Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain

Ecco, 2010, 281 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-171894-6

Anthony Bourdain will be the first to recognize the unlikelihood of his accession to the ranks of celebrity cooks.  After two unsuccessful novels published in the late nineties while he was still working in New York restaurants, Bourdain wrote the now-classic exposé Kitchen Confidential with hopes that it would be read by other local kitchen professionals.  Much to his surprise, the book rode the wave of popular interest in all things foodie, became a perennial bestseller and (with some help from a TV show) made Bourdain a foul-mouthed star.  Unlike other celebrity chefs, his place has always been that of the hard-working professional scrapping away in ordinary restaurants.  Bourdain will acknowledge that his culinary talents were average, and that his unusually good fortune leaves him just as surprised as anyone else.

That’s how we end up with Medium Raw, a collection of original essays about Bourdain’s life during the decade since Kitchen Confidential first appeared on the shelves.  Tackling a diversity of subjects from fatherhood to the quality of fast-food meat to the requirements for being a chef to the impact of the 2008 financial crisis over New York’s high-end gastronomy scene, Medium Raw is like spending an evening hearing Bourdain discuss a variety of subjects.  There’s so little structure that the book could have been a collection of magazine articles, but much of it either revolves around food or Bourdain himself.  It’s obviously a book for fans, and even those who have read Kitchen Confidential recently may feel left out if they haven’t experienced his other books and TV shows.

Equally introspective and controversial, Medium Raw spends as much time meditating upon Bourdain’s selling-out than in designating heroes and villains.  (Heroes?  Working-class cooks like the one Bourdain profiles in “My Aim is True” or iconoclastic chefs like David Chang, discussed in “The Fury”.  Villains?  Alice Waters, as described in “Go Ask Alice” and Alan Richman in “Alan Richman is a Douchebag”.  For more, there’s an entire chapter called “Heroes and Villains”.)  A crucial difference between this and Kitchen Confidential is how stepped into foodie culture Medium Raw can feel: Bourdain not only name-checks other TV chefs presuming that we can recall who they are, but acknowledges the work done by Michael Pollan and Eric Schloesser in raising food quality issues in popular media.  For anyone even casually acquainted with contemporary food writing, it feels like a part of the mainstream.

The best pieces of Medium Raw touch upon a variety of subjects and tone.  “The Sit Down” begins the book with a vaguely foreboding description of a confidential Ortolan tasting that will lead curious readers to Michael Paterniti’s incredible article “The Last Meal” (summary).  “Selling Out” describes Bourdain’s changing opinions about celebrity chefs and his own relationship to fame.  In “Meat”, Bourdain is horrified at the declining quality of hamburger meat and makes sombre predictions about the future of this all-American staple.  Bourdain’s expertise about the New York scene is obvious in “The Fear” (regarding the changing restaurant environment once the bankers lost their expense accounts in late 2008), while “Lower Education” includes a hilarious description of the psychological warfare that Bourdain is waging against McDonalds in his daughter’s social circle.

Alternately funny, profane, touching, heartfelt, analytical and descriptive, Medium Raw is a grab bag of food-related pieces that shows how Bourdain has developed not just as a celebrity, but also as a writer.  It’s fully self-aware, and generous in how it gives us (still) a glimpse in the author’s life now that he’s moved up in the world.  It may be disconnected and scattered and unequal, but it’s also a fast and pleasant read thanks to Bourdain’s engaging style.  Even those who bought it with the intent to read it later may find themselves captivated after only a few pages.

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