In the opening chapter of his memoir/restaurant exposé Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain tells the story of his first raw oyster, how he gulped down the “vaguely sexual looking object,” and the glee he got from his family’s horrified expressions. His new memoir, Medium Raw, also opens with a detailed description of a meal. But this time, it’s an endangered French bird devoured in one bite, bones and all, in a room full of big-name chefs who all share “an identical just-fucked look” after the experience. Those few pages show how much Bourdain has changed over the past decade: He’d rather be vulgar than coy, and instead of sharing relatable stories, he focuses on experiences he acknowledges his readers will likely never have.
In one chapter, Bourdain asks whether it’s wrong to taunt people by telling them about the fantastic meals his show No Reservations let him eat. He quickly puts these musings aside to launch into a section of self-described food porn, including comparing Sichuan hot pots to a form of sexual masochism. He gets so carried away in describing how all the discarded tissues near a Vietnamese pho stand make it look like people have been jerking off that he doesn’t bother to explain why they’re actually there.
Even when he was mocking vegetarians, people who don’t eat pork, and Emeril Lagasse in Kitchen Confidential, the book seemed like a labor of love, an intimate portrait of the messed-up community of people who make food. While Bourdain does find room to praise some of his favorite chefs in Medium Raw, much of his affection has turned to bitterness. He devotes an entire chapter to explaining why GQ food writer Alan Richman is a douche. He rails against the Food Network for lowering discourse on dining, and shares his post-Food, Inc. watching and Fast Food Nation-reading rage at American beef farming.
But he reserves some of the worst bile for himself. Fame let him travel the world in search of the best food and booze, but he’s depressed when working cooks mock him for no longer being a chef. He complains of being served too much foie gras, truffles, and caviar. In his chapter about premium burgers, he asks “Am I helping, once again, to kill the things I love?”
Ten years ago, Bourdain was a proud member of a strange, somewhat criminal outcast culture, and he produced a work that really didn’t need a follow-up. In the interim, he’s become a cultural icon, but his new book feels redundant, out of touch, and more than a little sad.