As a longtime fan of Anthony Bourdain, I was excited to read Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook. Ten years ago, Mr. Bourdain wrote Kitchen Confidential, which remains my favorite food memoir. It was a startling and hilarious inside look at restaurants and the chefs who run them. His travel and food show on The Travel Channel, No Reservations, is a beautiful and often irreverent look at culture around the world and how food reflects and shapes it. It’s a permanent season pass on my TiVo.
Given how much I have loved all of Mr. Bourdain’s other projects, I really wanted to like Medium Raw more. Some of the things that make Mr. Bourdain such a sharp commentator on food and culture are here. His writing remains sharp, vivid, and funny. In setting the scene for a description of eating pho in Vietnam, Mr. Bourdain compares it to the set of a porn shoot and writes:
Here, as there, the landscape of desire is strewn with crumpled tissues, the spent expressions of human lust. Short pink plastic trash baskets overflow with little white paper balls, wet tumbleweeds are littered everywhere. Walk three feet up to the counter and they will cling embarrassingly to the soles of your feet, trail back to your table as if you are hurriedly exiting a peep-show booth. Unlike with sex, however, this walk of shame comes before touchdown. For one’s efforts, after a long wait on line, the handover of a few dong (the unfortunate name for Vietnam’s unit of currency), a jostle, and a squeeze in between strangers at a low table on a sidewalk, one is rewarded with perfection.
There aren’t many food writers out there who manage to set the scene with quite so much panache. Many parts of this book made me laugh out loud, and I found myself compelled to read sections to my husband aloud. Mr. Bourdain has a lot to say about the state of our food culture, and he says it well. What kept me from loving Medium Raw as much as I wanted was that too much of it felt repetitive and tired. Mr. Bourdain has been complaining about the evils of The Food Network, Sandra Lee, and Rachael Ray for years. At this point, particularly for his likely audience, it feels a little like shooting fish in a barrel. More irritating to me was Mr. Bourdain’s rant about overindulgence at restaurants with multi-course tasting menus, like Alinea and Per Se. Mr. Bourdain acknowledges that he is in the rarefied position of being the famous chef who often has food thrown at him in restaurants, but he still seems to imply that eating too many courses is something of a moral failure. He seems to fail to recognize that for normal diners, these elaborate meals are special treats, if not once-in-a-lifetime events. Overall, Medium Raw just feels a little rehashed and out of touch. I give Medium Raw a 3.5 rating.