Anthony Bourdain Raw and Uncut

Kaye Cloutman talks to the iconic chef and realizes that even Kitchen Gods are human

I was already an Anthony Bourdain enthusiast long before I saw a single episode of A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations or Top Chef. If you’ve read Kitchen Confidential, then you’ll understand. Born in a strict, religious family, I sought confession five times to get Bourdain out of my head, ultimately futile as my love for great food and wine remained strong. Admittedly, all that reading did bad things to a repressed Catholic girl. But I digress.

Candid Memoir

Kitchen Confidential came out when I was at an all-time epicurean high. I was attending most of The Center for Culinary Arts Manila’s classes, and understandably developed elevated regard for our chef instructors. I was a regular patron at Prince Albert and Café Ysabel and avidly watched Julia Child’s shows (including Dan Aykroyd’s Saturday Night Live parodies). It didn’t help that my best friend is a chef groupie and my quasi-mother, who had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Greystone, who surrounded herself with Manila’s gastronomes.

In Kitchen Confidential, Tony Bourdain, a “lowlife” chef, laid the wretched goings-on in New York’s culinary underbelly bare, and served it up on a silver platter for everyone to consume. His masterful book bolstered my adoration for food, including all the naughty things that went into creating it. Though I disagreed with some of his ideas, I recommended Kitchen Confidential to almost everyone.

Rising stealthily up the New York Times bestseller list, his brutally candid memoir made him a star and launched his television career as host of impeccable food travelogues. Nobody has ever attained the status of true “genius TV” in my book quite like Bourdain has. His style is humorously irreverent to the point of being vulgar and scandalous. It is entertainment at its finest.

Half Insane

A decade and a family later, the long-awaited follow-up to Kitchen Confidential, Medium Raw, draws the curtain on the big-time personalities of the modern gastronomical revolution, in the way only Anthony Bourdain can. The San Francisco literary and media world appeared to go half insane upon finding out that the City by the Bay was one of Bourdain’s stops on his promotion tour. Of only three press passes granted to Bourdain’s book signing, I was floored when one of these found its way to The San Francisco Book Review and into my trembling hands.

Bourdain had been up since 4 AM, preparing for the many book signings beginning at 10 AM at the Ferry Building. The place was seething with over 300 attendees seemingly elated over Bourdain’s warm personality and diverting antics. Medium Raw sold 1,136 copies that morning.

At noon he proceeded to Battery Street for a luncheon at the Il Fornaio restaurant. I arrived earlier and got to speak with him. His autograph on the first page of my Medium Raw copy included a knife. I wondered if this was a veiled hint to deliver a good review. As it turned out, Anthony Bourdain was down-to-earth and approachable, emitting an aura that would brighten up any place.

Tony on the Philippines

I had to begin with the Philippines. “Tony, I must say that I was disappointed with the guy who brought you to the Philippines,” I told him. “I could’ve done better. He left out so many beautiful places, although I thought Cebu was a great end to the show.”

With a wry smile, Bourdain replied “I agree and disagree at the same time. You know why? Let’s talk about that Zubu Chon (Cebu lechon) for example. That was like crack. It’s so effin good. And the ceviche (kilawin) – I won’t forget that anytime soon.”

“Point taken,” I said. “But I would have taken you to Manila’s white linen venues, and introduced you to the party scene; to our world-class pristine beaches and tourist spots for a really grand time. You would have tasted gourmet Filipino food paired with wines. I just felt awful about most of the venues chosen for your visit. The Philippines could’ve been portrayed as more upscale and sophisticated.”

“I understand where you’re coming from,” he answered, “but the one thing I truly appreciated when I was in your country was that the people were truly passionate about their food. They make use of all parts of the animal for crying out loud! Chicken feet? Beat that! Preparing feasts? Your people are masters in gatherings and at the end of the day it’s all about food and family. But honestly, there was so much genuineness in them. The impoverished communities there truly had legitimate aspirations and it helped that I didn’t encounter any bullshit artists either. Just really nice people.”

I wanted to curl up in shame for implying that authenticity in a certain cuisine could only come from the more presentable and formal restaurants, partly because I guess the Filipina in me just wanted to spoil the man sick. My rescue came from the man himself. “By the way, I might take you up on your offer,” he said. So Manila, you may just want prepare for another serving of Tony Bourdain soon.

No Holds Barred

We proceeded to talk about his book. In Medium Raw, Bourdain lends his trademark skill for a sharply-honed, no-holds-barred look at the food world and its often eccentric personalities. As both insider and outsider, he’s far from circumspect when talking about today’s culinary stars.

When I asked him about Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee, he gave me his signature acerbic chuckle.

“I gotta go lightly on Rachael now; she gave me a f**king fruit basket so it’s hard for me to be mean to her,” he began. “And then there’s this recent awkward incident with Sandra Lee at the premiere of Julie and Julia. The hellspawn of Betty Crocker and Charles Manson of whom I made the most brazen jokes, I mean Google her Kwanzaa Cake and see how much time goes by before your head explodes. Her icy predatory claws probing my body in front of my wife Ottavia that evening made me realize that like Mitchum in Cape Fear, she could do to us whatever unholy and dreadful things she wished, and there was nothing we could do about it. It’s Sandra Lee’s World, it’s Rachael Ray’s world. Me? You? We’re just living in it.”

