Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Book Review: Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain

Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain started his writing career as a memoirist, and apparently, this is how he will continue on. Kitchen Confidential was a well-written, no-holds barred look at his life as a chef and the inner workings of restaurant kitchens. It came along at just the right time and food writing was better off because of it.

If Bourdain had not written Kitchen Confidential, the kind of ramblings he offers up in Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook would be consigned to some anonymous blog like this one. Competent writer? Sure. But his writing is also larded with skewed syntax, garden-path sentences, and a turn-of-phrase that just isn't that interesting or unique.

Bourdain essentially has three writing schticks: 1) he shits on people 2) he kisses ass or 3) he serves up self-absorbed, navel-gazing tripe.

Emotion, Logical Fallacies, Irrational Attacks

Bourdain can spew venom and rant with the best of them. But, like most spewers of venom, he feels it necessary to justify his attacks. Righteous indignation and justification fuel the best verbal assaults, whether in writing or face-to-face. It's like granting a license to oneself to unload in the nastiest and most personal way possible. In fact, a person who is only capable of spewing venom is truly thankful when someone gives them the license to unleash some acidic verbiage.

But what if no reasonable justification exists? Why, you simply manufacture outrage.

Like many people who are skilled at launching personal attacks, I believe that Bourdain has decided to simply run with it. When he sits down to write every day, the thoughts that rise in his head are what he goes with. And invariably, those thoughts are attacks on others. To not give words to those thoughts would mean that he wouldn't produce a whole hell of a lot. I'm also guessing that Bourdain is now surrounded by numerous sycophants who tell him that he is a kind of twisted genius who tells it like it is.

The problem is, many of his attacks are based on such a feeble premise, and he comes off as such a petulant, whining individual who can dish it out but obviously can't take it, that he burns to the ground any shred of credibility he has left.

And that's too bad, because the imbecilic shit from his attacks slops out the sides and infects his writing that isn't about shredding someone to bits. In fact, that's why it's so easy to characterize his feel-good pieces as ass-kissing: because they are in such stark contrast to his attacks.

His attacks in Medium Raw are filled with suspect claims and intellectual dishonesty, while he gives those he likes a completely free pass. When one of Bourdain's pals offers up some shameless hypocrisy, he doesn't call them on it, he sucks even harder.

The Richman Feud

Alan Richman is a food writer for GQ magazine. Bourdain dislikes him intensely. Bourdain has probably been waiting for years for a good excuse to go after him and generate a public feud. In 2006, Richman wrote a fairly in-depth article about various restaurants and the food culture in New Orleans. According to Bourdain, Richman was out of line for daring to write anything except feel-good, positive comments about New Orleans so soon after hurricane Katrina. And for this, Bourdain called Richman an "asshole" and a "douchebag" in various public forums.

Of course, Bourdain entirely misrepresented Richman's wide-ranging article. If you read the article, you will find 5000-plus words full of detailed and interesting observations about restaurants and food in New Orleans. It's a well-written piece that relays numerous dining experiences, and contains evocative observations and a real sense of place. But Bourdain knows a simple narrative when he sees one, and a storyline that everyone can get their head around. And he knows for certain that the vast majority of people will never read the Richman article.

Richman tells it like he observes it—he praises many establishments in New Orleans while ripping many others. He mocks the casual use of the word "Creole" when most people can't articulate exactly what kind of cuisine it represents. He mentions his feelings towards New Orleans before and after the hurricane (it's never been his favourite place) and comments on the reconstruction efforts (and lack thereof).

In short, an honest, sometimes sneering, sometimes praiseworthy, but never maudlin or clichéd, piece of writing.

Honesty. Something that Bourdain likes to talk and write about an awful lot. But many people who constantly reference a quality that they believe defines them, rarely exhibit that trait. They've got to drone on about it endlessly in an attempt to convince themselves and others that they are a cut above everyone else in the "authenticity" department (another quality Bourdain likes to blather on about).

