In new book, Anthony Bourdain shares reservations on fame, food world
Anthony Bourdain knows he's a mediocre chef who got lucky.
Sure, he spent 28 years cooking in restaurants before publishing "Kitchen Confidential," the culinary tell-all that exposed the industry's dirty secrets and catapulted him into the national spotlight 10 years ago, but he admits in the first few pages of his new book, "Medium Raw" (Ecco, $27), that he doesn't deserve the title of chef anymore, much less could he complete a Friday night shift as a line cook at Les Halles, his old Park Avenue bistro, where diners still ask if he's cooking.
His timing was perfect. In 2000, American foodies, before that term even existed, were starting to tire of the Food Network's suspiciously glowing approach to food and cooking. Even though Bourdain, 53 , wrote "Confidential" for fellow kitchen deviants, millions of everyday eaters latched on to his snarky observations about the world of fine dining and the hoodlums that populate it. He skewered pampered Food Network hosts like Emeril Lagasse and Bobby Flay, who were so far removed from the food culture Bourdain was immersed in that they were merely talking heads with sharp knives. But the book thrust Bourdain out of the kitchen and into the spotlight, where he quickly became what he was against: a jet-setting host of a Food Network show who made a living by being a well-known personality. He didn't conform entirely, so the Food Network dropped him, but the television offers and book deals kept rolling in.
But even though he long ago stopped cooking and he hosts only one television program, "No Reservations" (Rachael Ray has no fewer than five, plus a magazine), he became a domesticated kitchen rat who has achieved a level of celebrity that few, if any, of his fellow food royalty can rival. During a visit to Austin in April for a talk at the Paramount Theatre, fans reported his whereabouts on Twitter and Facebook — and those of his production crew, which spent a few days shooting B roll for a possible episode of "No Reservations" before his appearance — with stalkerish fervor. (Bourdain will be back in Austin next week for a book signing and a Q&A. See box for more information.)
To put it in his own words: "I am, at this point in my life, the very picture of the jaded, overprivileged 'foodie' that I used to despise."
But like a stinky fish sauce from his beloved Vietnam, his appeal among the food die-hards has only grown stronger and more pungent over time, and this book will only solidify that adoration.
Despite the nice-guy attitude he shows in some of the chapters, Bourdain has gained too much fame from the "I'm a snarky jerk" persona to write a book without calling a few powerful people in the industry some pretty dirty names. He long ago mended fences with the enemies he made in "Confidential" and the years after; in the new book, he moves on to new targets, singling out the people who have earned his respect (Chef Fergus Henderson, for making tripe cool; LA Weekly critic Jonathan Gold, for sticking up for the little guy; Jamie Oliver, for his work in public schools) and those he's deemed "villains." (Restaurateur Wolfgang Puck, for taking foie gras off his menus; Food Network president Brooke Johnson, for being just so good at dumbing down food and selling it to viewers.)
A few chapters after Bourdain pulls a Michael Pollan and rants against the beef industry and McDonald's, just when sustainable food folks think they've hooked the big fish with the big mouth, he slays Alice Waters, the movement's queen, by raising valid questions about the importance of local and organic food when there are so many other problems, including food shortages, in the world.
"A healthy lunch is all fine and good — but no use at all to Little Timmy if he gets shot to death on the way to school. In fact, (spending) 27 billion for organic food for Timmy seems a back-assward priority right now, as, so far, we've failed miserably to even teach him to read," he writes.
He eventually compares Waters to the drug LSD, a portal into a world that might be enlightened but is completely disconnected from reality. "LSD sure raised my consciousness a bit," he writes. "I may not want any now — but I'm glad she was around. And I may even be slightly better for the experience."
Ultimately, Bourdain's ambivalence is what allows him to write and say such polarizing things and still win everyone over. For every harsh word he writes about the restaurant industry — he targets everyone from big-name chefs to restaurant critics and food bloggers (the bastard offspring of food writers, he calls them) — he finds some redemptive value in what they do. (Except for vegetarians. He will never, ever forgive the vegetarian who turns down a home-cooked, meat-filled dish abroad.)
The book ends with an ode to the people who cook and serve food ("the finest and noblest of toil, performed only by the very best of people"), a segment of the population he still identifies with but that he long ago abandoned for the front of the house.
He makes a desperate attempt throughout "Medium Raw" to show that, deep down, he's still one of them, a chain-smoking misfit who doesn't belong anywhere but in the restaurant bowels, but that's a hard dish to sell when you're writing the menu from the king's throne.
Bourdain is a terrific writer, but the book is spotty compared with the scripts he pens for "No Reservations." Travel and food shows are a dime a dozen these days, but his has always stood out for how he humanizes and lifts the veil on a country's soul by eating its food. In only one chapter (titled, appropriately, "Lust") of "Medium Raw" will readers find this kind of evocative exploration of the senses.
By contrast, the dozens of pages he spends profiling "it" chef David Chang of the (absurdly hard to get into) Momofuku restaurants in New York and the fish guy at Le Bernardin and detailing a horrid Christmas he spent in the Caribbean with an old flame feel like Bourdain is just churning out words so he can collect his paycheck.
Bourdain certainly isn't afraid to turn the mirror on himself. Just as in "Confidential," he writes honestly about sex and drugs, but he writes even more eloquently about becoming a parent, realizing that the hole left when he finally got control of his drug use could only be filled by having a little girl over whom he has absolutely no control.
Page after page, Bourdain is either exploring his own faults and ambiguities or someone else's. When he's not calling out fellow food notables on their shortcomings, he's confessing his own, which means that his detractors are left with no ammunition except to point out that Bourdain, like most of us, is nothing if not one giant self-contradiction. He's just better-paid.
Double servings of Bourdain
You have two chances to catch Anthony Bourdain while he's in Austin next week.
At 8 p.m. Monday at the Paramount Theatre (713 Congress Ave.), Bourdain will be reading from his new book, ‘Medium Raw,' answering questions from the audience and signing books. You can buy tickets ($10-$12) online at www.austintheatre.org. At 7 p.m.
Tuesday at BookPeople (603 N. Lamar Blvd.), Bourdain will talk about the book and sign copies. The event is free, but starting at 9 a.m. Tuesday, the store will be handing out wristbands for the book-signing line for those who have purchased the book from BookPeople.