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Book Review: Anthony Bourdain Cooks A Perfect 'Medium Raw'

This is one fucking tough review to write.  I just spent the last 90 minutes coming up with that first line. When you admire the work of an author as much as I admire Anthony Bourdain’s, you want your writing to respect, if not emulate the subject matter at hand. Bourdain turned the culinary world on its pretentious head ten years ago with his landmark memoir, Kitchen Confidential, considered sacred by many chefs (and food nerd hacks like me) across the globe.  While some cooks might hollow out a stolen Gideon’s Bible to hide their stash, no one fucks with their dog-eared, veal-stock-stained copy of Kitchen Confidential.  After ten years of riding the wave of unexpected fame and fortune, Bourdain has stoked the fires once again with his follow up - Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook' by Anthony Bourdain

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook' by Anthony Bourdain

Bourdain keeps it real.  He’s without question the most honest food writer that’s out there.  While he may (I might add accurately) remark that Sandra Lee is the “hellspawn of Betty Crocker and Charles Manson” or write an entire chapter based on GQ food writer, Alan Richman, being a douchebag (yes, the title of the chapter is ‘Alan Richman is a Douchebag’), Bourdain is always hardest on himself.  Bourdain’s thread of genuine self-deprecation found in Kitchen Confidential, and also now in Medium Raw, was best conveyed when he described himself as; “A loud, egotistical, one-note asshole who’s been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long and who should just shut the fuck up.” (p. 168)

In Medium Raw, Bourdain splits his prose between his personal evolution during the ten years in between the two books, as well as new things that have cropped up that both piss him off or get him stiff.  From the abyss of being a fry cook at a greasy spoon on Columbus Ave., to a secret society tasting of ortolan with the culinary elite of planet Earth (I’m throwing out a guess that Boulud was the unnamed host, but what do I know), Bourdain recounts personal stories of failure and success along with some mesmerizing stories from the new road that was paved before his feet.  More of a collection of unrelated stories broken up as chapters, Bourdain covers everything from the bad-to-worse decline of the Food Network to his conflict of emotions towards Alice Waters and his divorce from his first wife to a Where-Are-They-Now of the “stars” of Kitchen Confidential.

A highlight of the book for me was the Heroes and Villains chapter where he goes through a random list of people in the food world and deems them as good or evil.  Whether he puts Wolfgang Puck under the “villain” category for breaking under the pressure of the anti foie gras movement, or proclaims Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago as a “hero” for risking his life for his craft by doing alternative treatments for a battle with tongue cancer so he could save his palate, Bourdain gives plenty of substance behind his strong opinions (agree with them or not).

Another highlight for me was the Fury chapter which highlighted the meteoric rise of the self-conflicted David Chang of New York’s Momofuku fame.  I typically don’t give a rat’s balls about chefs that aren’t in Las Vegas, mostly because we have plenty to learn about the chefs that are actually here.  Other than knowing the name and knowing that he is big shit out in NYC, I didn’t really know much about him.  Bourdain’s chapter devoted to him was eye-opening to say the least.

One major component to this book was seeing Bourdain’s “tender” side.  Well…at least as tender as Bourdain gets.  Parenting tips from Tony Bourdain?  Yes…they’re in here.  In a brilliant shredding of McDonald’s, Bourdain teaches us a new technique where he fights fire with fire and lets his impressionable young daughter know that “Ronald has cooties.”  Where McDonald’s uses everything from specific colors to textures to rope kids in early to eat their disgusting food-like toxic shit (it sure as hell worked on me!), Bourdain fights back with an ad campaign of his own.  The scientific facts of why you shouldn’t eat a Big Mac contained in Fast Food Nation or An Omnivore’s Dilemma won’t work on a little child when they’re ripe for the picking, but informing your kid that a famous clown may or may not have a tendency to kidnap and mutilate young girls is something that sticks with a kid.  Genius.

Speaking of bullshit food, my heart filled with glee when Bourdain almost went word for word on my “Kobe Burgers Are Bullshit” tirade.  Citing how Kobe /Wagyu beef is all about the intermuscular fat and the subtle richness that this fat gives the meat, restaurants around the world are pulling the wool over their customers’ eyes by selling them an overpriced and misused product.

Luring less-informed patrons with ground up, seasoned-to-death Kobe is the least of the problems with our meat supply, however.  Bourdain echoes Eric Schlosser’s supremely important work in the Earth-shattering documentary, Food Inc., which Schlosser exposes the ammoniated beef big meat factories feed us to cleanse the grossly mishandled meat of E. coli bacterium.  On a side note, if you haven’t seen Food Inc. yet, I beg you to do so.  I guarantee you that it will change your life forever.

