Book review: Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain

Wow, what an interesting book.  One of the most interesting ones I’ve read in a long time.
The contents are very good.  Some chapters are better than others, and it’s consistent, but that’s OK.  More on that below.

What makes this book really interesting is how the author‘s personality shines through, with its great parts and its flaws. At times, it’s like the author is manic-depressive or bi-polar, ranting and raving about the same topics or people, just a couple of sentences apart.

The book is full of detailed descriptions of particular foods, recipes, and people.  It makes you feel like you’re there.  You can close your eyes and imagine being in the room.  That’s a high compliment in my book.  Most authors strive for it, but very few achieve it.

The descriptions of a secret ortolan meal (at the beginning of the book) and of Justo Thomas prepping fish at Le Bernardin stand out for their visual clarity and the feeling of being there.  Both of those are simply outstanding chapters.  If you only skim this book at a store or online, without buying it, read chapters 1, 5, and 18.  (Chapter 5 is the already-famous “So you wanna be a chef?” essay published on Ruhlman‘s excellent blog.)

There are plenty of celebrities mentioned, both old and new.  A fascinating chapter on “heroes” and “villains” illustrates Bourdain’s point of view on a lot of topics besides the actual people being discussed.  I love the candor and openness and honesty.  The “lack of filter” reminds me of Superbad, one of my favorite comedies of the past ten years.

At some points the book is verbose and meandering.  Certain topics are revisited at apparently random intervals, giving the book (or large sections of it) a “stream of consciousness” feel.  That’s OK with me.  In fact, I kind of liked it, as I hadn’t read that sort of book in a few months.  Other readers might find it annoying.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  I could elaborate forever on the restaurants he mentions, like WD-50 or Momofuku Ko or Le Bernardin or Per Se (where we’ve eaten, having many of the signature dishes discussed in the book — see my review on this blog).

Highly recommended for foodies.  By the way, there are also entire blogs now dedicated to discussing this book, e.g. “Discuss Medium Raw.”