Adventures in Cultural Consumption:

Kitchen Confidential
Medium Raw, Anthony Bourdain

A few observations:

Kitchen Confidential was obviously a very popular book. It seems to be one, however, where the feature of the book that makes it good is quite different than the one identified as the reason for its success. People might like the foul-mouthed bad boy with entertaining stories and a no-nonsense attitude, but the book transcends food porn because Bourdain was, by his own admission, never more than a pretty good chef at a pretty good restaurant, and one for whom the future was bleak. Kitchen Confidential is essentially a tragic book, because its author had fallen into a trap of his own devising, and was never going to get out. He tells the stories he does because he has nothing to lose in telling them, and nothing to gain in being discreet.

He also stresses all the important points that, for understandable reasons, never make it into cookbooks or television cooking shows: that the most important things are reliability and repetition, and that virtually everything in the kitchen is pretty hard work if you want to do it well. It is manual labor, with all the difficulties that implies: you may build up the requisite skills to make things easier, but it shows in one's body, mind and spirit no matter how 'easy' it may now be.

In this sense, it's a helpful corrective to a certain kind of fetishizing of manual labor of which conservative political thought is sometimes guilty--I'm thinking Shop Class as Soulcraft and a professor or two who have declared a preference for farm life--that hard physical work is better, and somehow purer. Unlike many of these projects, Bourdain is clear on where his skills fall on the spectrum of ability--the bottom end of the top end, let's say--as opposed to those who never give any clear sense of how successful they are at their chosen vocations. This allows Bourdain to see quite clearly the varying levels of skill, and judge them accordingly: he can understand how and why the very top chefs are good, even if he can't do what they do, and he knows enough to recognize what should be within reach for competent chefs and criticize them for failing to reach that level. This is the other big point: cooking may once have been a choice for the Bourdain of Kitchen Confidential, but it ceased to be one once his livelihood depended on it. The professor who wants a farm will always, in some sense, be playing at it, because the farm is optional. The person who has other options is engaging in a higher or lower form of authenticity tourism, and this is too little recognized.

And it's this notion--of 'authenticity tourism'--that makes Medium Raw compelling. As a taster or consumer of food, Bourdain is world-class and quite interesting; any time his cooking abilities come into play, he is quite clear-eyed about his limitations compared to the people he knows now. He has at least one really remarkable skill that comes out of this: the willingness to second-guess his judgments. Thus the essay on Alice Waters, which notes many of her battier pronouncements, but also those aspects of her influence that have been positive, and thus issues a thoroughly mixed verdict, but intentionally so: someone with a long career mixed with good and bad moments will be difficult to sum up adequately, and rather than write an appreciation or a Slate-style takedown, it should just all end up in the essay.

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