So Bourdain latched onto this easy but disingenuous narrative: the elitist who dared to kick the marginal when they were down. But then, Bourdain has been peddling this kind of crap for some time now. This suddenly cosmopolitan world traveler fancies himself the only one really able to understand all the poor and dispossessed of the world. And as he likes to remind people on a regular basis, most of those "rubes" who read his articles and watch him on his Travel Network show, No Reservations, will likely never see the places he visits. So it's up to him to offer up some genuine observations in a hip, ironic, self-deprecating way. It's the kind of mindset that leads to some of Bourdain's most entertaining and laugh-out-loud absurdities.

Like the nugget of shit about vegetarians who travel to foreign countries. According to Bourdain, his loathing of many vegetarians and vegans is largely based on the fact that when they go to foreign countries, they are being disrespectful by not accepting the hospitality that may include the offer of dishes that contain meat. This is one of the most bizarre pieces of garbage that Bourdain has ever puked forth.

Except for traveling TV production entourages replete with wads of cash and video cameras and who offer an obvious number of quid pro quos—free coverage and publicity and many dollars spent at their establishments—and perhaps fresh-faced backpackers who go off the beaten path—guess what? There really aren't that many strangers or restaurant owners who offer up free dishes of meat to strangers. And when you do find yourself in a situation where someone shows real hospitality and would like to share some local dish with you and it happens to contain ingredients that you can't or won't eat? Why, you just explain that in a simple and respectful way!

To suggest that it is somehow disrespectful to turn down an offer is to paint people in other countries as simple-minded and winsome. Exactly the kind of exploitation and bullshit that Bourdain claims he is against.

Richman Kicks Back

So Bourdain misrepresents Richman's article and calls him an asshole and douchebag. And here's a real shocker, something that seems nearly incomprehensible to the spluttering Bourdain...Richman responded by reviewing Les Halles, a restaurant in New York where Bourdain used to be the chef and with which he still has a business relationship. It's one of those "associate chef" arrangements. Or perhaps not even as formal as that, as Richman says he was told upon phoning Les Halles that Bourdain is a "consultant."

Bottom line is that the restaurant and Bourdain both benefit from the advertised association. Did Richman review the restaurant only because Bourdain is connected to it? No kidding! Someone goes after you in a public way and you are going to respond. Richman is a restuarant reviewer, so he reviewed Les Halles.

And he ripped it to shreds and directed some insults at Bourdain as well. And Bourdain seems truly offended and shocked by this. He can't comprehend that when you fuck with someone that person often fucks you back. Bourdain characterizes the review as beyond the pale, some kind of never-before-heard-of low blow.

Did Richman give an honest review, or did he set out to even the score? Impossible to know, though many online reviews seem to repeat many of the criticisms leveled at Les Halles by Richman. And perhaps more telling, Bourdain doesn't try to refute any of those criticisms in his chapter about Richman in Medium Raw. He simply splutters and claims that Richman has stooped to some egregiously low and dishonuorable place.

The entire chapter is a bizarre little tantrum. No doubt an entertaining, embarrassing and intriguing tantrum for the glimpse it offers into Bourdain's corroded mind. Like public defecation, you keep looking/reading because it is so hard to fathom that someone is willing to debase himself so completely.

As Bourdain wrote the chapter, it's as if he sensed that some people might actually question his assertions and so he decided to pad out his diatribe with some more reasons for why he went after Richman in the first place. Bourdain points to an article that Richman wrote back in 2004; a long list of BS that diners put up with when they eat in restaurants. Among the items that apparently convinced Bourdain to start attacking Richman, was one that referred to associate chefs and the suggestion that restaurants start posting signs that let diners know when the big-name chef is in the house.

This set Bourdain off on a long rant in which he again spins and twists the words of others. As Bourdain correctly notes, most sophisticated diners know that associate chefs simply don't have the time to be in one of the restaurants that bears their name on most nights. And the best of them ensure that the head chefs in the establishments that advertise their names have the training to ensure that a consistency is upheld that matches their own level of excellence.

But that is the ideal of which only some executive chef arrangements maintain. The worst of them are financial arrangements, pure and simple. And no doubt, Mr. Tell-it-like-it-is Bourdain knows this too. So what is the harm in drawing more attention to this practice, and yes, why not go so far as to let diners know when the chef is actually in the house?