Who is this Anthony Bourdain?  An Anthony Bourdain that stands up for impressionable young people and cares about the integrity of our food supply?  It’s an Anthony Bourdain that has grown up a hell of a lot over the last 10 years.  It’s an Anthony Bourdain that has now experienced an entire world through his extensive travels, all made possible from the success of Kitchen Confidential.

While aspiring young chefs may misguidedly see the younger Bourdain’s infamous drug addiction and irreverence of nearly all customs of mature decency as sexy or even part of the curriculum of the path to success, Bourdain makes it crystal clear that he got lucky a whole hell of a lot and “luck is not a business model.”  Getting as many chances that Bourdain has had along the way to rise again from his many well-documented catastrophic fuck ups is almost unheard of.  Bourdain knows this, and he wants his fans to know it too.

While I’m an unabashed fan of Bourdain’s work, not everyone feels the same way.  There are few things in life I enjoy more than witnessing old, stodgy, ivory-towered, put-me-to-sleep gourmands choke on their ’82 Bordeaux at the mere whisper of Anthony Bourdain’s name.  I think the food snobs of the world, namely old media food critics, don’t like Bourdain because he was the first to clear out the smoke and mirrors of the “fine dining” experience.  While the old gourmands want to picture their foie gras terrine being prepared solely by the guy in fine whites with his name on the door that comes out on the floor to shake their hand and kiss their ass for a positive review, Bourdain has all along given props to the tatted up sous chef whose breath smells like whisky and dick smells like the newly-hired hostess. And he’s done it in the language of the people and for the people.

Medium Raw is a great read.  Fans of his television (and now radio) work will easily hear Bourdain’s road-worn voice narrating the always entertaining, informative stories contained within.  Just as with Kitchen Confidential, you can’t help but get wrapped up in the ride this cheap ticket to the inside track of the culinary world gives you.  Whether it is being awe struck from the pin-boning technique of the Fish Butcher at Le Bernardin or basking in the light shined on the bullshit taste buds of the rich and powerful, Anthony Bourdain gave us yet another well-made product of impeccable integrity with Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.

Mike Dobranski is a professional musician, amateur blogger, eater of good food, poker junkie, master of the inappropriate comment and bad husband to a wonderful wife.

Follow Mike and Tasting Las Vegas on Twitter at @TastingLasVegas

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6 comments to Book Review: Anthony Bourdain Cooks A Perfect ‘Medium Raw’

  • I’ve always thought the same thing about Kobe burgers, but didn’t he sit there in that foodie blogger special he did and enjoy a Kobe burger without saying anything.

    The comment about the sous chef reminded me of this.

    It took me a while to dig it up.

  • I don’t remember a Kobe burger on the food blogger episode. I’ll have to watch it again. I mean…it’s not like if someone puts a Kobe Burger down in front of me I’m going to throw it up…’s just one of the best contemporary examples of restaurants exploiting an unresearched and unknowning public.

    It must have taken you a while to dig that comic up…it was on Myspace! Wow…that’s taking me back. I have to admit….I’m pretty proud of that sous chef line. A tribute to the subject at hand.

  • You’re right. I was mixing two parts of the episode. I was thinking of the part where the grind dry aged beef for burgers.

    It was a good line.

  • laurel

    Thank you, I never comment on blogs, but I really loved this review!
    His Mcdonald’s tip is awesome to say the least :)

  • All in all, I have a hell of a lot of respect for Anthony Bourdain. He’s probably forgotten more valuable food knowledge than most of the current “Food Network Stars” have ever “learned”. When I’m at home in Vegas, “No Reservations” is required Monday night viewing for me.

    However, I have to draw the line at foie gras. IMHO it’s torture, plain and simple. If something like garvage were done to dogs and cats, most of America would be out with pitchforks and torches ready for him and the restaurants that serve foie gras. Just because it’s ducks that have to suffer doesn’t make it any less revolting for me, but that’s JMHO… And IMHO Bourdain shouldn’t call Puck a “villain” just for making the ethical decision to ditch the foie gras.

  • I think foie gras is torture too, but I’ll still eat it. Hey…I never claimed to be a model citizen!

    And I should have done a better job in the post, but I think Bourdain put Puck in the villain category more for buckling under the pressure of investors and then doing the 180 on foie gras. He doesn’t think Puck’s aversion to foie gras is solely his own. Bourdain calls him a villain and a victim in the book.

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