This review can’t begin without the kind of disclosure that reveals even more than I know to reveal. Kitchen Confidential annoyed me when I read it. I was grudging. The guy could write—this fucking hack cook. Annoying. He could really write. Not only was I jealous, but I also saw it as a danger. This guy was so compelling, so romantic in his portrayal of cooks, I worried for all the young cooks about to move into this world. There couldn’t possibly be a worse role model for young chefs than the author of Kitchen Confidential, and yet the hordes were following this piper gleefully and indiscriminately (would they too like to be selling their old paperbacks at 95th and Broadway in winter for heroin money?). Also his book was more successful by far than anything I’d written or have written since or likely ever will write. (You writers out there know exactly how annoying that is—writer envy runs deep.)
“Who was this fucking poser?” I thought.
Ok, so maybe the guy wasn’t so bad after all, I thought.
When we ultimately met, he was a pleasure. Funny, straightforward, a drinker and smoker, the sort I like to hang out with. We met Eric Ripert at Siberia, shortly before its demise, and drank more before Eric and I flew off to Puerto Rico to work on A Return To Cooking.
The following spring, Tony took Eric to Masa for dinner for an article he was writing (I happened to be in NYC then and begged to join them). Masa was awe inspiring, but vast quantities of alcohol were consumed at Baraonda after, and when I finally crawled out of bed, late the next morning, trying to figure out where I was and how I’d got there, I found that Bourdain was slandering me right and left on the internet, basically calling me a sociopath in khakis and blazer and a menace to society.
Really, it got so bad, that when it was all over, Tony wrote a huge apology to my wife when he inscribed his cookbook to her, “for the shame I have brought on your house,” it concluded.
He went on to do TV, very very well as it would turn out. I’d be on his show, he featured my beloved city and did an incredible job; he got Cleveland right in ways no outsider has ever, and for that I remain incredibly grateful.
But he also made me eat Skyline Chili, ridiculed me on camera calling me “Mr. French Laundry Cookbook” as he dragged me into this Cincinnati based chain; I invited him into my house afterward where he promptly dropped a Skyline bomb in our downstairs bathroom, the effects of which still hover somewhere over Lake Erie (I am glad to note however that “Cleveland steamer” appears in the book as a metaphor for a truly bad move).
He has gone on to make more Emmy Award-winning television, the book soon to be reviewed spent many weeks in the top-ten bestseller lists and remains on the extended list. And he STILL gets me in trouble.
When Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook came out, frankly, I thought great, fine. (Another rehash of travel stories and opinion on foie gras and chefs, detritus sloughed off during too-long plane rides and passing time in airports. Repurposing material because he’d taken a chunk of cash from his publisher and had to deliver something.)
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Medium Raw is as good a follow-up to his seminal Kitchen Confidential as one could hope for. His first book, and the television show it ultimately lead to, No Reservations, utterly transformed his life, and here, Bourdain outlines that transformation in honest story and opinion, his travel, his relationships, and the events that have shaped his life since The Book.
He is every bit as funny and ruthless as ever, and yet there’s the wisdom these years have brought to someone who is very aware of the world around him. It hasn’t been all wine and ortolans. He details the alcoholic drug-fueled depression that could easily have killed him on St. Maarten, a hilarious and horrifying trip to St. Barts with a wealthy insane cokehead, which solidified his disgust for the rich.
That chapter is followed by one called "Lust," which contains some of the best food writing I’ve encountered in ages; his ode to the Vietnamese dish pho is both over the top and on the money at the same time, captivating even to someone who is tired of reading about food.
He recounts the truly creepy encounter with the “Hell Spawn of Kathie Lee and Betty Crocker” at the Julie & Julia afterparty, answers why he’s softened on Rachael but can’t abide pre-chopped onions, and why Emeril and Mario continue to do what they do in the service of their empires even though they could easily retire to a tiki bar on their own island (Bourdain is in a position to get the genuine answers—he’s deep inside this world). He addresses the current restaurant scene following the economy tanking. He devotes a whole a chapter to heroes and villains.
Heroes: Fergus Henderson, writer Jonathan Gold, Jamie Oliver, Terrance Brennan (for cheese), Jim Harrison, Arianne Daguin (foie).
Villians: among them, Wolfgang Puck for cowing to the anti-foie gras activists, Food Network head honcho, Brooke Johnson (for being right, and raising food network share quarter after quarter: “every clunky, bogus, critically vilified clusterfuck that drops from FN’s hind quarters still steaming and seemingly dead on arrival turns out to be an unprecedented ratings success”), Alain Ducasse (for ADNY, dumping that “gigantic Cleveland steamer into a small pond”), the Beard Foundation for reasons that have been well covered.
