Thursday, June 24, 2010

Slicing and Dicing With Anthony Bourdain

I don't know if it represents great literature, but I really doubt that I'll read a more entertaining book this year than Anthony Bourdain's "Medium Raw," subtitled "A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook." Anyone who's ever read "Kitchen Confidential" or seen Bourdain speak, or watched one of his television shows, or read one of his novels knows that he's a larger-than-life character. In "Medium Raw," that character comes across on every page of the book; it's a fast read where (cliche warning ahead) the words really do jump off the page.

Bourdain is a man of strong opinions, and it is his opinions that drive the book. It sometimes seems as if he's got an opinion on just about everything: what U.S. students should be taught in the field of cooking, Alice Waters, the U.S. meat industry, tasting menus, food critics, "Top Chef," The Food Network, Thomas Keller, Tom Colicchio...the list goes on. In the hands of a lesser writer, this might come across as annoying, or even pathetic. But Bourdain is also a man who is aware of his own limits, and he knows that while he was a very competent, even excellent chef, he was never in the league of the all-time greats. His ability to downplay his own talents is what lends his opinions their power.

And let's face it, he's a hell of an entertaining writer:

"Is it too much to feel that it should be a basic right that one can cook and eat a hamburger without fear? To stand proud in my backyard (if I had a backyard), grilling a nice medium-rare fucking hamburger for my kid - without worrying that maybe I'm feeding her a shit sandwich? That I not feel the need to cross-examine my mother, should she have the temerity to offer my child meatloaf?" - From the chapter titled "Meat"

Bourdain goes back and forth between vignettes about his own life, now and the period in the past when things weren't always so sunny, and chapters about things like the meat industry, Alice Waters, David Chang (one of the hot new chefs of the moment), and an update on some of the key characters from the book that made him famous, "Kitchen Confidential."

However, there's no doubt that the strongest chapter in the book, a really magnificent portrait of an artist at work, is the one titled "My Aim Is True" - which tells the story of Justo Thomas, whose job it is to cut the fish at Le Bernardin, the great New York seafood restaurant. I hate to give too much away, but one can't help but marvel at the story of Thomas - a man who cuts, by himself, 700 pounds of fish each day, and does so in a manner that would make every workman and artist in the world proud. At the end of the chapter, Bourdain has a treat for Thomas - he convinces Le Bernardin to drop their "no staff allowed to eat at the restaurant" policy for one day (a policy that Bourdain reports is common among the greatest restaurants), and takes him to lunch at the restaurant at which he has never eaten the fish that he cuts. More I won't say, except that it is a wonderful, classic moment.

It's a fast read, but more importantly, it's a great read. I can't recommend it highly enough.

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