Anthony Bourdain has changed. But let him tell you himself:
"Let's face it: I am, at this point in my life, the very picture of the jaded, overprivileged 'foodie' (in the very worst sense of that word) that I used to despise. The kind who's eaten way more than his share of Michelin-starred meals all over the world and is (annoyingly) all too happy to tell you about them. I am the sort of person whose head I once called for in the streets, the sort of person who — with a straight face — will actually whine about 'too much foie gras' or 'truffles — again?' "
He's all that and more, as his new book, Medium Raw, makes clear. This is no Kitchen Confidential — indeed, it's almost the opposite number of that raffish, profane, angry but deeply affectionate book about what goes on behind the scenes and in the trenches at restaurants fine and otherwise.
It has been years since Bourdain labored in those trenches. He has ascended from backbreaking work, addiction and poverty to the Olympus of celebrity chefs, hanging with Mario, dining for the cameras all over the globe for No Reservations and handing down judgment on Top Chef.
But, thank heavens, he's as cranky as ever. Maybe more so. And he taken that ample attitude with him into his new world.
Kitchen Confidential was a sensation because it revealed a lot about how restaurants work and about Bourdain, who was at that point a new voice. Medium Raw lacks that shock value, and much of it will be familiar to Bourdain's legions of fans.
Familiarity doesn't render the material any less entertaining, though. The rant is one of Bourdain's best things, and here he cuts loose on "Mother of Slow Food" Alice Waters for, among other things, her campaign to get an organic garden and a chef who supports local sourcing at the White House after Barack Obama was elected president.
Bourdain is irate when he hears she's offering highly publicized advice to the president when she hasn't even bothered to vote in 44 years. But that's not all: "That there already was a chef at the White House, a person of 'integrity and devotion,' seems not to have occurred to Ms. Waters. Nor did it seem to matter that this chef had been sourcing and serving largely organic, local, and sustainable food for years — or that there already was a kitchen garden. . . . It was, as it so often is, all about Alice."
He tears into vegetarians (he considers them rude) and the meat industry (for its greedy disregard of public health). If words could kill, GQ restaurant critic Alan Richman, to whom Bourdain devotes an entire hilariously furious chapter whose title is unprintable here, would be dead and cremated, his ashes smeared into the Dumpster of a fast-food dive.
But Bourdain can write a love letter, too. His chapter on Justo Thomas, the maestro who cleans and cuts 700 pounds of fish every day at Le Bernardin, "probably the best seafood restaurant in America," is a portrait of the marriage of art and craft. In a chapter called "Heroes and Villains," he salutes novelist and gourmand Jim Harrison: "Passionate, knowledgeable, but utterly without snobbery." I'm a fan and acquaintance of Harrison, and Bourdain gets him exactly right.
Of course, Bourdain writes with insight about food. In "It's Not You, It's Me," he describes his decidedly mixed feelings about meals at two temples, Alinea in Chicago and Per Se in New York, despite his admiration for their chefs, Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller. In "Lust," he catalogs global transcendent flavors, most of them street food: fiery fish stew in Borneo, beef tongue tacos in Puebla, pho with beef tendon in Hanoi.
He also writes knowingly about the joys and perils of professional cooking. In "So You Wanna Be a Chef" he offers a blistering antidote to the glamor of Food Network shows. He writes about the resentful, anonymous young chefs who see him as a sellout and try to outdrink him for vengeance in bars, and about current supernova David Chang, creator of Momofuku Ko and other stellar restaurants, a man so driven that when Bourdain asks him to describe "a good day," he details an early-morning-to-late-night workday that's exhausting just to read about. Time off? What's that?
If you love food, cooking, restaurants, Medium Raw will make you laugh and make you mad, make you hungry and, in a few places, make you a little sick. All of it, bitter or sweet, is born of Bourdain's passion for food: "The eye-searing 'Kwanzaa Cake' clip on YouTube, of Sandra Lee doing things with store-bought angel food cake, canned frosting and corn nuts, instead of being simply the unintentionally hilarious viral video it should be, makes me mad for all humanity. I. Just. Can't. Help it."