One person gets Hero and Villain, status, Regina Schrambling, editor, journalist and blogger—“my favorite villain… easily the angriest person writing about food….immaculate in her loathing.” That’s actually the hero part. The villain part is for referring to the people she’s pissing on with cutesy names rather than actual ones (Malto Ego for Mario, Panchito for Bruni, etc.). I agree—who does she think she’s kidding? And she’s a good enough and funny enough writer to get away with calling bullshit where she sees it, by name.
Is the book perfect? No. I frankly, don’t want to see Tony dancing with his two-year-old along with a dozen other Filipino nannies and their charges. Fergus Henderson, chef of St. John in London, is certainly a hero, but the treatment he receives here is a little too close to fellatio for my own comfort (yes even for me, who has contributed plenty to the chef adoration annals). Henderson’s Nose to Tail/The Whole Beast is unquestionably a great book, a book I own and admire, one the food world is lucky to have, but Tony calls it “one of the classic cookbooks of all time”—of all time. Hm, well, OK. But is Henderson truly “the most influential chef of the last ten years”? On this, much as I admire Henderson, Bourdain fails to convey the reasons for the depth of his personal reverence to the reader.
Even so, this passage, like all that comes before and after in Medium Raw, Bourdain is unfailingly smart and entertaining. He knows deep in his bones that the writer’s mortal sin, short of actual child abuse, is that of boring the reader. This, he never does (the dancing business excepted, but it’s mercifully brief).
Another small issue with the book I have is his taking the degustation menu to task, eviscerating Alinea and Per Se for the meals he ate there (two world-renowned restaurants, run by chefs I work with, like and admire). I don’t have a problem with his not liking (actually, hating) the meals. The thing is, before he does so, he writes a long passage about how chefs, even those who serve these elaborate menus, don’t like to eat them. Himself included. Why? Because he, and Marco White and Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria can scarcely show their heads in a restaurant without the kitchen wanting to bury them in food. So it seems a rare lack of self-awareness to go off on these two restaurants from his rarefied perch in the food world.
This chapter leads him to the antidote to these restaurants, David Chang, a chapter that could have been yet another reach around for the over-written about chef, but is in fact a great look and explication of where we are in our restaurant culture, what it means to be a cook and a chef today. David Chang has gotten where he is, I believe, by doing one thing and doing it well: Saying fuck you to everyone, and just cooking. Chang is driven exclusively by fear and rage, Bourdain writes. Fuck you media and fuck you food writer and fuck you VIPs, just leave me alone and let me cook what I want. If you want to pay me for it, have a seat, if not, go away. I love this about Chang, whom I’ve never met but whose noodle bar and Momofuku Ko have served me awesome meals. Face it—chefs know what’s good and great, they know what to cook. Listen to them and eat of their love-labor. It’s paying off for Chang and I hope the ethos of cook-what-you-love, as opposed to cook what you think you can sell, is embraced by all chefs.
As for the food media, well I can’t contain my affection nor overstate my respect for Bourdain for coming straight out and calling John Mariani flat out corrupt, a conviction everyone in the industry shares but few say, and that he downgrades Alan Richman from douchebag, a relatively harmless trashtalk term, to "a cunt," and backs it up, convincingly.
But what I admire most about this book, besides Bourdain’s obvious gifts of humor and the innovative raunchy turns of phrase, his ability to tell stories, is what does not exist in Kitchen Confidential. Balance and depth. When he comes at a victim, whether it’s Wolfgang Puck or Alinea, it comes from a vantage that is now worldly, one not fueled by ex-junkie, hack-cook anger. He has extraordinary respect for Grant Achatz and Jonathan Benno and Thomas Keller, deep and vast, is the first to admit that he could never do what they do, a fact that in a way shames him. But to paraphrase the title of one the chapters here—on a Bernardin fish butcher, some of the best reportage and observation on food I’ve read in a long long time (itself worth the cost of the book)—Bourdain’s aim is true.
He concludes where he began, Kitchen Confidential, where he is now, where that cast of characters are today, and what he’ll never taste again because of it.
I honestly wish I didn’t have to say this. He doesn’t need me to say it. He’s got a great TV show, huge audience, gets paid serious cash for showing up in podunk cities across the country to shoot his mouth off for a couple hours and field a question or two. He takes great gleeful pleasure in slandering me in public, a world he treats like his own personal schoolyard playground.
But the facts are these. In the same way that great food writing is about more than just the food, so too is Medium Raw commentary on matters well beyond the incestuous world of restaurants and cooks. This book of memoir, travel writing, food writing and reportage is entertaining, informative, thought provoking, and genuinely artful in its structure and satisfactions. He would surely lose what little respect he has for me were I to say this to his face, but Bourdain proves himself here to be the most insightful commentator on food and restaurants and chefs writing today. By far. By a mile. I seriously hope this is the last book he writes. He’s a freak of nature, and somehow it’s just best that way, that he remain untouchable.