Anthony Bourdain isn’t just a food commentator. He’s a social critic because he gets people to think about food not just as cobbled together ingredients, but also as a cultural narrative and a political act. He understands that restaurants don’t just sell food, they provide their customers identities and cultural capital. Those who think food is whatever it is you’re about to eat don’t understand it. Food isn’t just central to life — the one thing we have to have to survive — it’s the center of life, the primary site where we express and reveal ourselves, whether we realize it or not. What and how we eat defines who we are and where we’re from.
Not everyone understands Bourdain. Some read Bourdain’s first book, Kitchen Confidential, an insider’s expose of what really happens in restaurants, for its lurid tales of sex and drugs and debauchery (he warns about the dangers of drug abuse). Others use it as inspiration to begin careers in the food industry (he warns about working in the food industry). Too many enjoy Kitchen Confidential because they read Bourdain as an entertaining foul-mouthed badass who tells good stories than as a social critic who provides the insights to get people to think about what’s right and wrong about latest food trends and what we can do to make what we eat better and healthier.
Bourdain’s second book, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, is a collection of essays about the food industry, its politics, absurdities, trends, and impact on how we eat and think. It provides insider perspectives of food industry culture, some New-York centric gossip, a chapter on food and travel porn (he makes some and is really good at it), personality sketches of chefs (entire chapter devoted to David Chang), a parenting experiment (how to teach your child to hate McDonald’s), policy recommendations (bring back Home-Economics), critique of Alice Waters and the organic movement, and more. Though there are references to Kitchen Confidential, it can be read independently of it.
If there’s a motif that connects the essays, it’s that “Life is cruel, lonely, and filled with pain and random acts of violence. Everybody hates you and seeks to destroy you.” For Bourdain, many of those who cook for a living share this worldview. David Chang, to whom Bourdain devotes an entire chapter and considers “the most important chef in America,” (but far from the best) is driven by “hate, fear and rage;” Gordon Ramsey by memories of growing up “…poor, constantly on the move, with an untrustworthy and unreliable dreamer of a father;” Marco Pierre White by knowing that “the bastards could come knocking at any minute and take it all away.”
It’s this Hobbesian worldview that makes love, respect, loyalty, dedication, and beauty possible. In a world of war against all, some become “villains,” others “heroes.” The villains, unable to take control of their fears and uncertainties, give in to the customer and fulfill their basest desires, or worse, emotionally manipulate them to pay more for the same shit. The heroes, on the other hand, aren’t obedient to customers, they’re responsible for them. Heroes “experiment, push boundaries, explore what is possible, what might be possible.” Hero Grant Achatz “risked his life” to do what he’s done and hero Terrance Brennan “loved cheese enough to lose money on it.”
Bourdain wants his readers to appreciate these heroes, to become the sort of customers industry insiders wish for so they can take the risks necessary to elevate cuisine. This is why he devotes an entire chapter to David Chang, whose restaurants are designed “exclusively for hungry chefs and cooks and jaded industry people.” Bourdain is spot on when he imagines industry people thinking about Chang’s restaurants: “This is the way — this is how good, how much fun our business could be if only we didn’t have to worry about the fucking customers.”
The hope is that readers will reflect on who they are as customers and become the sort of patron Bourdain’s heroes love to serve. The sort of customer who asks questions, is adventurous, experimental, reflective, relaxed, completely engaged with the food. The customer who challenges oneself and others, pushes boundaries. The customer who can appreciate the thought and effort put into the food they’re served.