Skip to main content
review: non-fiction

Anthony BourdainTim Pelling

When the Black Hoof - a restaurant specializing in charcuterie - first opened its doors in Toronto a couple of years ago, I ended up there one night with a bunch of kids in their early 20s. They were hip. They were cool. They knew how to work the no-rez system and had strong opinions about the off-cuts scrawled on the blackboard. They were jonesin' for the Hoof's tongue sandwiches and the bone marrow soup. Dinner quickly became a pissing contest about who had eaten more nasty bits in their short dining careers - the off-cuts their immigrant grandparents probably spent a lifetime trying to avoid. A few companions were also Jewish; for them, pig's feet and chicharrones scored even higher points.

Whether or not they knew it, they were living proof of Anthony Bourdain's influence on North American culinary culture, and of a seismic shift in our dining culture over the past decade. Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain's gritty tell-all memoir of life in New York's culinary underbelly catapulted the chef to fame 10 years ago and made working the line in a professional kitchen seem cool. The disgruntled cook pulled back the Wizard of Oz's curtain, exposing the industry's tricks of the trade and forever ruining any pleasure a "civilian" could take in discount sushi or a Sunday eggs Benny.

Along the way, he dished out stories of sex, drugs and the kind of antics that might even make Keith Richards blush. His new-found celebrity won him a second career as a popular television host ( A Cook's Tour, No Reservations). Suddenly, Bourdain was loose on the streets, searching out the craziest, wackiest, tastiest foods around the globe. The cook had left the kitchen. And we all wanted what he was having.

Medium Raw, Bourdain's sequel, takes stock of both the changes in his life and in the culinary world he inhabits. Which are quite a few. Bourdain kicked his heroin habit, got divorced, remarried (spending time in between with a coked-up heiress, some plastic surgery victims and the Gadhafis on an island in the Caribbean). He is now a doting father - and blissfully uncool. The essence of cool is "not giving a fuck," he writes.

Around the same time, fine dining started to feel less relevant. Seemingly overnight, New York chef David Chang became the standard-bearer for a new zeitgeist in dining: small, casual places that served seriously adventurous food - the kind of stuff chefs like to eat, like tripe. Here at home, the trend has been promulgated by the Black Hoof and Montreal's Au Pied de Cochon, where the cooks look more like skateboarders than the country's most talented kitchen staff. As Los Angeles Times columnist Jonathan Gold has written: "While nobody was paying attention, food quietly assumed the place in youth culture that used to be occupied by rock 'n' roll - individual, fierce and intensely political."

Despite all his rock 'n' roll trappings, his trademark expletives and po-mo hand-wringing over whether he has now joined the ranks of the hypocrites, Bourdain's book is really an old-fashioned morality play, where the protagonist meets personifications of various moral attributes along the way. There are Heroes: the defenders of the faith of good food and hospitality. And there are Villains: people who waste food, or disrespect it. For Bourdain, the cardinal sin is doing this knowingly, like the Guy Fieris and the Cargills of the world. It's "a violation of a basic contract with decency, with the world and its citizens. In a word: evil." He even has chapters titled Virtue and Lust.

The press loves Bourdain because he's so quotable: He speaks in perfect hyperbole. He has compared California's Slow Food guru, Alice Waters, to Pol Pot in a muumuu . Food Network star Sandra Lee is the "hellspawn of Betty Crocker and Charles Manson." But he's actually pretty soft in the middle these days, despite a peculiar hate-on for GQ columnist Alan Richman, one of the most charming (and celebrated) food writers I know. Many of his former villains have become heroes now that he has met them; occasionally, his settling of scores can get a little tedious unless you are well versed in the names of the New York restaurant scene.

Nevertheless, his muscular prose is still fresh, and his observations about our current dining culture are honest and original. Although he berates Alice Waters for cooking a single egg over a roaring (and exceedingly energy inefficient) wood fire in one memorable 60 Minutes appearance intended to promote the virtues of sustainable conscientious eating, he grudgingly loves her anyway: At bottom, she is, like him, a sensualist. Better still, "she's made lust, greed, hunger, self-gratification and fetishism look good."

Bourdain just makes it sound irresistible: Nobody does food porn like Bourdain, teasing the reader with descriptions of illicit ortolan - the crunch of the bones, the scalding hot fat and guts, "the sublime dribbles of varied and wondrous ancient flavours: figs, Armagnac, dark flesh slightly infused with the salty taste of my own blood as my mouth is pricked by bones."

Virtue, for Bourdain, is being able to cook for yourself. Cooking should be viewed, he argues, as a moral imperative, rather than a reminder of prior servitude, which is what home economics became in the post-feminist world. It's also good manners: "[B]fore one sleeps with someone, one should be able - if called upon to do so - to make them a proper omelette in the morning."

Much as he abhors cheap industrial meat and thinks it's our God-given right to be able to order a hamburger "medium fucking rare" - instead of grilled beyond all recognition because no one knows where the ammonia-treated meat actually came from - he thinks vegetarians also deserve their own special circle of hell. Why? Because it's rude to refuse the hospitality of others. "I don't care what you do in your own home," he writes. But "waving away the hospitality - the distillation of a lifetime of training and experience - of, say, a Vietnamese pho vendor (or Italian mother-in-law for that matter) fills me with sputtering indignation."

Despite his protestations to the contrary, it's clear that Bourdain still misses life in the kitchen: maybe not the hard, physical labour but the honesty of it (despite all the petty criminals who may or may not inhabit it). "The kitchen is the last meritocracy - a world of absolutes; one knows without any ambiguity at the end of each day how one did," he writes wistfully. Perhaps that explains the attraction of all those kitchen dramas on the Food Network. " 'Good' and 'evil' are instantly recognized for what they are."

Sasha Chapman is a food writer who did time at Avalon, a four-star restaurant in Toronto. She agrees with Bourdain: Nothing matches the first pull on a cold beer after service.