Medium-well: Anthony Bourdain’s new book — Medium Raw — shows the mature side of food writing’s bad boy

Now, Bourdain riffs on Alice Waters and the perils of factory farms, the foibles of fine dining, the private lives of popular chefs. He has a wife and young child, so there’s touching and humorous tales of poisoning his daughter to the wiles of Ronald McDonald. There’s the now obligatory literary food porn — which Bourdain does exceptionally well when he’s casual about it — and the tale of a secret dinner in New York where he was able to taste ortolan, a tiny endangered songbird that’s the holy grail of forbidden food.


Sex, drugs and rock and roll? Wouldn’t be a Bourdain book without them, but in Medium Raw they’re incidental at best. The guy is a family man and recovering addict, after all. And though he still rips into people he has little respect for, the criticism is always considered, reasoned and tempered by a list of the offender’s positive character traits.


It’s not the Bourdain you might have come to know from his constant hectoring of Sandra Lee or Alan Richman, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t entertaining and occasionally insightful. At its best, his writing is rich and casual, and he’s grown up enough to step out of his own experiences and just be a chronicler when appropriate, like in his profile of uber-popular chef David Chang. In fact, the throwaway chapters of the book are largely the ones he spends talking about himself. A mature and reasonable Bourdain is not nearly as interesting a character as the out-of-control and self-destructive chef he used to be.


And he knows that, so Medium Raw doesn’t live inside his head, or inside the kitchen. It’s still the food world as he sees it, but now his perspective comes from the vaunted position of a wealthy, respected and responsible guy who is friends with some of the best and brightest of the restaurant world.


It’s not ground-breaking and it doesn’t shatter any preconceived notions about food, but Medium Raw does prove a point: The exterior world of the mature Anthony Bourdain may be brighter and bigger than the dark and confining mind of his prior incarnation, but it’s just as fascinating to visit.

Anthony Bourdain has grown up.

When he published Kitchen Confidential a decade ago it was a revelatory book, a type of food memoir and explication of the life of a chef that had never been explored in such gritty and loving detail. The tale of his rise and fall and rise as a human being and as a chef was sheathed in occasionally sensational, often overblown language that still managed to ring damn true. For the average foodie, it peeled away their white tablecloth restaurant experiences to show how food is done, and by who. For kitchen staff — from fry monkey to expediting chef/owner — it was the first time that their ilk was given proper due, albeit in a way that might shock or concern the average diner.

But a lot can happen in a decade.

Bourdain’s latest book — Medium Raw — reflects the extent to which the man has changed in the intervening decade, simultaneously distancing himself from his past and acting as a follow-up to the book that propelled him into food stardom. While Kitchen Confidential was a plunge into the dark and dank interiors of his own struggles and a celebration of equally insular restaurant kitchen workers (which he famously compared to a paranoid submarine crew), Medium Raw expands his take into the food world at large. As he admits constantly throughout the book, he’s no longer a chef. He’s a food celebrity.

As if to pound home the change, Bourdain relates a story about going out with a random assortment of cooks and chefs while on a book tour, and having one particularly drunk — and astute — dude excoriate him for no longer being in touch. Instead of striking a nerve, it elicits a shrug. And a round of shots to heal the embarassing rift.

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