Of course, it is supremely appropriate that when Richman ripped Les Halles and Bourdain with his perfectly titled "Kitchen Inconsequential" he was also exposing the worst of those arrangements. Bourdain whines that Richman is trying to damage him by proxy by giving a poor review to Les Halles. Strange, to me it seems like a straightforward and direct attempt to damage. But Bourdain continues on, and together with the new orifices supplied to him by Richman, he keeps self-eviscerating and puncturing holes into himself.

After the gutless slurs Bourdain hurled at Richman, Richman would be completely justified in pronouncing Bourdain the lesioned, shit-caked arsehole of the year. Bourdain knows that kind of attack just doesn't fit Richman's style, but he claims that such a gutter response would be the only appropriate response:
Now, let me ask you a question: If I were to call you, say … an asshole? You’d probably call me an asshole right back. Or maybe you’d go me one better. You’d call me a fucking asshole. Or, better yet, get really personal: “A loud, egotistical, one-note asshole who’s been cruising on the reputation of one obnoxious, over-testosteroned book for way too long and who should just shut the fuck up.”

This would be entirely fair and appropriate, one would think. I call you a schoolyard name. You respond in kind. You acknowledge the insult and reply with a pithy riposte.

But not Richman. He is, after all, an impeccably credentialed journalist, critic, educator, and arbiter of taste. Not for him a public pissing contest with some semi-educated journeyman who called him a dirty name.
Bourdain wants to set the rules of engagement that would benefit only him, and is apoplectic that his intended victim, Richman, doesn't go along with this. But in a bizarre twist to this kind of story, Bourdain isn't angry that Richman took the low road, but is enraged that he dared NOT to get down in the gutter with him.

Bourdain Sucks Harder

I suppose if Bourdain heaped contempt on all who came into his line of vision, and had some sound arguments to back up his vitriol, then it would be another matter. But the specious reasoning as a means to go after people he simply dislikes, while giving his friends a free ride in a shameless, self-serving way (they in turn praise him in their books, or engage in other mutually beneficial arrangements), would make professional sycophants like Oprah blush.

In Bourdain's chapter-length wankfest over chef David Chang, we get these words of wisdom from his most loved celebrity chef:
“I don’t mind people saying they hate my guts,” he says, warming to his subject. “Just have the balls to say it to my face.”

“Don’t try to be my fuckin’ friend and then …” he trails off, remembering the “Ozersky incident.” Josh Ozersky, at the time of his transgression, was an editor-correspondent for New York magazine's influential food-and-dining Web site, Grub Street. The root of his conflict with Chang, it is said, stems from the publication of a Momofuku menu——before Chang felt it ready for release. There had been, Chang insists, assurances that the document would be withheld.
"It is said"?

Well, who the hell said it? The object of your sycophantic wet dream who is sitting in front of you? But you offer up this passive voice bit of tripe? Why not ask Chang directly and then do the honourable thing and get the opposite side of the story from Ozersky himself? No, not when you are in the business of bashing people. Or building them up because you have a fairly good inkling that you can come along for the ride and gain some kind of benefit in the process.

Chang goes on to rip some other people with not a single challenge from Bourdain nor any attempt to get some insight into things from the other person in the dispute (if it is even a dispute—Chang simply unloads on numerous people he hates in most cases). Nor does he call Chang on his hypocrisy about "Just have the balls to say it to my face." Unless Chang believes that having Bourdain look at him with glazed eyes and a line of saliva hanging off his chin while Chang rips other people is the equivalent of criticizing them to their faces.

It mars what is an otherwise interesting look at Chang. But a fluff piece full of softball questions and wide-eyed unquestioning praise, especially from someone 20 years older than Chang, becomes just another cringe-worthy example of how weak the foundation on which Bourdain's writing is based can be.

Why Does Bourdain Attack?

So what exactly drives Bourdain to rip so many people in such a base manner with no regard for backing up what he says in any logical way? As mentioned before, he simply doesn't have much to say otherwise. And he knows that gossipy stories attract a lot of attention.

But look at Bourdain's past and I believe that there are some clues there. A self-admitted former junky whose heavy boozing would qualify him, at various times in the past, as a drunk, Bourdain has a secondary addiction shared by so many other dopeheads and boozers: melodrama.

