If you really want to know the “real” Anthony Bourdain, take a look at the essay he selected, featured at the end of the book, for the $10,000 prize in a contest for who could write something that best captured the essence of why it’s important to cook well. The winning essay, a totally unpretentious piece by an amateur writer about his wife’s dish of arroz con pollo waiting for him after a night shift, is emotional and tender.
But Anthony Bourdain doesn’t want you to think that’s the meat and potatoes of his personality – or even the arroz y pollo. He wants you to think he’s got a little of that, but it’s on the side. He’s sort of a mess. Fortunately, he’s a lovable mess, and a recognizable and honest mess who isn’t afraid to say, “Yeah, OK. You got me. I’m a mess.” Plus, he’s coming to the city where I live to speak on my birthday and I don’t think it’s coincidence. I think he’s actually coming here to cook for me. Right? RIGHT?
His newest autobiographical-ish book, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, is fun to read. Bourdain is a good writer. I don’t know if his voice comes through so clearly because I have watched an embarrassing number of episodes of his show, No Reservations, but it reads as it should: written by a human, not a marketing department. It’s also maddening, but in a good way. And I know that doesn’t exactly compute, and I also know that I am biased because of my almost maternal affection for the guy, but I found myself turning the pages and mentally throwing up my hands and sighing, “Oh ANTHONY.” Like he’s some kind of hopeless teenager. Which, of course, he is not. I can’t help it. I adore the guy.
Here’s what I mean: Towards the end of the book he embarks on a screed about a Food Network personality and a type of food featured regularly on his show (not necessarily that he prepares but that appears in various restaurants around the country), “I just dislike – really dislike – the idea that somebody would but Texas-style barbeque inside a fucking nori roll. I was, and remain angry that there are genuine pit-masters who’ve made a calling of getting pork shoulder just right – and sushi chefs who worked three years on rice alone before being deemed worthy to lay hands on fish – and here’s some guy on TV blithely smashing those two disciplines together like junkers in a demolition derby. A pre-chopped onion is not okay, the way I look at it – no mater what Rachael or Sandra tell you. The shit in a can is not anywhere nearly as good- and almost always more expensive – than stuff you can often make yourself just as quickly. It’s…it’s just….wrong to tell people otherwise.“ Yet, he doesn’t go off on a similar harangue about the complete pretentious absurdity of the fact that his friend and hugely famous superstar chef Thomas Keller “famously insists on storing his fish in their natural ‘swimming’ position.” Which seems to me to be a target custom made for a rant. There are these kinds of inconsistencies all over the place. Oh, Anthony. The interview with Bourdain at the end of the book is just as schizophrenic and just as endearing and just as entertaining and just as exasperating.
Nevertheless, you have to admire a guy who devotes entire chapters to dismantling his enemies on a cellular level and is so funny while doing it that you forget he is gutting them and handing them their innards to hold while he delivers the coup de grace and to explaining, fish by fish, the way one guy from the Dominican Republic breaks down seafood at le Bernardin and, critical point, makes it fascinating to read.
Philadelphia Magazine did a side by side and point by point comparison of Anthony Bourdain and his best buddy Eric Ripert, with whom he’s coming to town for this speaking engagement, entitled “Sexy Chef Smackdown.” They declared Bourdain the winner. I’ll let you know what I think on November 3rd.
p.s. I already know what I think.