Book Review: ‘Medium Raw,’ Anthony Bourdain


[…] His new book, “Medium Raw,” is subtitled “A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook,” and much of it reads more like a poison-pen letter than a love note. Sandra Lee is the “hellspawn of Betty Crocker and Charles Manson.” The movie “No Reservations” makes him want to “vomit blood.” Rocco DiSpirito’s TV series is a “reality-show-driven abomination.” Even the saintly Alice Waters is dissed for her “crude and obvious blend of self-aggrandizement and genuine good intentions.”

Elsewhere, Gael Greene, Alain Ducasse, Wolfgang Puck and many more come in for varying degrees of evisceration. This, of course, is all great fun, even if some of it’s the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel variety. But just in case you’re wondering whether Bourdain can take it as well as he can dish it out, he turns his verbal knife skills on himself. “A loud, egotistical, one-note -hole who’s been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long,” “the angry, cynical, snarky guy who says mean things on ‘Top Chef,’ ” “the very picture of the jaded, overprivileged ‘foodie.’ ” Well, he makes some good points….

But for my money the standout chapter in the book is “My Aim Is True,” which describes the work and life of Justo Thomas, who cuts and portions at least 700 pounds of fish every day at Le Bernardin, the New York seafood restaurant. The man is a brilliant craftsman and a force of nature, and when he goes on vacation, three people have to be employed to do his work.

Bourdain observes and describes Thomas in wonderfully fine detail. We “see” the way he employs different methods for different fish, how he uses his knives, the way he removes skin and bones, how he’s able to cut absolutely identically sized pieces. Then we learn about his background in the Dominican Republic, and the role he still plays in his family there. And finally, in a masterful flourish, Bourdain takes Thomas to eat at Le Bernardin.

It’s generally unthinkable for kitchen staff to eat in their own restaurant, but for Thomas, people make exceptions. By the end of the piece I felt I knew Thomas better than I know most of my own friends. You have to hand it to Bourdain; this is really good writing, not just really good food writing.

Bourdain says he spent 28 years as a professional cook and chef. By my reckoning he’s spent 15 years as a professional writer. Will it surprise you that he doesn’t think much of writers? He says, “hanging out with more than one of them at a time is about as much fun as being thrown in a cage full of hungry but toothless civet cats.” Just once in a while, even Mr. B. overcooks his similes.

Full review here.