Ten years after the publication of Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain returns with the follow-up to that bestselling book with Medium Raw, a more tempered look at the food profession he seems to love and revile in almost equal measure.
Kitchen Confidential was a revelation at the time. A misanthropic Catcher in the Rye character who spills the beans on all the hypocrisies of the gradually burgeoning food industry. Ten years later Bourdain in Medium Raw is part of that grand hypocrisy, and he seems a little more adult in his assessment of it. Thankfully, selling out does not mean he does not speak his mind. He is the same man given to express himself in lyrical hyperbole, but like Swift there is a purpose behind the exaggeration, and he uses it to great effect. He starts with a description of a clandestine gathering of the world's great chefs for an illicit meal, the main dish an endangered bird of the Finch species, the Ortolan. He wonders why he is in this select group as he savors what he describes as food porn.
This doubt runs throughout the book as a theme. Bouradain is a perennial outsider and that's why he is such an interesting and illuminating writer. Never feeling comfortable in the status quo, he is able to cast an inquisitory eye on the cult of celebrity that has come to be associated with cooking these days.
Reflecting back on his upbringing, there is no trauma or suffering in his childhood. It seems a need for stimulation and excitement takes the young Vassar student into the world of haute cuisine and then into a descending spiral of drug and alcohol dependency. While Kitchen Confidential caught the angry young man in midstream, today Bourdain, happily married and the father of young girl, no longer cares to indulge the mortal dangers of being cool. As he describes in his book, his daughter has exorcised those demons, and now he seems to savor becoming square to avoid becoming the embarrassment of a cooler than thou parent.
Some reviewers have wondered out loud why he is still so irascible or others alternatively why he is now part of the grand compromise, but I think they miss the point. With Bourdain it was always about being honest. His situation has changed, and he is now part of the Food Network, the faceless conglomerate he so hated, but by becoming part of it he still asks those around him to not take themselves so seriously, to be real.
The alternative rebel and adult engage in a fierce debate throughout the book. He offers an admonitory chapter on the real seductions of becoming a chef. He describes the frightening challenges of running a profitable restaurant in economically difficult times. He rails against vegetarians like George Orwell once did, but in a far more livid way. The chapters that describe the suicidal man he was following a divorce, the addiction to hard drugs, are now tempered by the need to live for someone else. Now his concerns are mainstream. The shock at the way the meat industry delivers their product to our supermarkets and his careful counter programing of his daughter against the seductive marketing of Macdonalds.
Yes, he is tamer, but don't be fooled: he is not by any means domesticated. A whole chapter entitled "Alan Richman Is a Douche Bag" skewers the GQ food writer for an infraction you can read about in greater detail in this wonderfully entertaining book.