The Tarantino of food writing
Still raucous, hedonistic and bullshit-intolerant, Kitchen Confidential author and celeb chef Anthony Bourdain serves up more scrumptious food stories in Medium Raw.
Anthony Bourdain, reformed heroin and cocaine addict, food sensualist and ballsy, in-your-face writer, is back with a new treat: Medium Raw. Though he’s still a ballsy, in-your-face writer, compared to his best-selling memoir of life as a jobbing chef, Kitchen Confidential, his new book mainly comes across as the work of a television personality and father. Where Kitchen Confidential was a well-placed hand grenade lobbed into the comfortable world of restaurants and food writing, Medium Raw reveals a man struggling with the contradictions of his life and his attitude to food.
The quote that so often adorns the covers of Bourdain’s books - the description by food writer AA Gill of Kitchen Confidential as ‘Elizabeth David written by Quentin Tarantino’ - is not just a stylistic point. Like Tarantino, Bourdain can produce work which seems meandering and pointless at times. Then, BANG!, he writes prose that is equal parts pornographic and threatening - and a joy to read.
Medium Raw could easily have been titled What Tony Did Next. It opens with a ‘sit down’, as Bourdain is invited to a select gathering of some of the best-known chefs and restaurateurs around. ‘It’s a fucking Who’s Who of the top tier of cooking in America today’, he says. ‘If a gas leak blew up this building? Fine dining as we know it would be nearly wiped out in a stroke.’ And the gathered company is treated to a special, illicit delicacy: ortolan, a finch-like bird that is now so rare that it is protected in its native France.
As is de rigeur with anything involving food and France, something must be suffering for your pleasure. In the case of the ortolan, it is kept in a shrouded cage to fool it into eating far more than it should - in this case, figs, millet and oats - before being finished off with a whiff of armagnac. The bird is then roasted and, traditionally, eaten with a napkin over the diners’ heads, to hide their faces - and their sin - from God.
Or as Bourdain puts it: ‘It’s wank-worthy, a description of the Holy Grail, the Great Unfinished Business, the Thing That Must Be Eaten in order that one may state without reservation that one is a true gastronome, a citizen of the world, a chef with a truly experienced palate - that one has really been around.’ His description of actually eating this tiny little bird is written in porno Technicolor, complete with post-coital allusions. ‘I undrape, and, around me, one after another, the other napkins fall to the table, too, revealing glazed, blissed-out expressions, the beginnings of guilty smiles, an identical just-fucked look on every face.’
Bourdain is a food hedonist, and has little truck with those who want to load up our eating habits with moralism. Consider the way he wades into the so-called ‘Mother of Slow Food’ and the epitome of Californian organic, locally produced cuisine, Alice Waters. Bourdain notes that the labour-intensive, pastoral vision that Waters promotes means that either lots of the citizens of wealthy countries like America and Italy are going to have to take up farming again - unlikely - or ‘we’ll revert to the traditional method: importing huge numbers of poor brown people from elsewhere - to grow those tasty, crunchy vegetables for more comfortable white masters. So, while animals of the future might be cruelty-free… what about life for those who have to shovel the shit from their stalls?’
So Waters is not exactly his favourite human being: ‘And with Waters’ fondness for buzzwords like “purity” and “wholesomeness”, there is a whiff of the jackboot, isn’t there? A certainty, a potentially dangerous lack of self-doubt, the kind of talk that, so often in history, leads to actions undertaken for the “common good”. While it was excessive and bombastic of me to compare Alice to “Pol Pot in a muumuu”, it is useful to remember that he was once a practising Buddhist and, later, attended the Sorbonne.’
What Tony Did Next, after the rip-roaring success of Kitchen Confidential, was to get his own show on Food Network - a channel Bourdain had royally abused in the past - which allowed him to try really cool food from around the globe. He relates some of his favourite moments here in Medium Raw, in a section appropriately titled ‘Lust’: the joys of that Vietnamese breakfast broth, pho; slurping noodles while nursing a monster hangover in Borneo; eating simple spaghetti in Italy with a great wine provided by the bloke in the corner reading a soccer magazine with a fag dangling from his mouth; the list goes on.
