Has Anthony Bourdain jumped the shark?*
31 August 2010
This is a question it hurts me to ask.
I love Anthony Bourdain, and was very excited to read his new book Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. So it was very disappointing to find that, while I read the whole thing, very few of its chapters really did anything for me, and I got the distinct feeling in the earliest chapters in the book that Bourdain has started to phone it in in order to keep publishing new collections (to do which, I'm sure, his publisher is always pushing).
My apathy started with the prologue, in which he describes a group of food notables and a special meal in which they were invited to partake. Now, Bourdain has never been one to mince words, or his love of eating animal flesh. So, if you're a bit squirrelly about delicacies like little birds that are meant to be eaten bones and all, you may want to skip the first chapter. I'm just sayin'. I am emphatically not a vegetarian (let's put it this way: I have eaten cow the same day I have helped butcher it) and it was a little much for me. In subsequent chapters he just seems to be trying too hard to maintain the hard-living facade, sharing stories from when he visited the Caribbean with a mentally unstable rich woman and holding forth on what luminaries in the food world he thinks are heroes and villains.
Which is not to say there's not any good material here. As always, he's at his best when describing food and how people prepare food. The absolute best piece in the whole thing--and it's toward the end, wait for it--is a chapter describing how one of the employees of Le Bernardin restaurant in New York City cleans and prepares the restaurant's daily fish portions. It's fascinating, and beautifully written:
"...every one who passes by and sees me standing there with a notebook in hand has to linger for a second, to determine if I've gotten it yet, how phenomenally, amazingly, supernaturally fucking good Justo Thomas is at doing this job. They appreciate this better than I ever could, because when Justo goes on vacation, it will take three of them to cut the same amount of fish that Justo, alone, will scale, gut, clean, and portion in four to five hours...**" (p. 237.)
"'This knife only for monkfish,' says Justo, producing a long blade that might once have been a standard chef's knife but which has been, over the years, ground down into a thin, serpentine, almost double-teardrop edge. Once the monkfish meat is cut away from the bone, one loin at a time, he grabs the tail ends and runs the flexible blade down the body, pulling skin away. With a strange, flicking motion, he shaves off any pink or red." (p. 244.)
Frankly, that chapter made the whole book worth it. I'll still read whatever Bourdain writes, but I'll be happier if he goes back to describing, primarily, the kitchens and the food he loves so much.
*For the record, I thought of this phrase and title before Bourdain used it describing the work of another chef on p. 153. Weird coincidence.
**Normally italics bug me, but Bourdain doesn't use them often, and I like the emphasis they give here.