Dishing it Out

By Nancy Powell

Posted October 14, 2010 in Arts & Culture

There Anthony Bourdain sits, front and center against a blue brick wall with a glass of Guinness perhaps, hands caressing a rusted chef’s knife, dark suit and tie, looking dead serious, deathly uncomfortable and resigned all at the same time. You could almost see the expression “Why am I here?” flashing across his face as well as all the bombastic cruelty he has so valiantly dished out against the very celebs whose club he has now joined: sell-out, sell-out, sell-out.

As bad boy, anti-establishment hero, a.k.a. the punk rocker of the culinary world, Anthony Bourdain, has grown up—maybe not grown up as much as accepted his poor I-get-to–travel-where-I-want-and-eat-what-I-want-guy lot in life. He has joined the ranks of Emeril, Mario and Bobby, the guys he took very vicious potty-mouth aim at in Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain’s new tell-all is no less brash as it is boring and vaguely apologetic towards that inner circle which he now inhabits. His no-holds-barred schtick, while still comical to say the least—and Bourdain is too good a writer to totally sell-out—has diminished a tad bit since the good old days when Kitchen Confidential was the it book.

“I despised their likeability,” writes Bourdain, “as it was a denial of the quality I’d always seen as best and most distinguishing: our otherness.” And this was the very quality that attracted so many adoring fans to his cause and precipitated his arise to celebrity greatness. Instead, his current effort is like “the empire of mediocrity successfully spreading its tentacles everywhere,” a forced, half-hearted effort by a brilliant, brutally honest guy who should surpass the petty contrivances his star power has bestowed upon him. Yet Medium Raw reads like a semi-philosophical manifesto and vignette on life’s challenges that leaves us waiting for the punch line. In spite of the fact of Bourdain’s dialing-it-in mode, he still has his moments.

The topic of culinary school education is vintage Bourdain: “I am frequently asked by aspiring chefs, dreamers young and old, attracted by the lure of slowly melting shallots and caramelizing pork belly or delusions of Food Network stardom, if they should go to culinary school. I usually give a long, thoughtful and qualified answer. But the short answer is ‘no.’” Cause: a culinary education costs too much and most won’t make any money.

On the topic of cooking as a moral imperative, Bourdain channels his inner Dr. Laura: “But I do think the idea that basic cooking skills are a virtue, the ability to feed yourself and a few others with proficiency should be taught to every young man and woman as a fundamental skill, should become as vital to growing up as learning to wipe one’s own ass . . .”

How about his favorite love-to-hate Food Network star, Sandra Lee of Semi Home-Made? At a red carpet event, Sandra, evil incarnate, sweeping up silently behind Bourdain and with one icy, leprous tentacle, slowly massages Bourdain’s back while his wife watches. And the fish on Monday thing from Kitchen Confidential, one of the last chapters in Bourdain’s bawdy philosophical journey, sums up his passive aggressive tact throughout the book. Tony, Tony, Tony, if only we could relate to the rigors of stardom.

Bourdain has his moments, but Medium Raw could have used more.

Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook by Anthony Bourdain. Ecco, Hardback, 304 pages. List Price $26.99.


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