As food memoirs go, this is a good one. The premise is that New Yorker staff writer Bill Buford “accidentally” invited celebrity chef Mario Batali to a dinner party at his home in 2002 (Batali was a friend of a friend of Buford’s), and Batali staged a bit of a coup in Buford’s kitchen. This humiliating takeover prompted Buford – an ambitious but oft-frustrated home cook – to ask Batali if he could apprentice with him in the kitchen of his restaurant, Babbo. This book tells several parallel stories: that of Buford’s training both in and out of Babbo’s kitchen, of course, but also that of Batali’s education as a chef and those of the other culinary maestros that Buford learns from over the course of his self-imposed odyssey. Published in 2006, this book is also a cultural artifact of sorts, in that it showcases (and excuses) many of the problem behaviors that led to Batali’s fall from grace in the winter of 2017. If it isn’t already, I suspect that excerpts from this book will be studied in gender studies classes and in other places where people gauge the complicated relationship between gender, power, and license.
Some aspects of this book are predictable. Life in the kitchens of trendy restaurants is stressful and intense. Buford’s experiences vacillate between boredom and awkwardness at not being allowed (due to inexperience) to do much of anything and, at the other extreme, “lining up pitchers of water” (85) at the grill station, knowing he would have no relief from the nonstop seasoning, grilling, and plating of meat and fish for eight or nine hours. Chefs are screaming, swearing assholes; the people who work under them either become inured to the abuse or bide their time, waiting until it is their turn to become screaming, swearing assholes themselves.
According to Buford, Batali was less of an asshole than many chefs. He was an exacting boss – rifling through the trash and berating employees for throwing out the leaves at the ends of celery stalks, for example – but he wasn’t verbally abusive. Buford seems inclined to praise Batali for this restraint, contrasting him favorably to both Batali’s own mentor, the British chef Marco Pierre White, and to an underling named Frankie who took charge of Babbo’s kitchen when Batali moved on to a new venture. But his tone is flatly neutral when describing Batali’s obnoxious advances on waitresses: “It’s not fair I have this view all to myself when you bend over. For dessert, could you take off your blouse for the others?” (313). On the very next page, Buford refers to a medieval French king as a “philandering scumbag” (314); couldn’t he have set aside some of that level of criticism to serve up to his mentor and boss?
This book is also a travelogue. Buford wasn’t content to learn only what Batali himself could teach him; he also made multiple trips to Italy to learn from some of Batali’s early teachers and also branch out on his own; when he trains under the Dante-quoting butcher of the title, he progresses well beyond Batali’s own expertise in the preparation of meat. The travel sections of this book were some of my favorites; Buford does a great job of bringing to life the eccentric characters he met in rural Italy and detailing the minutiae of their culinary traditions. He also delves into Italian history, studying medieval cookbooks and fact-checking the lore he hears from his Italian mentors. One research question that proves especially elusive is the question of when exactly eggs were added to pasta dough. Buford never arrives at a clear answer, but following along on his research journey was quite engaging.
Buford also does an excellent job of conveying the physicality of cooking and butchering: the incredible heat of the grill station, the large, sweaty bodies crashing into each other in the tiny kitchen, the experience of thrusting one’s arm into a dead cow in order to sever one specific muscle or tendon just so, without even the benefit of seeing the darn thing. This physicality has got to be at least part of the reason that the culture of professional cooking lends itself to inappropriate talk and actions. Intimacy breeds intimacy – when one’s job requires one to spend nine or ten hours a day in a hot kitchen in constant close proximity to other hot, sweaty people, it makes sense that sooner or later, someone will try to add sex to the occasion. Since professional cooking (unlike home cooking) has historically been a male-dominated field, the result is the kind of “locker-room talk” (and worse) that pervades other subsets of our culture, including entertainment, the military, and, well, politics. I don’t excuse Batali’s behavior or Buford’s dismissal of it, but I recognize it as something that’s so ordinary as to be mundane. In some ways, the fact that Buford, as a white male who is sympathetic to Batali, documented this behavior at all is a gift. Future historians and sociologists will have no shortage of #metoo memoirs written by victims; a source like this, which condemns Batali even while trying to pay him homage, will provide a valuable alternate perspective.
Batali’s toxic masculinity is no reason not to read this book. If you enjoy well-written food memoirs – or if you just want to spend a few days in your apartment drooling over Italian food that exists only in your head, as I just did – I recommend this book highly.