciating, multi-tasting meal where with each course the waiter delivers an annoying monologue on what he's about to eat "and exactly how we should eat it. Half the time, I'd already popped the thing in my mouth and swallowed it by the time he'd finished with his act." Bourdain worries about being "the very picture of the jaded, over privileged 'foodie' (in the very worst sense of that word) that I used to despise." He describes a meal at Thomas Keller's French Laundry as "the single-best fine-dining, white-tablecloth meal of my life." But wondered why he came home from Keller's New York outpost, Per Se, "heartbroken last night." It says a lot about restaurant criticism, his own celebrity and vast knowledge of food, eating meals for free, and other baggage that must be experienced by others who spend most of their lives in pursuit of good food and writing about it for a living. I no longer care about this kind of restaurant experience--food is not religion. If that's what you're looking for, go to church. But it showed me that Bourdain, who has eaten just about anything edible, who hosts his own successful TV show, writes bestselling books that will piss off some people, breaks bread with some impressive food talent, and seems to genuinely enjoy his life, cares deeply about his profession. He enjoys knowing these creative people, and being a part of the whole circusy, pretentious, democratic, snobbish, scamming, high and low, world that he is a big moving cog in. Which brings me to an endearing quality of Bourdain's--he worries about being honest.
You would think that a guy this talented, good looking, daring, foolish, and successful would have it made. Nothing doing. His opening chapter on selling out is brilliant. By the time he had written Kitchen Confidential, he had more than paid his dues screwing up, getting hooked on drugs, and not living up to his talents as a chef. He admits that while he can dish it out he would sell out just like Sandra Lee or Rachael Ray. "Jesus, I would have given Oprah a back rub and a bikini wax, had she asked me when her people called." He knows Oprah sells books. "Who's the ho now? Me. That's Who," he admits.
MEDIUM RAW is a book to be savored in mutiple seatings. I read a chapter, put the book down and went about my business, only to return to the book ready for Bourdain's next take. It was loads of fun. He likes to project the bad boy, who drinks, smokes and has too much fun. He enjoys being hip, he loves to swear, and tell it like it is. The simple fact of the matter is Anthony Bourdain is a really smart guy with a prodigious knowledge of food, and a talented writer with a flashy prose style that is enormously appealing. He can spot a phony through the darkness of a closed mine shaft. He loves and admires chefs both high and low. A chef who cooks with his heart and technique deservedly ranks high with him. And boy can he describe it all.
Nobody kicks culinary butt like Anthony Bourdain.