It's hard to say whether dopeheads have a propensity for melodrama before they start sticking needles in their arms, or whether it develops afters years of starring in their own pathetic soap opera full of attempts at kicking the habit and redemption narratives, and stoked by the weirdly satisfying knowledge that all the people in their dreary orbits are watching and being fucked over to a degree with every subsequent act of selfishness.

Regardless, the melodrama addiction is usually still there if the dopehead comes out the other side and is able to kick his drug habit. Not only is the melodrama habit harder to kick in many ways, but it acts as an overcompensation for the drug-addled brain that the former junky is saddled with for his remaining years. The synapses just don't fire like they used to after all those chemicals and abuse. Flawed logic and overwrought emotion are two of the many life-long souvenirs that drug addicts carry with them to the grave.

And so Bourdain's writing is rammed full of specious arguments, attempts to draw people into shit fights, and gobs of melodrama. He devotes an entire chapter to passing judgment on various chefs and others associated with the restaurant and food industries. Some of the same people he ripped in years gone by receive a more objective assessment in Medium Raw, with praise and the occasional back-handed apology for a few who previously tasted Bourdain's wrath.

It's not hard to understand why. Bourdain has his well-fed face up to the trough and is trying to get in on many of the same deals of those he criticized. And many of those people can help him slurp up a bigger share of the spoils on offer. Though just as often, his changed opinions are likely a way to lessen the glare of hypocrisy.

He even takes a paragraph to get in a few digs at his ex-wife. His new-found fame and wealth spurred Bourdain to ditch his first wife for a decades-younger Italian tart with whom he now has a young daughter. But he can't leave his first wife out of it completely. He offers this as a parting shot:

I was angry with my wife—very angry, a long-festering and deep-seated resentment that year after year after year she didn’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t work. Strong, smart as hell, with a college degree from a Seven Sisters school, solid white-collar experience, and she’d long ago just … stopped looking. In nearly two decades, after a promising start, nothing but a couple of short-term, part-time gigs stocking books and sorting in-house mail for near-minimum wage. It made no sense to me and I resented it bitterly. To be fair, it consumed me out of all proportion, with the kind of smoldering, barely repressed passive-aggressive anger that poisons everything around it. And that, sure as shit, didn’t help the situation. Waking up and going to sleep with this basic fact— and the way I then handled that resentment—was contaminating everything. I just couldn’t get past it. I didn’t get past it.

With his love of melodrama, you can almost see Bourdain's thought process at work. Just hoping that his ex-wife takes the bait and responds in a public way so that he can then really unload.

Me, Me, Me

Aside from the attacks and the hagiographic paeans, Bourdain offers up some really bland, self-absorbed articles about his own life. To be fair, he does have more than a few fans, and they probably do want to hear about how his life has changed since the success of Kitchen Confidential. Mark these pieces as the dreariest and least interesting.

For example, Bourdain is a proud new father and provides his take on the tried and true "things will never be the same again" theme. Which definitely resonates with anyone who has children. But it turns into more melodrama, and a new, iron-clad excuse for any kind of hypocrisy or bad behaviour that he will offer up in the years to come.

Because, you see, now that he has a daughter, anything goes in his attempt to acquire as much as he can in his remaining years so as to provide a good life for her. How ironic that those who talk the most about authenticity and honesty are often the ones who are the most easily corrupted and can rationalize anything.

His chapter on using some early-childhood brainwashing on his daughter to turn her away from fast food for as many years as possible comes from a good place. And I agree with most of what he has to say about the evils of soda, junk food, and McDonalds. But what could have been a classic piece suffers from what so much in Medium Raw does: the sense that absolutely no one is giving his writing the brutal once-over before it is published. Just weirdly off in some really cringe-worthy ways.

But that willingness to write about his personal life together with his brand of nastiness is what plays into the canard that so many people repeat, that Bourdain is an honest writer. But look closer at what Bourdain writes regarding his past life, and it is not so much honest, as it is building up a myth of himself as some kind of hard-case who saw the light. Much of what he writes about himself is just self-created clichés and superficial bullshit. If you are going to go down the path of using your personal life as fodder and then try to pass it off as being truthful, be prepared for people to call you on it.

