Review of Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain, A Guy I Should Hate But Don't
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain (HarperCollins 2010).
I should detest Anthony Bourdain, but I can't.
It's obvious he's trafficking in some myth-making whoppers. He loves to talk about how he wrote his bestseller Kitchen Confidential for an audience of several dozen tri-state cooks, but that can’t be right. Before KC, Bourdain wrote several books which bombed and which were, until recently, kept on the down low. He was aiming for the bleachers with KC, no doubt concerned it was his last chance to become a professional writer.
Bourdain also plays a middle-class tune which I loathe: the safely domesticated former bad boy. The fact that the rebel is now a mortgage-paying, married dad makes dullards feel that their conformist life "choices" are validated. The feeling is reinforced by the underlying Bourdain motif that, no matter where his journeys take him, he always goes home, which -- as every mainstream movie tells you -- is the best place of all.
Bourdain's discussion of drugs is cagy. He emphasizes on his television show that his druggie ways are in the past -- not 100% true, I suspect, based on a few hints dropped in his most recent book, the goes-down-like-chocolate Medium Raw -- so that the drug use is not threatening to an audience that becomes more uptight as it ages. Tony would not be the toast of basic cable if his shows consisted of him hitting a new town, figuring out how to score and then filming inside a shooting gallery as he and a bunch of local chef smackheads chase the dragon.
It's also taken the guy -- who portrays himself as bravely and recklessly honest -- years to admit his whoremongering, which makes an appearance in the new book. Bourdain’s instinct for his audience must have told him that, in order to become accepted by the women who buy food books, he needed to keep that one in his pocket until his celebrity was firmly established. As it currently stands, he won't describe his assignations in any detail, and he won't admit that banging hookers was fun. He colors it as shameful, which is what women want to hear.
Eric Bogosian performs a sketch where he plays a pompous older rockstar giving an interview, and the character says, "The thing with drugs is that you're having such a good time that you don't realize what a bad time you're having." Bourdain recites similar lines.
Bourdain did coke and heroin and crack and banged hookers and lived a nocturnal, outside-of-society existence because it was, to a significant extent, enjoyable and rewarding and what he wanted to do. But that's not something he wants to admit now to the audience that pays for his luxe existence and allows him to travel in culinary circles to which his talent would never admit him.
So I should hate, detest, loathe, vilify him.
But I can't. Bourdain’s too likeable. His writing is too zesty. His show is exceptional. And he comes closer to explaining and exemplifying my attitudes than anybody else with a mass audience. There's no principle or value or logic that justifies Bourdain's exclusion from the expanding pantheon of People I Hate. It's just the way it is.
I give the guy a pass because he's the closest to me I can find on TV.
With that out of the way, all I’ll say about Medium Raw is that it pushes the Bourdain shtick half a step forward, and it’s a perfect airplane or beach read. Here’s a couple paragraphs on various topics, to let you test if Tony is your cup of tea or braised beef shoulder or, hey, you don’t need my help with food metaphors:
● Overpriced, hip restaurants: The Ciprianis, along with a few other operators and imitators, made, a long while back, a remarkable discovery: that rich international fucktards like to hang out with each other and eat marginally decent Italian food – and are willing to pay for the privilege. Better yet, all the people who wanted to look like they, too, are rich international fucktards will want to get in on the action as well. That’s the customer base that dreams are made of. If you go to Harry’s Bar in Venice, you get a pretty good plate of food – and the Bellinis are just fine. They just cost a fuck of a lot. But they do treat you courteously and it is Venice out the window – and everything’s expensive anyway. I’m guessing the Ciprianis figured out that if this model worked in Venice, it would work in New York. That maybe twenty-nine bucks for a bowl of spaghetti with red sauce is perfectly reasonable.
● Nueva York: Spanish is the language of the early morning in Manhattan. At the bagel place where I get my coffee, everybody, customers and counter help alike, are papi or flaco or hermano -- or addressed by country of origin. Doesn’t matter if Spanish is even your language. At this hour, it’s what’s spoken. It’s how things are done. The Bengali shop owner, the few American suits – everybody addresses each other in one form or another of Spanish. That’s who’s up and working this time of the morning and who owns this part of the day: the doormen from the nearby apartment buildings, the porters, the nannies on the way to work, the construction guys sent out on a coffee run, the dishwashers and early-arriving restaurant help, they greet each other with the familiar nicknames. If they don’t recognize a face, they ask, in Spanish, “Qué paí?”
● The Economics of Cheese: Cheese is expensive. Very expensive. And perishable. And delicate. Properly aged, stored, served, and handled cheese is even more expensive. Every time you cut into an intact cheese, its time on this earth becomes limited. Every time you pull one out of the special refrigerated cave it lives in, you are killing it slowly. Every time you return it, partially served, back to the refrigerator, you are also killing it. Whichever employee is serving your cheese? Every uneven cut, every pilfered slice or smear can pretty much end any possibility of a return on your investment. In fact, to properly serve a reasonably excellent selection of cheeses – always at their peak ripeness and at proper temperatures – one almost must accept the imperative of throwing a lot of it out sooner or later, or find a way to use it elsewhere. And the more varieties of cheese you offer, the less likely you will be able to merchandise all of the remnants as ingenious appetizers.
● Kobe Hamburgers Are a Rip-off: What makes a Wagyu steak so desirable is the unbelievably prodigious marbling of fat that runs through it – often as much as 50 percent. Its resulting tenderness and richness, and the subtle – repeat -- subtle flavor. When grinding a hamburger, you can put in as much fat as you like – just reach in the fat can and drop it in the machine – so there’s no reason to pay a hundred bucks for a burger. A burger, presumably, already is about as tender as a piece of meat can be – and a taste as subtle as real Wagyu’s would, in any case, be lost were you to do something so insensitive as bury it between two buns and slather it with ketchup.
● Fresh French Bread: Six o’clock in the morning is when the pains raisins come out, and already the customers are lining up in the dark outside this tiny Parisian boulangerie waiting for the first batch. The baguettes are ready – piping-hot from the brick oven, fabulously, deliberately ugly and uneven in shape, slashed crudely across the top. They’re too hot to eat but you grab one anyway, tearing it open gingerly, then dropping two fingers full of butter inside. It instantly melts into liquid – running into the grooves and inner spaces of white interior. You grab it like a sandwich and bite, teeth making a cracking sound as you crunch through the crust. You haven’t eaten since yesterday lunch, your palate is asleep and just not ready for so much sensation. The reaction is violent. It hurts. Butter floods your head and you think for a second you’re going to black out.
I like Anthony Bourdain so much that I’ll overlook the repetition and the malformed sentences. I like him so much I’ll ignore the fact that his riff on bread in the morning is a reworking of the last page of Bright Lights, Big City. Although I make it a point to detest anyone who tries too hard to be likeable, A.B.’s OK in my book.