I feel like a jaded music fan when it comes to Anthony Bourdain. I was there from the beginning. I read Kitchen Confidential when it first came out, man. I ate at Le Halles when he was still behind the stove. Needless to say, I’m still a huge fan of his television work and his writing. By no means has he sold out, but his snarky edge and no bullshit attitude has increased his appeal far beyond foodies and fellow chefs.
This is a blessing and a curse. The ravenous popularity of Confidential, his “obnoxious” (Bourdain’s word) tell all, has opened the door to Bourdain’s mainstream success but also painted him in a corner. In Medium Raw, Bourdain’s latest effort, it feels like he spends too much time explaining or apologizing for the success of Confidential. Some years later, he doesn’t seem content. He’s in a different place and I can’t tell if he’d trade in all the money and fame just to once again be an anonymous chef working the line every night.
Bourdain is angrier than ever in print and has an even sharper tongue. His criticism of vegetarians, the processed meat industry and the Food Network is solid, but easy prey. His food writing is the most exciting and the book contains probably the best examination of rock star chef de jour David Chang to date. The tiny travel vignettes transport you to lands you’ve probably only seen on No Reservations.
My biggest issue with Raw is that it never fully comes together, like a dish with great components that lacks a unifying vision. Yes, we are getting Anthony’s raw thoughts on many topics, but unfortunately the concept is undercooked. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some great writing in here. But some of it also feels like filler. Each chapter reads more like it’s own essay than a piece of a larger work. Sometimes the chapters start off in one place on a great idea, then veer off course and end somewhere completely different.
I still recommend this book. It’s funny, honest and can be read one chapter at a time at your leisure. I don’t think this is Anthony’s best cohesive work. It doesn’t feel like he or his fans (not me!) have moved past Confidential despite it being over ten years and several projects later. Chances are, he’ll never escape that shadow. But at least he’s trying. Raw is not a memoir, but sort of a “State of Bourdain” for the last decade. We may think we know Tony from TV or his past novels, but this is the first time we get to see behind the personality.