Anthony Bourdain was one of those special people who was immensely talented, passionate, and curious about food, people and the world. That’s why he succeeded as a cook, a writer, and a TV host who traveled around the world eating local dishes, basically what many of us would consider a dream job. It was a tragedy that he left this world the way he did and when he did, in June at age 61. I didn’t watch his show as I’m not a foodie but I knew that he would visit different countries, eating local dishes and hanging out with locals. That time he ate Vietnamese noodles with Barack Obama in a small Hanoi eatery was especially cool. I decided to read his 2010 book Medium Raw – A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook.
Writing about his past, about people who he admired or hated, being a father, and the joy (lust) of eating great food, Medium Raw is like a collection of essays rather than a biography. It is a fascinating book, which at times is fierce and others is surprising empathetic, such as when Bourdain gives his take on chefs selling out. He isn’t afraid to name names or describe incidents in full detail and honesty, because in some of them he doesn’t always come out on top.
I may be ethnic Asian but I’ve never been passionate about food, especially as I don’t like seafood and I have a sensitive stomach. I appreciate good food but I’ve got a workmanlike approach to eating and I can get by with simple breakfasts and meals. However even I felt something at how tantalizingly Bourdain describes eating food, whether it Vietnamese pho, spaghetti in the Italian countryside, or even seafood.
What makes the book really outstanding is not the passionate food descriptions or the stirring insights into the restaurant industry, but the chapters about famous chefs and food personalities like David Chang. Bourdain even has an entire chapter about somebody he detests, a famous food critic, as well as another chapter on “heroes and villains.” One of the most fascinating chapters is not about a chef or critic, but about Justo, a guy who prepares and portions 700-1,000 pounds of fish everyday for a well-known New York seafood restaurant. Bourdain is a great writer and it is never so apparent than when he makes gutting and cleaning fish sound so interesting.
I might try to get Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain’s first memoir which launched his literary career, but Medium Raw was enough to make me realize why Bourdain was so special.