I was talking to my sister in law about some gossip in Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw, when she stopped me and asked, rather sensibly, why I was reading him, when there are so many angles on how humans mediate their experience with food? And isn’t the whole book simply one man’s opinion? What worth does it have? What could I have learned from the book? And finally, why him? I had the same thoughts while reading the book, and I think this line of questioning is a good outline for this essay.
Yes, there are more important topics about food that transcend the behind-the-scenes look at restaurants. For instance, can’t we talk about the (mis)management of fisheries, the shrinking variety of diet, the amount of land dedicated to sustaining our beef supply, the threat of monoculture to our future food supply, the use of transgenic crops, the class gap between nutritious food and fast food, the need to lower the amount of meat in our diet, the inability to mitigate starvation, the fact that subsistence farmers still have to make a choice between cash crops (poppy, tobacco, and coffee) and food crops, and the unequal distribution and cheapness of fresh water in the first world (and the scarcity thereof in developing nations).
Further, there are so many other more pressing issues, who cares if there are bad chefs and good chefs, whether food critiques and chefs trade favors for good reviews, and pornographic descriptions of food? This question, it seems to me, can be interpreted as, with so many pressing problems in the world, why is it that I am occupying my free time with entertainment, which, would include both high-brow and low-brow culture? This isn’t meant to be a slam; even as I was reading Medium Raw, I had thought the same. In the end, the book was a fun read, and I stuck with it. Simply, that was the pay off.
But the question is worth exploring. I suppose the answer I would have, in general, as to why I would spend time on any type of entertainment, whether it be reading novels, watching movies, listening to music, going to concerts, or spending time with friends and family, is that experiencing something different may provide the mind with another type of agitation. When I seek out something different, I am hoping for chance opportunities to arise where new connections are formed between ideas where none had existed before. It’s also the same reason I would revisit something I did not like; I cannot assume that new ideas wouldn’t foment, or that it wouldn’t strike me in a new way. I don’t expect this to be an appealing answer for everybody, but it is my rationale for reading, essentially, trashy reading. Sure, I finished Medium Raw because it was fun, but I was certainly hoping to see some thing unique and perhaps an observation or two that alters some of the thoughts I already have connected in my head.
Yes, the book is one big opinion piece. However, it is clear that, whatever Bourdain’s experience or talents, he loves food and the people who prepare it. At his best, he provides observations about how kitchens work, providing actual details of things cooks do. He spends a chapter on career trajectories. He spends another chapter on a prep cook at Le Bernardin, responsible for turning whole fish into cuts that chefs can use. There is a fair amount of introspection about the nature of high-end food (there is a lot of waste; if the chef is honest, the high costs results from the throwing out less-than-perfect items.) There are some more observations about the types of local food available in Vietnam (it seems that’s his favorite food experience). He talks about some of the characters in NYC restaurants. He writes about food trends. He’s also realistic about the role and position food critics play in shaping public opinion; even someone of Eric Ripert’s stature, a 3-Michelin star chef, is aware of the need to play to this audience. Surprisingly, Bourdain and Ripert do not appear contemptuous or condescending and actually acknowledges that, to be successful today, one cannot reject them. In fact, it is a good thing to have a sophisticated audience who would buy this food. There’s even a nice chapter on the silliness of removing home economics when the focus should have been on forcing this education on both sexes. Instead, we are left with kids who can neither make sandwiches or balance a checkbook.
Bourdain is at his best when describing what he sees, how people do things, and what people have done. There are food porn aspects, like when he’s trying to give some vignettes of the places he’s visited and descriptions of how food tasted during his work with Food Network and Travel Channel shows.
Some annoying moments came when he twisted knives that he had stabbed in various people, way back in his other memoir, Kitchen Confidential. Kitchen Confidential was a tirade, here, he tries to reconcile his feelings and place his criticism in context. Surprisingly, this part didn’t bother me so much. His take downs of Alice Waters and Alan Richman seemed cogent; mostly, he stuck with actions. He didn’t like what Waters and Richman did, and he let readers know it was. This point is worth mentioning because it was so… considered.
Look, of course what Bourdain thinks of either chef is pointless. He’s just trying to justify his feelings. I did like seeing him squirm, but on balance, if I lose it and decide take down someone, I hope I am level headed enough to stick to the facts. Bourdain could have done the opposite, simply running up a string of adjectives and insults. It is important to sort the statements he makes: Bourdain did juxtapose a series of actions that made a logical, coherent argument. This type of reasoning is distinct from simply calling names. I admired the way he wrote out the argument, even if I didn’t care for his conclusions. Despite these sections being too insular, I thought Bourdain spent a bit of time crafting his argument, which is all I ask for.
It is worth noting that he tempered some harsh words was on the subject of vegetarians. This part rang hollow, if only because the following argument seemed so small given the insults he wrote in Kitchen Confidential. He argues here that he gets annoyed at the way a vegetarian abroad would essentially be breaching etiquette and hospitality by refusing the standard fare of other cultures. In Kitchen Confidential, his rant was simply against an all-vegetables diet (and it was a string of adjectives and insults, not really a coherent argument). So it struck me as odd.
I think to sum up why I read Bourdain, and not someone like Mark Ruhlman, is that I find Bourdain smart, funny, and a good writer. I enjoyed his take on food (I think Ruhlman, for example, is also smart and a good writer, but I didn’t take to his style. It was too serious and too sincere, lacking the joviality of Bourdain’s writing). Even if I didn’t care for some of the gossip, he engaged my interest. I am glad to read Bourdain because he has passion; he values food and the people who cook it. He wishes to treat their work as something worthy of meaning and deep consideration.
Why read a book of opinions and judgements? Well, Bourdain has an informed opinion about food. Finding out how he thinks is more important to me than his conclusion. This is the main reason I am blogging so much; I simply wish to write about the connections and thoughts I have, when I read. One way of teaching oneself is to explain something to others. Writing helps me organize my own opinions on something. My verdict of a book (whether it’s a thumbs up or thumbs down, whether it’s a “A” or an “F”) is besides the point. The thoughts evoked are much more important. In much the same way, I wasn’t reading Bourdain to see which restaurants are worth making reservations for. He has the access to see experienced, well-respected professionals at work. He observes and reports, and by this, I gain a deeper appreciation for the art and craft. Yes, I do want to go to Le Bernardin, but only because Bourdain gave it a context that appealed to me.
There is also another point worth making: one doesn’t have to be immersed in a topic to write about it. It helps, but in the end, research, observation, and a sincere desire to learn and tell the story in a considered manner will carry one a long way. The converse is that just because someone is an expert in the field, it does not necessarily make him the best person to write. Of course, I mean this in a fairly narrow way: chances are, that expert will be able to communicate to his colleagues. He may not have the skills to communicate to a different audience (that is, to laymen.) One could argue either way against Bourdain: he freely admits he could never cook as well as his friends (in terms of creating new dishes.) By his own admission he isn’t a Thomas Keller or Grant Aschatz, two leading lights of American cooking. But he has spent over 25 years cooking, so he isn’t someone who is merely enthusiastic about food. Depending on how one thinks of Bourdain, that’s a good thing or bad thing. I am writing here that I think this argument is irrelevant. The worth of Bourdain can be evaluated simply by the quality of his arguments. Good writing can come from anywhere.