Nov 2010

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

About: In the ten years since his classic Kitchen Confidential first alerted us to the idiosyncrasies and lurking perils of eating out, from Monday fish to the breadbasket conspiracy, much has changed for the subculture of chefs and cooks, for the restaurant business-and for Anthony Bourdain. Medium Raw explores these changes, moving back and forth from the author’s bad old days to the present. Tracking his own strange and unexpected voyage from journeyman cook to globe-traveling professional eater and drinker, and even to fatherhood, Bourdain takes no prisoners as he dissects what he’s seen, pausing along the way for a series of confessions, rants, investigations, and interrogations of some of the most controversial figures in food. Beginning with a secret and highly illegal after-hours gathering of powerful chefs that he compares to a mafia summit, Bourdain pulls back the curtain-but never pulls his punches-on the modern gastronomical revolution, as only he can.

My thoughts: I didn’t like Bourdain very much after reading Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour back in 2007. I found his language crass, his swagger overly macho, and his attitude offputting. I eventually warmed up to him after catching a few episodes of  No Reservations. I really liked the respectful  manner in which he conducted himself while filming and feasting abroad. He represented Americans well, and it didn’t hurt that he looked good while doing it.

In the three years since I was first introduced to Bourdain, the man has truly grown on me. And after reading Medium Raw, I am downright smitten. Compared to his previous works, I found this one to be more honest and less venomous. His language is still atrocious, but Bourdain’s tremendous sense of self and sharp writing are more than enough to make up for it. I don’t know if it’s the result of him aging, his perspectives shifting, or a combination of both, but the voice that fills these pages is leaps and bounds more likable than before. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for thinking so.

Nearly every chapter contained a quotable gem or two, but my two favorites were “Heroes and Villains” and “It’s Not You, It’s Me.” In the former, Bourdain makes a somewhat random list of food personalities and humorously anoints them “hero” or “villain.” Jonathan Gold is a hero, as are Ariane Daguin, Grant Achatz, and Jamie Oliver. Villains include Gael Greene, Wolfgang Puck, and the James Beard House. You’ll have to read the book for his witty rationalizations.

The chapter that got me thinking was “It’s Not You, It’s Me,” where he discusses his falling out with fine dining and tasting menus. Bourdain asserts that multi-course meals should be judged based on how one feels afterward. I still find pleasure in gut-busting feasts, so I’m on the fence about whether or not that’s fair, but I expect my perspective will change with time, just as Bourdain’s did. In support of his argument, he brings up unladylike topics like suppressed farts and pooping truffles. Get the book for the gritty details.

This book is a superb read for anyone who loves restaurants, chefs, and the business of food. It’s been over a year since I’ve read a food book worthy of mentioning on the site, so the fact that Medium Raw made the cut speaks volumes.

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10 thoughts on “Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook – Anthony Bourdain

  1. Cathy, I’m happy to hear that you found Medium Raw as enjoyable as I did. What set this one apart from his previous works was his brutal honesty about a lot of things.

    It’s depressing to think that anyone over the age of 35 is more than likely going to get schooled if they tried to drop everything to become a cook, or (God forbid) a professional chef. Anyone thinking of getting into the business owes it to themselves to read this book, if for nothing else – that chapter.

    What I admire most about Bourdain is his ability to say “You know, I was wrong about (insert person or thing here). Now that I know them better, I’ve had a change of heart.” He even admits that when he looks back at that younger version of him – the snarky kid who wrote Kitchen Confidential – he wants to bitch slap some sense into him.

    I have a love/hate thing with Bourdain – like an older brother. I’ll go through phases where I really like what he’s doing, only to be followed by him saying something ridiculous or arrogant and suddenly he’s back on my sh*t list again. He’s had less than kind things to say about food bloggers, but backs it up with praise not soon after.

  2. I need to pick up a copy of this book. I fell for Bourdain’s antics through watching No Reservations. It wasn’t until this year that I finally picked up Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour, and I loved them both. Thanks for the review!

  3. You just convinced me to buy the book. Particularly for the ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ chapter. I think I’m going to agree. There have been some meals we’ve been through at ‘gastro temples’ where at the end I’ve been just bilious at the end (Pierre Gagnaire, raise your hand :))

  4. Want to get the book just for “It’s not you, it’s me!” After last Monday at Scarpetta, I had to re-evaluate my standing with tasting menus.

    Thanks for writing about this book—if not for you I wouldn’t even have known about its existence!

  5. The chapter (I think it’s number 18) where he shadows the fish prepper for Le Bernadin is AMAZING. Best chapter of any of his books.

  6. James – Agreed! That chapter was a seriously sweet read. It kind of made me happy knowing that someone in the restaurant biz had health insurance and was paid well 😉

  7. Mike read this and I just couldn’t get through it, but I breezed through and enjoyed “Kitchen Confidential” and “A Cook’s Tour”. I thought his crass style suited alot of what he was describing in Kitchen Confidential, but I love that when he is abroad and he finds a culture he loves, despite it being so different from his norm he turns into the best version of himself. His joy just comes through all the pessimism. Personally, I like that someone with his language and personality is showing us (esp. through his show) new places, his appreciation of them seems more genuine.

    Blah blah blah, I’m tired, so I hope that all made sense.

  8. Gastronomer, I will defintely check this book out as I start my culinary degree. I’ll go back to read kitchen confidential first. I was also writing a paper on Vietnamese Garde Manger for a class and found your blog very useful. Don’t worry, I cited. Have a good day.

  9. I had the opportunity to shoot some images for an editorial piece in a travel publication about the show No Reservations when he was in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
    You are right in stating that he is very respectful to the locals that he interacted with. Alot more could be said of some other celebs that come here.
    He is also a very likable character. Self-deprecating and funny but also very serious about his travels.
    The only thing I found fault about meeting him was that he chose Laksa as the ultimate hangover dish over Pho!

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