Going off the boil

Medium Raw

The book’s massive success rescued the 45-year-old, penniless ex-drug addict from the long, slow decline of the wage-slave cook.

Almost overnight, he swapped gravy boat for gravy train, retiring as a professional cook to become a professional writer, globe-trotting TV host, and best mate to the world’s top chefs. A couple of crime novels had tanked and, in despair, Bourdain cranked out KC, believing it would provoke a knowing chuckle from the handful of New York catering industry workers who would ever read it. In fact, it inspired a whole new generation to enter the professional kitchen.

Bourdain’s behind-the-scenes exposé was all seedy glamour, a swaggering, macho ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ depiction of the brutality of a life wielding skillets. No slouch with a sentence, his spiky, profane style was described as “Elizabeth David written by Quentin Tarantino”.

Bourdain’s audiences at book signings and reading tours comprise many of the new wave of chefs who venerate him as the apotheosis of culinary cool.

But his latest publication, Medium Raw, is a ragged, piecemeal assemblage with no coherent structure – too much of a dog’s dinner to be called a book, it is a collection of essays, articles and random jottings. It begins with an elaborate set piece, an illicit gathering of some of the top US superstar chefs preparing to dine – illegally – on Ortolan, a protected species of bird that costs up to $250 each on the black market.

The birds are drowned in armagnac, roasted and consumed whole, head, legs, beak and all, while sporting one’s napkin over one’s head. Now, I have no doubt this brandied budgie might make for an exquisitely tasty nibble – and Bourdain always writes well about the sensation of tasting – but there is a sense this episode is the first salvo in an extended mea culpa for possibly having misplaced his ‘cool’, a subject he can’t let lie. Now a 55-year-old father of a young child, who’ll never again sweat behind a stove, he appears terrified his young acolytes will believe he has sold out.

Several vaguely biographical chapters, short on detail but overly long on his heroic appetites for intoxicants, legal and otherwise, follow. Abruptly, we switch to a compendium of meals consumed in cutting-edge global locations with Bourdain piling on those ‘Tarantino-esque’ literary pyrotechnics. An initial sampling has zing but numbing tedium soon sets in – not unlike the cinematic output of Quentin Tarantino himself. Fainthearted vegans and sanguinary carnivores will be equally puzzled by a woolly-headed attack on vegetarianism. The day is almost saved by a chapter on Justo Thomas, who works at Le Bernardin, probably New York’s top restaurant. Thomas is as an unparalleled master of his craft. Bourdain drops the Tarantino schtick to turn in an equally masterful portrayal of a day in Thomas’s life – it is the one truly stellar dish in an uninspired menu.

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