But having his own show means dealing with network executives like the new boss of Food Network, Brooke Johnson: ‘Ms Johnson was clearly not delighted to meet me or my partners. You could feel the air go out of the room the moment she entered. It became instantly a place without hope or humour… The indifference bordering on naked hostility was palpable.’ Johnson, it would seem, has done for food on television what Simon Cowell has done for the business of finding musical talent: appealed relentlessly to the lowest common denominator in a highly lucrative way, what Bourdain describes as a ‘groin-level dynamic’. That meant that Bourdain’s expensive show that featured weird stuff from Europe and Asia was out, while cheap-to-produce American shows - like top tips for barbecuing - were in.
This left Bourdain with a quandry: should he keep his ‘integrity’ or should he do what every other high-profile celebrity chef does, which is to whore his good name out for kitchenware lines and TV commercials? After much handwringing, he concludes: ‘Enough bullshit. It’s time to make money.’ He’s a father now, and he can no longer stand on the outside of the tent, pissing in. He’s got a daughter to provide a stable life for. ‘I knew I wasn’t saving my cherry for principle. I’d just been waiting to lose it to the right guy.’
Where Bourdain really gets tied up in knots is over fast food and the industrialisation of food production. So he spends a chapter spitting blood over the crimes of the mega food producers, like Cargill, for creating bad products from what would have been regarded as leftover cuts of meat (or rather, trimmings that would in the past have been seen as only fit for pet food). In this, Boudain echoes writers like Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser and films like Food, Inc. (see my review here). Food, Bourdain rightly argues, should not be a threat to us. We shouldn’t have to cook a burger to a crisp in order to avoid E.coli poisoning.
Yet he is also sensible enough, while ranting about burgers, to admit that he knows what goes into hot dogs, but enjoys them just the same. After all, Bourdain’s food hero is Fergus Henderson, the man who popularised ‘nose-to-tail eating’ - in other words, there is pretty much no part of an animal that shouldn’t be considered fit to eat. Should we really, then, worry about what goes into our burgers (feces aside)? Surely the only appropriate questions are: ‘Is it nutritious?’ and ‘Does it taste good?’ If manufacturers sell us food that is harmful or just plain bad, they deserve to be criticised. Anything else is a matter of personal choice and aesthetics.
And that brings us to the fundamental contradictions of modern food: how to celebrate flavour, skill and quality without falling for all the local and organic bullshit; how to criticise the sharp practices of industrial food producers while celebrating the benefits of mass-produced food; how to see through the panics about obesity and diet while recognising that what we eat could also be better than it is now; recognising that learning the skill of cooking is an invaluable element of independence without falling for the lie that being chained to the kitchen will somehow solve every other social problem.
This is where Bourdain gets stuck. The trick - and he often manages it - is to treat every eating experience in its own terms. There’s a place for both foie gras and Pot Noodle, fine dining and drive-thru. What we shouldn’t do is accept that the only way to deal with the failings of modern food production is to dump all the good stuff - fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation, supermarkets - and retreat to some mythical idyll where growing your own is the pinnacle of ethical living. To be fair, Bourdain’s bullshit detector is still working pretty well, even if it goes haywire from time to time, as in his fulsome praise for St Jamie Oliver. Just because Jamie means well - like Alice Waters, no doubt - doesn’t mean that his ideas aren’t also scaremongering and potentially authoritarian.
Anyone who really cares about food, but feels distinctly uncomfortable about the moralism attached to eating these days, should read Bourdain. Even if you have little interest in the food, his full-on prose and startling escapades - like the Caribbean holiday-from-hell with a psychotic, coke-addicted heiress - are a cracking read. If some of the courses in Medium Raw feel like pointless filler, the meal as a whole is very satisfying.
Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, by Anthony Bourdain, is published by Bloomsbury. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)The Tarantino of food writing, spiked