- Scott Phillips
Anthony Bourdain's first book, Kitchen Confidential, was a surprise when it hit national best seller lists; even the author was taken aback. He thought it would appeal to food-service workers in the New York city area, as it was a "look behind the curtain" of local restaurants. The secret to Bourdain's success in this and later books is his passion for food and his ability to write well why he finds food exciting. We get two Tonys in his books: bad Tony and good Tony. Good Tony is articulate and writes well about food or preparation of food. Bad Tony is foul-mouthed and angry. We get both Tonys in Medium Raw.
Good Tony opens up things at the beginning with "The Sit Down," a meal taken with some of the great French chefs in America, eating ortolan, a dish that is illegal but available on the black market. He is very excited to be in such august company and equally excited to be eating this particular meal with the frisson of illegality. After the meal Bourdain speculates on why he is there and what led him to that particular spot. "Selling Out" finally explains why big-name chefs have to keep on opening up new places, expanding their empires. "So You Wanna be a Chef" offers career guidance to young people thinking about attending culinary school from someone who has and decided to leave it all behind. "Virtue," a personal fave, is still good Tony; in it he codifies the essentials for a new virtue, a "cooking at home is cool" movement. Incidentally, Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking is an excellent and underestimated introduction and guide to cooking.
Further along, bad Tony comes out--quite funny, sometimes. Don't get him going about Alice Waters or Alan Richman; he gets excited in frank, unapologetic prose. Rachael Ray was a favorite target until, after all the bad mouthing, she sent him a fruit basket; Tony bites her less these days. He is still capable of being "nice" Tony. That is the Tony who makes reading about food and personalities of the food world fresh and new. A reflective Tony, writing well. Worth seeking out.