I just finished reading Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook pretty much back-to-back. Once you’ve read the first, you can’t help but be curious about the latter. The author of both is Anthony Bourdain, an in-your-face guy who somehow provoked in me simultaneous reactions of “Just shut up!” and “Tell me more…”
Kitchen Confidential essentially tracks his crazy career as a good-but-not-great chef, though not in a linear way – there are plenty of asides, advice, rants, and reminiscences. Throughout his tales of drug-fueled kitchen adventures, I kept thinking, “This guy is kind of an asshole,” but the book is saved because of two things. First, you get the sense he would be the first to tell you he’s kind of an asshole. And second, he writes in a truly engaging way about the world of food, from a behind the scenes look at a day in the life of a chef, to a chapter on “how to cook like the pros” (butter and shallots are necessary, a full set of specialized knives is not) to bigger-picture descriptions of how the restaurant industry works. He has an eye for detail that makes you really feel what it’s like to work the line, and this is what kept me turning the pages and tolerating the over-testosteroned tone.
Kitchen Confidential was written when Bourdain was in his mid-forties, recovering from heroin addiction and nearly burned out after decades in many different kitchens, an unknown chef.
What a difference a decade makes.
The book was a hit, and Bourdain is now a celebrity chef with his own TV show, guest judging spots on Top Chef…basically, he’s a star. Case in point: in Kitchen Confidential, he writes about how uber-famous chefs like Eric Ripert wouldn’t be giving him a call anytime soon. In Medium Raw? Ripert is described as his best friend in the world.
Medium Raw is composed of stand-alone chapters covering a wide range of topics, including reflections on Bourdain’s life since Kitchen Confidential and his thoughts on “selling out,” his heroes and villains in the cooking world, and changes and trends in the industry. I found this book to be much more lazily written, with a lot more gratuitous sexualized language (how many times do you really need to compare a food experience to a blow job, getting laid, etc.? Or use the word “clusterfuck?”). And yet…there are still plenty of juicy tidbits and beautiful descriptions of the pleasures of eating and cooking. My favorite chapter, titled “My Aim is True,” profiles the meticulous work of Justo Thomas, who cleans and prepares 700 pounds of fish a day for renowned seafood restaurant Le Bernadin.
If you’re interested in the musings of a man who relishes ripping on everyone from wait staff to vegetarians to food world gods (and of course, “bastard” food bloggers), but still has a true love and reverence for the culture of cooking, I recommend Kitchen Confidential. On the other hand, I’d wait until Medium Raw comes out in paperback. Or save your money entirely and borrow my copy – I’ll put Post-It notes on the good chapters 🙂