Part of his rationale for offering up supposedly hard-core realities about his past actions is to insulate himself from criticism. Prolepsis is a tool that Bourdain employs often in his writing. It goes like this: brazenly admit that you were a junky who thieved from old women, were a nasty, self-serving piece of filth, and there's really nothing left for people to say when you blind-side them with scathing attacks, as Bourdain likes to do to numerous people he deems less than authentic.

When you have already, apparently, decimated yourself, the people whom you have attacked in your books really have nothing left that they can say against you.

Writing Style

So, is there any good writing in Medium Raw? Yes, there is. Kitchen Confidential wasn't a hit for no good reason. Bourdain can hit his stride and provide some entertaining prose when he makes the effort. A few memorable pieces in Medium Raw include an article about what it takes to be a chef (So You Wanna be a Chef), and a very good, striving-to-be Studs Terkel-esque article on a fish-cutter who works at a restaurant owned by Bourdain's self-proclaimed best friend, Eric Ripert (The Fish-on-Monday Thing).

Even his "what happened to" tale of characters from Kitchen Confidential is an interesting read although you'd have to have a pretty high opinion of the book to remember many of the names, unless you read it last week.

This passage, from The Fish-on-Monday Thing, is an example of some engaging and informative writing:

Cod is a different matter. It’s delicate. Extremely delicate—and perishable. The flesh, handled roughly, will mash. The physiognomy of a cod is not suited to eventual portioning as the identical, evenly shaped squares or oblongs a three-star restaurant requires. But before I’m even fully aware of what’s going on, Justo’s got the fillets off the bone—neatly stacked. He puts all the left-side fillets in one stack—the right-side lets in another. With the inappropriate (one would think) slicing knife, he’s drilling out absolutely identical cubes of cod (all the left-hand fillets first—then the right-hand ones). If they’re not identical, he quickly—and almost imperceptibly—squares them off, trims them down to uniform size and shape. The trimmings form a steadily growing pile off to the side, which will be joined throughout the morning by other trimmings, for eventual donation to City Harvest. Tail ends—or smaller but still useful bits, doomed to never be uniform but, in every other respect, perfectly good, form another pile—above and away from the uniform one.

But amongst the good writing, there are the many annoyances and credibility-killing habits listed above. Other tendencies indicate Bourdain needs some more self-awareness with regard to his writing. I have no doubt that Bourdain is surrounded by fawning hipsters who tell him every last "fucking" he litters his prose with hits them like a punch in the guts. Please, someone who has pull with Bourdain, tell him how absurd a dozen "fucking"s make an article sound.

What Next for Bourdain?

Bourdain cryptically hints at the fact that he may be finished with food writing altogether. Bullshit. He has worked too hard to get where he is. He spends a good portion of Medium Raw sucking up to various people, strengthening connections and probing for potential new avenues of business.

Most importantly, after the success of Kitchen Confidential, the travel show, and his entrenchment as a kind of gonzo chronicler of the celebrity chef and restaurant business, he has that one important thing that will allow him to carry forward with what has become a lucrative career: access. His desire to maintain his access and expand his reach is evident in his less than subtle apologies for past boorish behaviour.

Medium Raw is a series of articles billed as Bourdain's follow-up to Kitchen Confidential. If this is the best he can come up with in ten years of writing, then his fans shouldn't hold their breath for his next effort. Whether or not he decides to go beyond the gossipy, ranting, attacking, self-absorbed angles will probably determine how seriously readers will take him in the years to come.


Anonymous said...

I'm late to this party, but what a brilliant review. You really nailed it with the description of addiction melodrama - it explains everything! It is all about him, and his anger. And regarding that lazy ass first wife of his, someone should ask him in more detail who his editor and researcher for his first four books was. She had a thankless job and is probably happy to be rid of this narcissistic twat.

Unknown said...

Prolepsis huh?masterful autopsy on the ultimate come he goes after women and other people unlikely to crack him in his smug mouth,but doesn't,for instance go after,say,the hells angels or the mafia?he's just a big pussy who had to develope a certain facility with words to fend off all the guys that wanted to kick his jersey ass.

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