By Michael Dirda
Thursday, June 10, 2010; C01
A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
By Anthony Bourdain
Ecco. 281 pp. $26.99
The paperback cover of Anthony Bourdain's cult classic, "Kitchen Confidential," depicts the author as a lean Hollywood heartthrob, James Dean in chef's whites. Certainly, Bourdain's early writings about "the culinary underbelly" are those of a rebel with a cause. Cooks rule! In his essays, he assails the food establishment, explains why you should never order fish on Monday, portrays chefs as sexual athletes (to whom even brides succumb during their wedding banquets) and writes with an altogether piratical exuberance and chutzpah.
Look now, as Hamlet might say, on this other picture. Ten years have passed since "Kitchen Confidential," and the cover of Bourdain's latest book, "Medium Raw," no longer suggests some dashing musketeer of the gas range. Instead, it shows us a Mafia godfather at the height of his power. Bourdain wears a dark suit, dark blue shirt, dark tie. The face is still handsome but somewhat puffy, there are bags under the eyes and lines around the mouth, a bit of jowl. The once-black hair is now salt and pepper. Still, the look in the man's eyes is as piercing as ever -- and he delicately fingers a long chef's knife, a quiet reminder to anyone who might question his authority.
As Bourdain emphasizes repeatedly throughout "Medium Raw," he has grown older. He tells us that he wrecked his first marriage, went through a period of extreme dissolution even by his standards (oiled supermodels!), and reveled in his travels around the globe for his popular television program, "No Reservations." Now in his mid-50s and remarried, the former heroin addict, cokehead and eager Lothario has actually become a family guy, settled in sybaritic ease on New York's Upper East Side.
But does all this mean that Bourdain has lost his chops as a writer? That he's suddenly cast off his maniacal Dr. Gonzo persona and settled into the harrumph mode of a New York Times columnist? Not at all. If anything, he's probably more unrestrained now, knowing that he can get away with pretty much anything. Even the snarkiest blogger could learn from Bourdain's effortless mastery of vulgarity, profane and obscene language, and acrobatic sexual imagery.
But the man is clearly obsessed with the idea of having sold out. Bourdain admits he would have "given Oprah a back rub and a bikini wax, had she asked me when her people called. Fifty-five thousand copies a minute -- every minute Oprah's talking about your book (according to industry legend)? . . . So I guess I knew -- even back then -- what my price was."
While candidly relishing his celebrity, he does so with a slightly mocking tone, almost a guilty conscience, like an aging '60s radical who's been co-opted by the establishment and suddenly finds himself a mortgage banker. Only partly tongue in cheek, Bourdain at one point describes himself as "a loud, egotistical, one-note [obscenity] who's been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long and who should just shut the [obscenity] up."
As many others have remarked, Bourdain's prose at his wildest can sound like Hunter S. Thompson's, yet he can also produce much quieter work, such as "My Aim Is True," a brilliant portrait of Justo Thomas, the man who fillets the fish for Le Bernardin, New York's great seafood restaurant. A.J. Liebling couldn't have done it better. Above all, when you read Bourdain, you never quite know what's going to happen in the next sentence, but you can be sure you're in for a treat, a shock, a surprise.
For instance, one bittersweet reminiscence, "The Rich Eat Different Than You and Me," opens this way: "I was holed up in the Caribbean about midway through a really bad time. My first marriage had just ended and I was, to say the least, at loose ends. By 'loose ends' I mean aimless and regularly suicidal."
Then Bourdain meets a rich, beautiful woman, and they enjoy each other's company -- until the cracks in her facade start to appear:
"I am not a fan of people who abuse service staff. In fact, I find it intolerable. It's an unpardonable sin as far as I'm concerned, taking out personal business or some other kind of dissatisfaction on a waiter or busboy. From the first time I saw that, our relationship was essentially over. She accused me of 'caring about waiters more than I cared about her,' and she was right."
Whatever Bourdain writes, he makes personal. In his most hilarious essay, he relates his ongoing campaign to poison his daughter's mind against fast food by insinuating that Ronald McDonald has cooties. Other pages of "Medium Raw" might almost be called service pieces: an outline of the basic cooking skills that all young people should know, a plea that hamburger be made of real meat rather than trimmings and scraps soaked in ammonia, an elegy for small-course tasting menus as no longer fun or worth the time and money.
One especially long chapter lists Bourdain's current heroes and villains, another offers a cook's tour of some of his favorite cuisine from around the world, starting with Vietnamese pho and ending with Sichuan hotpot. Not least, there is a sustained attack on critic Alan Richman, a substantial profile of the eminent chef David Chang, and a meditation on Alice Waters, the legendary founder of Chez Panisse. About Waters, Bourdain is full of complicated feelings -- he agrees that one should use organic, regional produce but finds the woman herself immensely irritating.
Perhaps she is. Many people will doubtless appreciate "Medium Raw" even more than I do: I've never watched the Food Network, know how to cook only a small number of rather ho-hum dishes, and would hardly describe myself as a gourmet or foodie. No matter. Once we read Anthony Bourdain because of what he told us about restaurants and chefs, but now we read him simply because it's Anthony Bourdain.
Still, it does seem paradoxical that "Medium Raw" is more like a bag of potato chips than a fine dining experience: Anyone who starts the book is liable to lose all control and simply gobble it right up. I certainly did.
Visit Dirda's online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.