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The Cook's Tale

Anthony Bourdain returns with another round of unexpurgated gastronomic musings

Alex Fine

By Neil Ferguson | Posted 6/16/2010

It's 10 years since Anthony Bourdain delivered Kitchen Confidential, the "obnoxious, over-testosteroned account of my life in the restaurant business" as he told The Observer in 2006. A classic of its kind, Confidential was a pugnacious, take-no-prisoners look into the murky world of restaurant kitchens and the misfits and miscreants who inhabit them. Above all, it was brilliantly written and had the ring of truth--a memoir/rant by one of the culinary world's foot soldiers, a battle-scarred veteran who'd done his time and lived to tell the frequently sordid and salacious tale. Cooks across the globe raised their glasses in recognition of one of their own, and Bourdain became a celebrity of sorts, a role model for wannabe bad boy chefs, as inspired by the Stooges and the Ramones as Thomas Keller or Wylie DuFresne.

Things have changed now and not always for the better. Celebrity chefs are ubiquitous, and the internet is awash with web sites where culinary crypto-fascists debate the relative merits of goose fat and pork belly with a fervor that verges on the maniacal. The Food Network grows ever more gargantuan, threatening to drown us all in a vast ocean of crapulent mediocrity. Trends come and go like so much foodie flotsam and jetsam (molecular gastronomy, sous vide, "foams" with everything, etc.), and it feels as though you can barely move without bumping into some tattooed Bourdain acolyte with questionable social skills and a penchant for boudin noir.

This is the situation in which you find the man himself in Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (Ecco), stepping back into the gastronomic arena and letting rip as he sees fit, in a series of, for the most part, hugely entertaining essays on everything from the dubious nature of gourmet burgers, interminable multi-course tasting menus, and why GQ's venerable food critic, Alan Richman, is such a "douchebag."

There's a refreshing candor throughout, mingled with a heavy dose of guilt. Bourdain frequently launches preemptive strikes against himself, in order to ward off critics and chefs who see him as a sell out. Looking back at the success of Kitchen Confidential he writes:

This strain of self-loathing is nothing new. Bourdain has always given himself a hard time over his writing (and TV travel) exploits, viewing it as little more than a cheap hustle, less honorable than the noble art of cooking--the irony being that he's arguably a far more accomplished writer than he ever was a chef. He frequently resembles nothing so much as the subject of Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime," given to frequent exclamations of, "Well, how did I get here?"

Light relief of sorts comes when he gets down to celebrating his heroes (the likes of English chef Fergus Henderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Weekly food writer Jonathan Gold, author and old-school gourmand Jim Harrison), and tearing apart villains: the Food Network's head honcho Brooke Johnson, the pretentious Alain Ducasse ("an arrogant fuckwit who nearly ruined it for all of us"), and the aforementioned Alan Richman, primarily for attacking New Orleans and its inhabitants for being decadent libertines who basically got what they deserved when Katrina hit.

He's particularly good when he takes on "the Mother of Slow Food," the sanctimonious Alice Waters. While he basically agrees with much of Waters' philosophy of seasonal ingredients and sustainable farming, he's also incensed by her frequent disconnect from real life, her apparent assumption that everyone can afford to live the Whole Foods lifestyle, while those who can't, "can eat like a fucking Russian peasant." Well-intentioned she may be, but, as Bourdain succinctly points out:

Elsewhere, Bourdain writes with particular elegance and passion on the perfect meal (hint: it's got precious little to do with the latest Michelin-starred wonder boy and his dizzying array of infusions and reductions), and celebrates the artisans and borderline obsessives who spend a lifetime perfecting the ultimate noodle, or who take quiet pride in their ability to fillet and portion several hundred pounds of fish each day for one of New York's top restaurants.

And it's not all rage and bluster--Bourdain has obviously mellowed, as he finds time to forgive the likes of Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay, although extending the hand of friendship to the irritatingly perma-chirpy Rachael Ray is a step too far; clearly decades of pot smoking have clouded his critical faculties somewhat.

Part of this new-found equanimity might be down to his late arrival to fatherhood, the experience of which fills a couple of essays within the book--essays, incidentally, which offer arguably the book's only real weak points, if only because it's almost scientifically impossible to write about parenthood without nauseating non-parents and sounding insufferably smug. Still, it's a minor quibble in what remains a vastly enjoyable, pithily written example of Anthony Bourdain at the top of his game.

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