Monday, March 07, 2011

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

Anthony Bourdain has mellowed and matured, and I hope this is his last memoir. For the uninitiated, he is best known for Kitchen Confidential (2000), which was angry, bitter, salty, and hilarious. Medium Raw is an older, wiser, and more thoughtful book than the former chef’s first foray into non-fiction.

Just as Bourdain ripped off the kitchen door, he pulls back the curtains to reveal the business of bestselling books, hit TV shows, and the real financial implications of not endorsing pots and pans. Selling out? Perhaps, but is that even possible anymore? While that is another discussion for another day, Bourdain makes it clear that he, and many of his peers, are passed their best-by date when it comes to professional cooking. The long hours, physical demands, not to mention the strain on personal relationships make this a young person’s game—and good luck to them. But then what? Well, you write, you endorse, and hope to save some money for your golden years. In this way he gives us a solid reality check.

The Angry One also recognizes that he has become a dancing monkey for media and foodies alike. Producers, PR, and their kin like talent that can be easily categorized and counted on for sound bites and pot stirring; hence pitting Bourdain against Jonathan Safran Foer (author of Eating Animals) on CBC’s Q. Foodies, like music fans, should want chefs to evolve and be influenced by new things and ideas. Yet Bourdain recants some the vitriol dished out in Kitchen Confidential (and elsewhere). Case in point on page 149: “Jamie Oliver is a hero.”

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: they’re both dads now. In an earlier chapter, the man who seems to eat anything redirects his piss and vinegar toward a much more worthy adversary: McDonalds. Say what you want about making money, travelling, eating, and living the high life, I doubt very much if he would have even thought about talking about the fast-food chain in an earlier book unless he’d worked there. Now that he has a little girl, who is McDonalds’ prime target market, Bourdain recognizes that he has a fight on his hands—a real one this time.

But it’s not just kids. Elsewhere he bemoans people’s inability to actually make a meal and argues that cooking must be made to be a necessary skill—not a fetishized or rarefied one. What I think foodie culture has done is made people want convenience food even more. When folks drone on about coq au vin with sautéed wild mushroom with a petite anglais tomate, then people go running to the freezer aisle. Hell, I would...right after I shoved the coq up the geezer’s vin. As Bourdain points out, cooking’s easy. Roast chicken is a snap. Deglazing the pan to make sauce, child’s play. Rarefying it, however, takes a special type of snob.

Bourdain is not a snob. He has, however, told his story. He’s a great and passionate food and travel writer. Kitchen Confidential was relentless, Cook's Tour was authentic, and even his cookbook Les Halles was salty and worth reading beyond the recipes (which are easy and fantastic). Now I want to read what he has to say about other things. Medium Raw is a satisfying last course at Chez Bourdain.

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