More Bark Than Bite

Bourdain’s new book Medium Raw exposes more than kitchens

*find this article at the Daily Vanguard site here

If you’ve ever watched Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations, you’ve seen his callous New York exterior break down slowly with the addition of alcohol and life-changing food at the end of the episode. We’ve all seen it—Bourdain sets his fork down, looks around a crowded room of Italians, Vietnamese or Nigerians and his eyes get glassy. He pontificates about how this is what it’s all about—the colors, the flavors, the families and the people.

Bourdain’s new book Medium Raw reads a little like a conversation with an (articulate) drunk—soft and contemplative at times, and at others, the randomness of subject matter seems to come from almost nowhere, but is always interesting nonetheless.

Over the years, Bourdain has made quite a stir in the food world, beginning with his dirty exposé Kitchen Confidential. His food-driven travels have taken him to every imaginable corner of the globe, but that’s hardly how he’s made his name. His unrelenting opinions have likely been the cause of many lost fans—and gained supporters— along the way. After all, who isn’t on Bourdain’s shit list?

What brings life to his new book is the fact that, yes, Bourdain’s tough guy act is present, and he is still calling people out (in fact, he has an entire chapter devoted to the people he does and doesn’t like), but he also spends time pointing out the flaws in his own logic. It’s easy to hate a bully, but a bully with a conscience as well as an intelligent, funny voice? Not a chance.

This is not to say that Bourdain’s book is a memoir about how he is actually a big softie who watches Food Network all day hugging a teddy bear, but we do get to see a side of him that usually appears only during those last five to 10 minutes of No Reservations.

At one point, he mentions how completely unforgivable it is to be disrespectful to anyone waiting on you. He gives his parents credit and admits they are not to blame for his disgruntled nature, and he devotes an entire chapter to being a dad and how today he is less concerned with “coolness.”

Like a drunk, though, the topics and tones in his book are scattered. They do fall under the subtitle “A bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook,” but vary so drastically that sometimes the book doesn’t feel cohesive. Each chapter reads more like a well-crafted essay on topics related to food instead of a thread of stories that relate back to Bourdain himself. One chapter spends time discussing the disgusting way ground beef is being produced in America, one gets into the mind of bizarre yet brilliant chef David Chang, and another revisits an old girlfriend and his chaotic time with her on St. Barths.

Luckily, Bourdain’s tone is not like a rambling, incoherent drunk, but one that thoughtfully and unapologetically discusses several ideas on the average food-lover’s mind today.

He ignites interesting questions about the significance of cooking in today’s time: “When we finally closed down home ec, maybe we missed an opportunity. Instead of shutting down compulsory cooking classes for women, maybe we would have been better off simply demanding that men learn how to cook, too.”

Vegetarians, do not jump up too quick, Bourdain is not a fully transformed man. While he spends a lot of time discussing his beliefs in the kind treatment of animals, he also says, “I don’t care what you do in your home, but the idea of a vegetarian traveler in comfortable shoes waving away the hospitality—of say, a Vietnamese pho vendor (or Italian mother-in-law, for that matter) fills me with sputtering indignation.”

Sure, sometimes he goes off track and gets a little heavy with his food descriptions (one chapter is devoted to just these), but the hard on the outside and gooey on the inside nature of Bourdain’s personality makes us feel that he is exactly the kind of drunk you want to be around.

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One thought on “More Bark Than Bite

  1. Although I don’t worship the man, I like him. His book “Kitchen Confidential” made me laugh out loud, on a 14 hour cramped plane ride- which is a hard feat. When I went to Vietnam, I was hesitant to eat street food and I would say that watching a lot of his shows and seeing his passion for the food really helped me over come that fear and have a lot better time eating in Thailand (except you never see him sitting over the toilet a couple of hours later…). And I do agree, when they offered me food out of the generosity of their own hearts and it had meat, I ate it!
    Thanks for this review, Kat! I didn’t know he had a new book out. I’m adding it to my library list!

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