The book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, Anthony Bourdain's long-awaited sequel to Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, went on sale on Tuesday; it should far outsell its predecessor, which came out a decade ago, before its author was a big star and before the country developed a hearty appetite for back-of-the-house tell-alls. While any number of copycat memoirs, blogs and reality shows have flourished since Bourdain's best seller detailed his cooking years, he has moved on to other things, traveling the world for his TV show, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations; writing funny and thoughtful books based on his adventures with the show; hitting the lecture circuit hard; and generally having a good time. Like his hero Bob Dylan, as soon as he founds a movement, he leaves it behind. Now he's back, writing about chefs and restaurants again, with the same quality that made Kitchen Confidential so compelling. There is no more honest man in the media than Tony Bourdain. And that makes all the difference between him and the food-media complex that he helped create.
You can see some measure of how things have changed by looking at Bourdain's subject matter. He is no longer a working chef; the moral authority of being an anonymous, hardworking, weathered veteran cook is gone in Medium Raw. He's another outsider now, a morally suspect "sellout" with a cushy life and a different perspective. But of course, that's what you would expect a former chef to say. Bourdain loathes the Food Network (his show is on the Travel Channel) and distrusts the rah-rah spectacle and hype of celebrity chefdom, a world in which he is a major presence, to his considerable discomfiture. "What the f___ am I doing here?" he asks himself at an elite banquet. "I am the peer of no man nor woman at this table. None of them at any time in my career would have hired me, even the guy sitting next to me [Eric Ripert]. And he's my best friend in the world." (Ripert, the chef at the famous Le Bernardin in New York City, has become Bourdain's BFF over the past few years.)
A whole chapter follows parsing the advantages of selling out; it is as torturous in its self-examination as a seminarian's confession. Bourdain isn't famous because he knows so much about restaurant cooking (though he does) or because he's always cool (he isn't) or even because he hosts a popular show about liquor and piglets. Bourdain is famous because he is vivid and real and mercilessly honest at every second in a sphere whose atmosphere consists of bombast, shilling, sanctimony and the unholy alliance between marketing communications and social networking.
The contrast is best seen in the chapters on Bourdain's heroes and villains. (The phrase appears in the book but could well be the title.) The heroes are honest chefs who cook not on TV but in the real world, doing good work, like Ripert, England's nose-to-tail chef Fergus Henderson and Momofuku's David Chang, who gets his own chapter and whom Bourdain most seems to identify with minus Chang's prodigious talent. The villains include bloggers; vegetarians; wealthy, drug-addled philistines; and, worst of all, the GQ critic Alan Richman, who gets a counterpart chapter to Chang's, pithily entitled, "Alan Richman Is a Douchebag."
The Richman chapter should be required reading for anyone who is regularly exposed to the food media; no more withering, or accurate, picture has ever been painted of the strange ethical twilight in which chefs, writers, bloggers and publicists all circle frantically, like so many fruit bats at dusk. Bourdain accuses only a few writers of being actively corrupt, but he is appalled by how self-serving they are and how disingenuous they can be about their motivations. Richman, a multiple James Beard Awardwinning critic, has been fighting a flame war with Bourdain, who was enraged when Richman took a cheap shot at Bourdain's former restaurant without saying why he was attacking it. Bourdain makes it clear who his friends and enemies are and writes about them without pretense of objectivity. Like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, there's nothing he despises so much as the stench of lies.