Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain
Yes, of course, it is a book about food. And some of Bourdain’s descriptions of culinary wonders make me sigh. But, in Medium Raw, it’s not only about the food because, now, Bourdain shares his experiences as a new “professional traveler, writer, and TV guy.” It’s less about food than it is about growing up, becoming more of a man than a chef, and being enraged and humbled by a huge industry that disparages food by commercializing and sensationalizing it (Rachel Ray, he’s talking about you and the Food Network here). Using food in this way rubs Bourdain the wrong way and we get to hear about it, even though he’s also had a hand in becoming pretty well-off by touting tasty morsels himself. But, contradictions aside, if you’re familiar with Bourdain then you know lots of things rub him the wrong way and reading his mental crucifixions of others he holds in disdain can be quite entertaining. There were a few times I thought, “Wait. You just called _______ a what??? You know who he/she is, right? He/she is like the king/queen of food!” Bourdain pulls no punches and that in part is why he is so entertaining to read. That, and the man can write.
He, of Kitchen Confidential fame – and much like that preceding look into the restaurant industry – spends much of this book brandishing his pen (or keyboard) like a knife, slashing deep into the food/restaurant industry, into the character of well-chosen others, and into his own. He’s at times painfully self-aware. (Which is probably a good thing: otherwise he might be dead.)
But it is his brashness in naming names that left me slack-jawed and wondering if any liable suits (or contract hits) are pending against him. For example, in his “Heroes and Villains” chapter, some of his “villains” are high-powered and famous enough that even I recognize their names. And, because he is such an effective writer, his villains are now mine and I’m sure other readers feel the same (sorry, Wolfgang Puck). I love the equal attention he gives to his “heroes,” though, and he’s influenced my opinion of these personalities as well. Jamie Oliver’s work with kids and nutrition in schools is rightly heralded. And, Terrance Brennan, whom I’d not heard of before, has done highly courageous things with cheese. I love cheese.
Unlike Kitchen Confidential, (a book I enjoyed immensely and highly recommend), however, Bourdain shows some vulnerable humanness that I was relieved to see he’d developed. He’s married now; has an “adored only child.” Perhaps it is because of these personal milestones that his writing actually resonated with me quite deeply on several occasions. He tells an anecdote, as an example, about a deeply-respected friend of his, who is an English chef whose austere restaurant and conceived-of-the-wild-things recipes have inspired many others but who is nonetheless quiet, unfashionable, and awkward. Bourdain worried that because of these qualities a group of young culinary students would not show him the respect he richly deserved. But they honored him appropriately and I felt Bourdain’s relief that they had done so and I was left quite humbled and encouraged. (After reading Kitchen Confidential, I never could have conceived of feeling “humbled” or “encouraged” by Bourdain!) This particular story also made me want to watch “Pride of the Yankees” which I’ve never seen.
Another story, the chapter on Justo Thomas, the fishcutter/cleaner/scaler at Le Bernardin – the pre-eminent fish restaurant in Manhattan – educated me and touched me. When Bourdain was given permission to take Justo to lunch at the restaurant and actually sit and eat in the main dining area (which he had never done in the 20 years he had worked there) and when he described what they ate and drank and Justo’s reactions, tears welled up. And I love that Bourdain understood that it was important to note that Justo’s perfect day would include a dance with his wife. This is a chapter that could stand alone; it doesn’t need at all the support of the rest of this very, very good book. It exemplifies how Mr. Bourdain has gained the courage to let his sensitivity and vulnerability – his heart – show. It depicts how an already naturally-talented writer can become even better by casting off some of the longstanding chips on his shoulder. He has definitely not turned into a softie by any stretch: he’s crude and overuses some obviously favored four-letter words (understatement and understatement). But he’s also worldly and interesting and doesn’t come across (hardly ever) as a food – or any other type of – snob. In fact, he often seems to see the decadent world in which he finds himself ludicrous and uppity. But he himself is not and I like that a lot.
Plus, I like the places I get to travel in this book. Having been to Hanoi , for example, and having experienced its frenetic pace and its delicious vegetable-based meals garnished with various meats and fish, I understood Bourdain’s rapture as he described it. I am in love with the place, too, and can’t wait to go back. “Everyone – everyone, it seems – is young and either on the way to eat, returning from eating, or eating at this very minute, absolutely choking the sidewalks on low plastic stools, filling the open-to-the street shop houses, slurping noodles or nibbling on delicious-looking bits, drinking Bia Hanoi, the fresh beer of Hanoi, with varying degrees of joy and seriousness of intent.” He goes into describing the pho using sexual metaphors equating the incomparable soup to, well, other delights. And, he’s right, it is good, so good. To have a bowl of pho, I think, is reason enough to visit Hanoi. (That, and the immense sense of accomplishment that comes from learning how to cross the street after five days of dread.)
If you enjoy Bourdain’s snarky style and adept story-telling read this book. But, read it, especially, if you love travelling and eating.
A few other books which weave together travel and food and self-discovery which I have enjoyed:
Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford
The Sharper the Knife the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World’s Most-Famous Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn
My Life in France by Julia Child and Paul Prudhomme.
(Oh, and you have to see “Mostly Martha!” A German film, with English subtitles. Germany but mostly Italy. It is worlds better than the American remake, “No Reservations.” Anthony Bourdain agrees.)