- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2010

MEDIUM RAW: A BLOODY VALENTINE TO THE WORLD OF FOOD AND THE PEOPLE WHO COOK
By Anthony Bourdain
HarperCollins, $26.99, 281 pages

”Kitchen Confidential” not only made Anthony Bourdain famous, it led to “No Reservations,” his informative, irreverent and thoroughly enjoyable

show on the Travel Channel. In its review of the 10-year-old book, New York magazine said “Kitchen Confidential” was “utterly riveting, swaggering with stylish machismo, and a precise ear for kitchen patois.” True, true and more true, and “Medium Raw,” his latest, is a worthy sequel.

It will not, however, appeal to all readers, even some dedicated foodies, because despite the catchy title, while it is seldom “medium” in its treatment of anything or anybody, it is consistently “raw.”

The book opens with a scene so grandiose as to stagger the imagination: Under cover of darkness (11 p.m.), a group of the country’s most distinguished and celebrated chefs - 12 men and one woman - gather in answer to a mysterious invitation.

“Like me,” writes Mr. Bourdain, once renowned for his cooking at Les Halles in Manhattan, “they were summoned by a trusted friend to this late-night meeting at this celebrated New York restaurant for ambiguous reasons under conditions of utmost secrecy. They have been told, as I was, not to tell anyone of this gathering. It goes without saying that none of us will blab about it later.

“Well … I guess that’s not exactly true.”

Mr. Bourdain will blab about it because Anthony Bourdain is a world-class blabbermouth. He is also a world-class potty-mouth, but more about that later. First, let us return to his account of the gastronomic heaven served to this Olympian gathering that he calls a “Who’s Who of the top tier of cooking in America today. If a gas leak blew up this building? Fine dining as we know it would be wiped out in one stroke. Ming Tsai would be the guest judge on every episode of ‘Top Chef,’ and Bobby Flay and Mario Batali would be left to carve up Vegas among themselves.”

After noshing while sipping extraordinary wine, the guests take their seats. And then the (unnamed) host enters the room from a far door.

“It’s like that scene in ‘The Godfather,’ where Marlon Brando welcomes the representatives of the five families. I almost expect our host to begin with ‘I’d like to thank our friends the Tattaglias … and our friends from Brooklyn ….’ It’s a veritable Appalachian Conference. By now, word of what we’re about to eat is getting around the table, ratcheting up the level of excitement.

“There is a welcome - and a thank-you to the person who procured what we are about to eat (and successfully smuggled it into the country). There is a course of ravioli in consomme (quite wonderful) and a civet of wild hare. But these go by in a blur.”

Then they are served - each in its own cast-iron cocotte - the specialty of the evening, Ortolan, the little bird so famous and dear (“upwards of 250 bucks a pop in France”) for its exquisite taste, and rumored to be what French President Francois Mitterrand chose for his last meal.

If you are a birdwatcher but not a bird-eater, or a vegan, or a member of PETA, you might want to stop reading this book at this point. Those who choose to read on are in for a treat, albeit hardly as rare a one as the feast the author describes so well and lovingly. The intro is a small tour de force, not just of food writing, but of descriptive writing in general.

Then, and this is one of the many things I love about the writing and the television work of this outre personality, he switches gears, way down to low, and flashes back to a time before his glory days at Les Halles. He was working a lunch counter at a joint on Columbus Avenue when he looked up to see the familiar face of a girl he knew and lusted after in college. While she had already become semi-famous in New York, Mr. Bourdain had not. He prays she won’t look his way.

“Her gaze passed over me; there was a brief moment of recognition - and sadness. But in the end she was merciful. She pretended not to have seen.”

Mr. Bourdain does this throughout the book: Just when you think he’s gone off on a shameful ego trip (to which he is entitled) he brings himself down with a self-deprecating anecdote. It’s refreshing.

Also refreshing is the way he treats the gods and demigods of a business that now takes itself way too seriously. By the book’s end, Mr. Bourdain has told us, in sparkling prose, why he loves David Chang but not Rachel Ray, and Daniel Bolud and Thomas Keller, but to a lesser degree Alice Waters, Mario Batali, Emeril and Gordon Ramsey. That’s only the tip of his love-hate iceberg.

Along the way, the Culinary Institute of America grad offers the heretical advice that aspiring chefs should not go to cooking school. Why not? Because in these economically parlous times it would probably take far too long for the $40,000 to $60,000 student-loan debt to prove worth the investment. He also suggests many wonderful places to eat, in cities as different as New York and Hanoi and his new love, Vietnam. There’s a chapter-long tribute to one of his favorite foods, the American hamburger, a chapter on marrying and having a child after almost 50 years of bachelorhood, a great one on Alice Waters, and a must-read chapter on his personal “Heroes and Villains” (Sample: Fergus Henderson, hero; Gael Greene, villain).

As you have probably concluded by now, I am a Bourdainophile, but I have to temper my enthusiasm by noting that while I don’t think I’ll ever be mistaken for a prude, I found his over-reliance on crude words and phrases cumulatively distasteful. When an author can write as well and as engagingly and with true talent as Anthony Bourdain clearly can, why use so many ugly words and phrases? I believe spice works best when used sparingly.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.


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