Medium Raw, or Half Baked?

Medium RawI disliked Kitchen Confidential. Let’s just get that out of the way with. Let the hate mail begin. Anthony Bourdain’s hate fueled rage against the restaurant industry machine that ground him up and spit him out (with his admitted acquiescence… no, active participation) was, for me, nothing more than misdirected venom spewing about his days of drugs and debauchery. I know many of the personalities that found themselves lambasted in the book and found his characterizations to be mean-spirited and caricatured, emphases on occasional quirks or happenstances that he blew up into full blown personae. I even worked with a couple of them and found their kitchens to be anything but like the bastardized versions that found their way to his pages. I found myself doubting that he knew many of them more than perfunctorily. But the book has become an epic work on the world of restaurant work, revered among the young who are just entering the profession. Perhaps it’s because he and I are basically the same age and had vastly different experiences and very different perceptions looking back that I found it too one-note, to specific to just him, despite being touted as a universal.

I’ve met the man himself, a trio of times over the years – and while I can’t say that I dislike him, I didn’t particularly like him either – I’m not a person who’s good with names, it often takes me meeting someone a couple of times before I’ll remember it, but I do remember faces and that I talked to someone – he didn’t seem to on the latter two times we encountered each other, and I found him to be, even on the first meet and long before his fame, a bit dismissive if you weren’t someone in his little circle. Though, all three times were pre-KC, so perhaps he was just stoned…. That said, I don’t like to hold a grudge, and the writeups his new book, Medium Raw, is getting, piqued my interest. So, I picked up a copy and dove in.

Like KC, MR is a relatively quick and easy read. There’s no dense prose or deep thinking – if you’ve watched any of his television shows, he writes the way he talks, or vice versa. But it’s in many ways a far better book than he former. It’s certainly better written, his style has improved. It’s not nearly as angry, most of the time – though here and there he takes one person or group to task, seemingly without reason. On the other hand, it’s a poorly organized book – with topics that jump from one to the next, in no particular progression – it seems rather than a narrative to simply be a collection of varied essays that occurred to him at one moment or another.

The anger is still there, and he freely admits it. Where that anger comes from is a great mystery – he alludes to a delightful childhood with loving parents, which apparently was enough to send him, if not anyone, off the edge. He’s kicked the hard drug habits and replaced them, as anyone who’s watched the shows (or reads the book) can see, with copious, if not excessive, amounts of alcohol and caffeine. And the venom still surfaces here and there.

There are some good reads in the book – his essentially open letter to anyone thinking about attending cooking school and becoming a chef is well worth a read – it’s specific, I think, to a very New York restaurant industry experience, but much of it holds true even for other places. His urging for people to learn to cook as they grow up is dead on. Amazingly, I find myself agreeing with his trashing of Alice Waters – not the way he did it, it’s far too caustic, but that despite her Utopian, idealistic views having merit, she’s completely out of touch with the reality of most of the country’s citizens and their day to day concerns. And quite a few of his little analyses, his heroes and villains, and other writings, on individuals, this time around are pretty much on the money. Some of his “food porn” is delightful, some of it just blah, but all of it intriguing.

On the other hand, he takes to task people who have slighted him, or someone he knows, or some sort of vague other, with malicious glee. He spends umpteen pages trashing Alan Richman for one article that the man wrote – the trashing is longer than the article, likely by double, and could have been handled in a paragraph or two, without the name calling. It almost felt like a plaintive “look at me, I can still be just as nasty and hateful as ever… really, I haven’t lost that… really.. can’t you see?” (Despite a chapter or two on how he’s mellowed and changed since becoming a father, he can’t quite seem to let go of that past image. Really Tony, it’s okay that you grew up. Really.) He likes but doesn’t like Regina Schrambling – praising her for her wit and willingness to take on anyone, and then mostly trashing her for using euphemistic and suggestive names for the people she gets caustic about in her blog – but he does the same thing, throughout both books – anyone who, likely, he’s afraid would sue his ass over the characterizations he spews, he makes up a title for, be it as simple as “Chef X” or as descriptive as “Mr. Silver Fox”. The books are littered with them. He rails against vegetarians and vegetarianism, as is his wont – but his premise is flawed, that when one travels one should simply be accepting of whatever it is that is put in front of you. Sure, it’s gracious, but you know what, it’s not reality. People make ethical choices, dietary choices, lifestyle choices, and his suggestion that one should just go with the flow, or “when in Rome”… type attitude, is nonsense (those from Rome, don’t follow a “when in Buenos Aires” approach, trust me) – and he’s no better than those he goes after – seeking out alcoholic drink when he’s in countries where it’s prohibited, sitting down to a dinner of a foodstuff that’s banned, or simply seeking out completely inauthentic experiences in one place or another because it’s what “I want to do”. But that’s likely the new found fame at work… goes to one’s head and all that.

Overall, is it a worthwhile read? Well, it’s certainly a more interesting read than Kitchen Confidential. It’s certainly better written. And now that Bourdain is basically a household name, it doesn’t come across as something completely out of left field. The tone is very him, or at least the cultivated persona of television. So if you’re a fan of his shows – and sometimes I am, and in fact, a few of his episodes, like his recent one on Rome, or past season’s Sardinia, are so perfectly done that I wanted to be there with him, sometimes I’m not, like the episode on Argentina linked in the paragraph above – you’ll likely enjoy this book. I sorta, kinda, did.



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