Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain

Medium Raw
by Anthony Bourdain

I regularly refer to Anthony Bourdain as Mr. Bourdain. Not Tony, not Anthony — Mr. Bourdain. Because he’s an attractive older gentleman with whom I regularly schedule TV watching dates so that I can hear him talk about all there is to see in the world. He could go to Antarctica and be bundled up to his eyeballs, but as long as there’s a voice over, my brain melts into happy goo. Girly gushing or not, that’s just the way it is.

So perhaps that’s why his books aren’t as satisfying as the TV show No Reservations — Yes, the books are well-written, and yes, his writing voice is much like his speaking voice, but the words on the page don’t quite do it justice. I plow through the text, enjoying it all, but only 95% of the way. Perhaps I should do the audiobook version instead, but then I don’t have the satisfaction of holding the book. A combo? That seems like an awful lot of work for that 5%.

Still, that shouldn’t deter anyone from picking up Mr. Bourdain’s latest offering Medium Raw. Detailing portions of his life after Kitchen Confidential (and explaining some of what he said in that previous book), he talks about his transition from “the bad old days” of drug addiction into the life of a happily married (and happily employed ) man with a small child. “Life does not suck,” he regularly says.

Like a lot of things in my life, there’s no making it prettier just ‘cause time’s passed. It happened. It was bad. There it is.

In some ways he glosses over his personal life because, while it may inform where he is today, what he’d rather talk about is food and the people who make it, review it, and influence how we consume it. With time passed, he goes into more detail about his issues with Food Network and their culture of mediocrity.

And it’s true — six years ago, I would gladly laze about and watch Sara Moulton chop an onion. Two Fat Ladies? Hilarious. That network partially taught me how to cook. But now? There are so many other things I’d rather do than watch Sandra Lee or Guy Fieri massacre another dish. The Neeleys make my skin crawl, as does Paula Deen’s spackled-on make-up (though she seems like a perfectly nice lady). I will admit to catching Iron Chef America and occasional episodes of Ace of Cakes, but that’s about it. In some cases it’s not just mediocre, but downright terrible, disguised in shinier packaging. Somehow, it still sells. Like Mr. Bourdain, I find it puzzling and disappointing.

He also tackles the changes in the fine dining industry with relation to the economy. People are much less willing to drop hundreds or even thousands of dollars on bottles of wine at dinner, and that’s where the money is. Bills are paid and top of the line ingredients are purchased because of those high markup wine sales. The profit margin is significantly smaller on the food, especially once it’s trimmed to perfection. The business model is changing.

If there’s a new and lasting credo from the Big Shakeout, it’s this: people will continue to pay for quality. They will be less and less inclined, however, to pay for bullshit.

I couldn’t agree more — and that goes for any industry. Make good product and price yourself accordingly. Know your worth and be honest.

And speaking of bullshit, Bourdain does not hesitate to call it out amongst critics. Snobbery, currying unwarranted favor and writing unflattering reviews based on personal agendas are his main complaints.

Shortly before Medium Raw was published, Esquire food writer John Mariani wrote a brutal review online (“Once he was a valuable demolisher of culinary pretension; now he is a fanatic seeking to shore up his own sick TV persona.”), but at no point in his commentary did he mention that he was portrayed unflatteringly in the book. Here’s an excerpt of the passage:

Take John Mariani, the professional junketeer over at Esquire, whose “likes and dislikes” (shower cap in his comped hotel, attractive waitresses, car service) are mysteriously communicated, as if telepathically, to chefs before his arrival. (Motherfucker hands out pre-printed recipe cards on arrival, with instructions on how to prepare his cocktail of choice — a daiquiri.)

Sounds like someone is having trouble with his own culinary pretension being made public.

The book is not all criticism, however. Bourdain offers plenty of praise for the people he sees as heroes in the food world. From big names like Eric Ripert and Mario Batali, who regularly give to charity, to LA Weekly food writer Jonathan Gold, who consistently writes well and with respect. He talks to rising chef David Chang about his various neuroses and aspirations, and finds out just what happens after you lose on Top Chef.

It’s a good book, a funny book, and one that anyone even remotely interested in food should read. Maybe next time, I’ll make a date with the audiobook too.

Book #31/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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