He continued: “if there’s anyone in the Food Network who has caused me to have a change of heart, it would be Emeril Lagasse. You know how I loathe people who sell out and put their names on donuts and cookware. But the man is to be commended for his everyday struggle to feed that beast of an empire he created.”

Always outspoken and never apologetic, he never shied away from an honest appraisal of his career missteps or fail to give due credit. Through it all, the narrative percolates with Bourdain’s unabashed passion for all things good. He gets inside the idiosyncratic head of David Chang (author of Momofuku), the brilliant chef-of-the-moment who has taken the New York restaurant scene by storm. But unlike other chefs in the public eye, he wears his fear and loathing on his sleeve.

With equal parts affection and ridicule he considers the sometimes outlandish proclamations of sustainable food-guru Alice Waters and wishes she would “just shut the f**k up.” He cites his heroes—among them Fergus Henderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, Wylie Dufresne, and surprisingly, Jamie Oliver. Meanwhile, his villains are folks like Gael Greene, Food Network’s Brook Johnson, and Alain Ducasse, for the sins he feels they have committed in the name of food. He also squares off against GQ’s revered critic Alan Richman, and declares Regina Schrambling both hero and villain for her sometimes outrageous, but never boring, blog entries.

For Anthony Bourdain, it’s first and foremost about the food. He watches in dismay as the classic American hamburger threatens to go the way of the cup of coffee—overpriced and designer branded. Then he recalls heavenly, irreplaceable experiences: eating pho in Hanoi’s streets, and tacos de lengua from a pueblo stand; devouring a mountain of shellfish in Southern France; to enjoying a bowl of simple, perfect, pasta in Sardinia, where he met his wife. He contrasts the greatest meal he ever ate—at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in California— with mixed emotions experienced by an older, more jaded self at Keller’s Per Se in New York.

He also elaborates on his paean to the men and women behind the scenes. A wholly appreciative profile of Justo Thomas, who cleans and filets over seven hundred pounds of fish daily at good friend Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in New York, ends with Bourdain violating the trade rule that precludes the staff from eating at its own restaurant, and invites Justo to a meal there. Medium Raw also takes readers behind Top Chef, during his stint as a guest judge, assessing the crazy tasks of the hit reality show. Surprisingly, Tony suffered many hits from the New York restaurant scene, the food world, and the blogosphere. Some wrote he “lacks the venom” that people love so much; and, “sick attempt,” etc.

Lacking Venom?

But can you blame the guy? Life’s been good to him and he proudly says: “I’m a father now. My glorious mornings are spent in my jammies watching Yo Gabba Gabba with my precious girl and I sometimes find red stuff beneath my fingernails, which I suspect is the vestigial Play-Doh. This I am fully aware, is as far away from cool as a man can get. But I am in no way troubled by such thoughts. I crossed that line a long time ago.”

My favorite, chapter 11 (a term normally associated with bankruptcy), is all about an abundance of love, starting out with dancing the twist with his 3-year old daughter in a roomful of Filipina nannies. He proudly says that he was the only parent there.

Bourdain has clearly evolved in a way that only a parent and a true food enthusiast can understand.

“How do you feel about all these?” I asked him, “The rabid women, the wannabe chefs and TV hosts… Just how exactly did you land in this situation you are in right now?” With a befuddled look, he replied, “You know that’s exactly what my mom asked me. I realized I’ve f**ked up in the biggest ways and so I said, ‘I don’t know, this is the biggest scam I am doing. I’m getting paid to travel and eat so I must be doing something right. What it is… I just don’t effin know.’”

Vintage Bourdain

The man clearly has the stamina of a band of horses. Having just arrived from Los Angeles and subsisting on three hours of sleep, he rose in the wee hours to finish two other book signings, a luncheon, and two interviews. It was apparently nothing a Red Bull couldn’t assuage and he bandied, bantered, and posed all night at the Left Bank Brasserie in Larkspur. Despite the glamour, he just had to sneak into the kitchen to reinvigorate himself. You just can’t keep a chef out of the kitchen.

He used the dinner Q&A time to acknowledge the kitchen and staff, and to tout the attributes of using fresh, seasonal ingredients in the restaurant. He was in awe of the house-made charcuterie from Chef Sean Canavan, decadent, delirious and delectable. He made continuous inferences about the integrity of food. Goaded by Chef Owner Roland Passot beside him, it became a platform for quips and diatribes about the Food Network and Celebrity Chefs. In the end, he agreed that it has empowered chefs to cook much better, and the public to cook things they’d like to eat. So yes, even celebrity chefs know a thing or two about cooking and food.

He never failed to engage and mingle, without preconceived plan. His routine was like his show: some were very personal and self-indulgent, some were straight reportage, while others were cranky, snarky, even bitter, but fun. “He just keeps whetting the appetite, the mind, and we just let things happen that night, totally spontaneous, totally Tony,” exclaimed Thomas Bunker, Left Bank Restaurants COO.

No one quite sees the food world like Anthony Bourdain. With irreverence fused with veneration, he navigates the world’s cuisines flawlessly: from the simple or outlandish regional foods in far-flung locations to presentations in America’s prestigious white tablecloth restaurants. Hilarious, discerning, and always dead-on, Medium Raw is vintage Bourdain at its best.