Anybody who knows me or reads this blog knows I'm a fan of Bourdain's. I fell upon his show, No Reservations and was smitten; then read his books, Kitchen Confidential; A Cook's Tour; The Nasty Bits, and the infatuation grew. As a writer, he's hot. He's made an art of the rant, and is as willing and eager to skewer himself as others. "See, what I've done and do to myself. Don't mind me," he seems to tell us.
But of course we do mind. And of course he wants us to.
Who wouldn't adore his colorful digs into his past and the characters who people it? When he's the extravagant bad boy, flourishing all his feathers, he's hard to beat. The tone of most of his reminiscences, the stuff of his previous books, is a cross between mea culpa and kimo no sabe, meaning, "Me, I'm just a charming asshole, what can I tell you?"
It's a different story altogether, however, when Bourdain is out for someone else's blood. The humor and gusto turn rank and vile. I feel as if I'm being lowered into a Draculean dungeon where there is only one beast trying desperately to have fun. And it's not pretty.
Not that Bourdain is out to please. His writing and charm have never been about that. But what's with the no-holds-barred assaults on sextegarians. Give 'em a break, man.
Medium Raw, A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, Bourdain's latest diatribe of excess, delivers everything you'd expect -- and some. Personally, I can live without the climactic sequence in the first chapter of a time he sat down to eat with some famous names in the biz, and partook of a sizzling ortolan, a finch-like bird that costs upwards of 250-dollars in France -- due to the fact it's a protected species. His vivid description of biting with relish into the bones of that bird and sucking out its guts offends every aspect of my Buddhist vegetarian heart, even though I have to hand it to Bourdain. He can write; he will tell you what that experience was like in vivid MGM detail, like it or not.
In Medium Raw, you get plenty of rants. One, about his drug-soaked past hopping islands with a nutty heiress; mostly, you get riffs on who is and who is not worthy of B's respect -- this man who claims to feel so unworthy himself, such an outsider in this world. Yet he wields his opinion like a ninja with a razor-sharp cleaver.
Bourdain devotes an entire chapter to skewering Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse and promoter of "Edible Schoolyards" and local foods that are sustainable, and aims 15-pages of bile at GQ food writer Alan Richman, who made the mistakes of negatively critiquing Les Halles, the restaurant in which Bourdain worked years ago, and questioning the authenticity of Creole cuisine -- the latter, in 2006.
All of this seems snarky indeed -- snarky being Bourdain's favorite critical word. If there's one thing Bourdain makes clear is that he's a self-proclaimed outsider who doesn't feel worthy to sit at the same table as his peers. At the same time, he expects you to listen to what he knows and to believe him. He's the authority without authority, the everyman who's won the lotto and whose opinion now, on account of his good luck, is worth gold. Even when he turns nasty, and maybe because he turns nasty, he is worth gold. This is a country after all in which a single negative rant can make a person famous.
Which is not to say that Bourdain is not really eloquent. He is. Or not right. He may be. But those nasty repasts are hard to take and I'd much rather partake of the savvy, playful host who invites everyone to his table, savoring differences and taking issue with none.
What Bourdain does best is write well about the food he loves and the cultures and traditions from which those foods come, and in this regard, Medium Raw does not disappoint. It makes you salivate and smile and long to go where the man has traveled and do what he has done.
For example, here's a description in Medium Raw of an early morning jaunt to a Parisian boulangerie for fresh baked baguettes:
"They're too hot to eat but you grab one anyway, tearing it open gingerly, then dropping two fingers full of butter inside. It instantly melts into liquid -- running into the grooves and inner spaces of white interior. You grab it like a sandwich and bite, teeth making a cracking sound as you crunch through the crust. You haven't eaten since yesterday lunch, your palate is asleep and just not ready for so much sensation. The reaction is violent. It hurts. Butter floods your head and you think for a second you are going to pass out."
I find my relationship with Bourdain runs like this. When I like him, it's a love fest. When I don't, I want to toss everything in my kitchen cupboards at him. Why do I think I am not alone?