When is a Badass Not a Badass?

Medium Raw
Anthony Bourdain

Harper Collins, 281 pages, 2010, $28.99CA

I was surprised, upon reading Medium Raw, to see that the sharp-clawed Anthony Bourdain had become a bit of a pussycat. And a timid one at that.

Bourdain has made a whole career out of being a tell-it-like-it-is, in-your-face kind of guy. He shit-talked people in his industry publicly, letting his feelings and opinions be well-known. And who knows if it’s the wisdom of age or some joyous glow of fatherhood, but many chapters of Medium Raw are Bourdain not just backing down, but rolling over and presenting his belly for a scratch. He once ripped apart Rachael Ray. But she sent him a fruit basket, and now they’re pals. He super shit-talked Alice Waters, but after meeting her (an event that scared him, probably because he expected her to call him out on his shit-talking) now admits that she’s probably (mostly) right about where our food comes from and changes that need to be made to our food system.

He still shit talks vegetarians, but even that is met with a softer edge, as he instead directs his anger at the factory farm systems that leave us eating burgers full of actual shit.

I guess I’m just trying to get my head around this kinder, gentler Bourdain, but it’s not jibing for me. Tony was the guy you could always count on to say what other people were thinking but were too afraid to say. Which is something I pride myself on doing, so maybe I’m just feeling a little betrayed that Tony has crossed to the other side.

He still calls people out – a whole chapter of Medium Raw is called Heroes and Villains, and he lists a pile of reasons for each call. And the chapter Alan Richman is a Douchbag has made the rounds online with food writers from all over taking sides. But I can’t help wondering – will Bourdain’s next book include a story about how he’s now friends with Richman because the GQ food writer sent him a a fruit basket?

We get some insight into the kinder, gentler Bourdain in the chapter I’m Dancing in which he explains how, having a child, he can no longer be cool. No more leather jackets, no more Dead Boys t-shirts. I get this to a point – who among us hasn’t pointed and laughed at tattooed hipsters pushing strollers or trying to juggle band practice and playdates? Once you spawn, your priorities get flipped. But if Tony’s not cool… well let’s just say that, for some of us, his punk rock cred was a lot of his allure. Sure he’s still got the wit and the snark and the unique writing style, but there’s that betrayal thing again. Because it’s like he’s abandoned the freaks (and all the values and ethics he formerly espoused) for the comforts of a white picket fence and a cheque for endorsing the Chase Sapphire card (I stopped watching his show after that episode). Somewhat ironically, Bourdain opens Medium Raw with a chapter entitled Selling Out in which he talks about endorsement deals offered to him and some taken by other chefs. The Chase “I’ll Get This” card flash isn’t mentioned.

And sure, okay, you’ve got a kid to put through college now. And you’re older, wiser and more forgiving. But maybe that’s something you should have thought of when you were shit-talking your colleagues and corporate America. Because some of Bourdain’s fan… not sticking around for the family man routine.

Ultimately Bourdain is at his best when he’s talking about food, not other people. The chapter titled Lust is snippets of descriptions – some that probably made it into the voice over for No Reservations, some that just stand alone – of beautiful, spirit-moving meals. These are, oddly, mostly written in 2nd person voice, a dispiriting style that is frowned upon in most professional food writing. You never want to tell the reader what to experience. But with Bourdain, these are almost soliloquies; they read as thoughts flowing through his head, spoken out loud to make them imprint on his memory more resolutely.

I also love Bourdain’s writing when he’s in awe of something or someone. The cool persona slips away in My Aim Is True, and I can almost picture him, a shocked and joyful expression on his face, watching the fishman at Le Bernardin clean 700 pounds of fish in a morning. And then taking the man to lunch in the very restaurant where he works but has never dined, so as to see his handiwork on the plate.

The final chapter is a really lovely one called Still Here in which the author gives updates on the cast of characters from Kitchen Confidential. And at the end of it all, we almost end up feeling a little sorry for the author. He knows he got lucky with the book thing. That his career as a chef took a turn at just the right moment and that, physically, he wouldn’t be able to hack life on the line for very much longer. Maybe that’s what softened his sharp edges, or created the change of opinions.

Life in a restaurant kitchen requires a very specific type of person. Most of us couldn’t hack it, even for a few days, and Bourdain did it for 28 years. He deserves to be able to move on, settle down and live more comfortably. To him, that means giving up on the cool. I don’t know if I’d go that far. The industry needs unique characters. It needs people who don’t fit in, who make others uneasy, just so we don’t all become one big fondue of douchbag. It needs a vocal conscience willing to call people on their shit – but also not back down when face to face with the opponent. It needs someone who can’t be bought with a fruit basket. It needs someone who, at the very least, is willing to go head-to-head with the person whose actions or values they dislike and get to the how and why of things.

We always thought of Bourdain as the guy who would do that. And maybe he’s done and someone else needs to step in and fill those cowboy boots – that’s fair enough. But I hope he at least hangs on to that Dead Boys t-shirt.