ANTHONY BOURDAIN’S greatest ability has never been his cooking nor the unexpected elegance of his writing. It’s been a decade since the sleeper success of Kitchen Confidential, his memoir of dissipation and simmering anger. (Its best visual companion is a series of terrifying photographs of chefs shot by the late photographer Bob Carlos Clarke.) Since then the chef has turned celebrity, food has become twee and people watch competitive cooking shows.
Bourdain’s sequel to Kitchen Confidential bounds through this landscape with great energy. Some of his subjects have been famously at the receiving end of his diatribes, so fans can look forward to many stylish rematches in this book. The tone is of a man thinking aloud so the expletives only give the writing an off-the-cuff quality. But the ideas in the unconnected chapters are so engaging that you barely notice the four-letter confetti. Why are celebrities ethically compromised? Why is food the most important political choice of modern living? How is a young Korean changing American dining? We also hear about encounters that only fantastic memoirists seem to have — a food critic who is so clearly a villain (Alan Richman who goes to Katrina-devastated New Orleans and makes fun of their restaurants) he just stops short of tying Lillian Gish to the railway tracks, creepy chef Sandra Lee and a dirty shack in which the world’s wealthiest eat — are only some of them.
Years ago, in The Cook’s Tour, Bourdain had written an unforgettable description of a meal at legendary cook Thomas Keller’s restaurant. In Medium Raw, Bourdain revisits his personal altar to Keller. To his shock and to the delight of a jaded reader, Bourdain comes away asking whether gourmet cooking — and consequently, his own life — has any relevance. Is he a mere amuse-bouche — a delightful trifle rather than the peasant cooking he endorses? Bourdain’s Protestant work ethic has popped up before but never as strongly as it does here.
Bourdain can ask himself whether he has a right to exist — a travelling and eating smart alec. But you can be grateful he does — for his passionate honesty. He is incapable of letting himself or anyone else off the hook. Except his little daughter, and who can blame him for the lies he tells her to ensure she does not eat crap? His fond twoword description of his wife Ottavia — ‘mad bitch’ — at a point when they violently disagree is a greater tribute to their marriage than any ‘thoughtful examination’ could. Bourdain has a way of somehow making essays and masculinity cool again.