Monday, June 21, 2010

Kitchen Confidential Redux

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain

Medium Raw is No. 2 on the New York Times Bestsellers List for hardcover fiction.

I have never tasted Anthony Bourdain's cooking or tried his former restaurant, Les Halles in New York. So when I say I am a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain, I am referring to the author, not the chef. I have read A Cook's Tour and Nasty Bits in addition to Kitchen Confidential, and I scarfed up every word of Medium Raw within 48 hours of getting my copy.

I did not read any book reviews, interviews, or blog posts before experiencing the book for myself. The only preview I had was to a small slice of his grueling book tour schedule and only from the outside. A friend had generously treated me to a ticket for a book-signing dinner event at Left Bank Restaurant in Larkspur, California. For $125/person, we stood in a line around the block while each person received an autographed copy of Medium Raw (attendees had the option of getting the autograph personalized by providing the spelling of names to one of the ushers who would write them out in large block letters with a thick black Sharpie on post-it notes to be placed inside the book cover or in some instances, on foreheads or chests), got the opportunity to snap photos with a dazed-looking Bourdain, who was wearing that unmistakable please-get-me-out-of-here look on his face which none of the hundreds of his fans seemed to recognize despite its frequent appearance on television, and then got squeezed into communal tables for a surprisingly decent banquet dinner, featuring well-executed house-made charcuterie, flavorful fish soup (despite being a bit thin and lukewarm), followed by an impressive boudin blanc and pork tenderloin, accompanied by generous pours of surprisingly decent Chardonnays and Pinots from Trione Winery in Sonoma.

Even though I knew that the event would be a zoo, I was still excited, like everyone else, to get a glimpse of the man in person. I wish I could say that Bourdain did not seem like a caged animal, signing book after book and then getting up to recite a stand-up comedy routine while acting like it was his first time making witty observations about Rachael Ray and the Food Network and answering the same questions he must get in every single lunch, dinner, and other event he has to endure during his book tour. Throughout the evening, Chef Roland Passot (whom I would bet money has never spent that much time in one shot at any of his Left Bank franchises) was yelling into a microphone in the dining room like Ozzy Osbourne. As the cherry clafoutis desserts were being dropped by the harried servers and after Bourdain delivered a few more stock lines about Tyler Florence's influence on Applebee's and Guy Fieri's wardrobe choices, his assistants escorted him out through a side door to a waiting towncar. He was still unable to avoid being stalked by a couple of giggling, drunk girls in short skirts teetering on heels. He is, after all, not a bad-looking guy and famous to boot, even if he is not the bad-boy chef he used to be.

In sum, the entire experience was akin to seeing the movie rendition of a book you love and being invariably disappointed. Sadly, my sneaking suspicion that I might be disappointed was confirmed after I had digested all 281 pages of Medium Raw, and sad was the dominant emotion I felt thinking about what I read. I miss that foul-mouthed young chef with his devil-may-care attitude, and after reading Medium Raw, I suspect Bourdain does too. His wistfulness is palpable from the pages of every disjointed story, composed in a style that tries too hard to be effortless and flip but is instead oddly reminiscent of the ringmold/squeeze bottle presentations that Bourdain ridiculed in Kitchen Confidential. His observations and commentary, so fresh and enlightening ten years ago now seem somewhat contrived and calculated. The unabashed curse words that so effectively seasoned his prose in his earlier books sounded more like something written by an amateur writer trying to emulate Bourdain.

My impressions of Bourdain as a supremely talented writer, with great expertise in his chosen subject matter (at least at one point in his life Bourdain actually was a chef, unlike his BFF Michael Ruhlman who still makes me itchy every time he talks about being a chef) and an almost unending capacity to entertain, have not changed. But even while reading his still-entertaining prose, I could not help but feel, notwithstanding his oft-repeated proclamation that he is no longer cool (do the words "doth protest too much" ring a bell), like I was watching an aged rock star desperately clinging to the stage. Despite his resolute endeavors to be honest with and about himself and his unrelenting and genuine dedication to no-BS, Bourdain still seems to be in denial about the fact that he is a writer, not a chef. I may be wrong, but I am guessing that restaurants and chefs around the world who burden him with tasting menus and extra courses are doing so because he is a food and travel writer, not because he is a fellow chef. Deep down, he knows this, and even though things are much better now and he would not want that life back, he misses that crazy young chef. Me, I miss the crazy young writer.

Bourdain's ever-colorful description of his last experience at Per Se during the few weeks before Jonathan Benno left reads like a self-portrait-- dissatisfied, disappointed, and guilt-ridden for feeling that way. Perhaps, once he comes to terms with his success and his new life, I might like the next book as much as I liked his earlier creations.

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