Honestly, I tried to like
Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford. I determined to keep an open mind while reading, despite the differences I find between rustic and fine dining. [As a disclaimer, I am unabashedly a card-carrying member of the W.W.T.D. (What Would Thomas–as in Keller–Do) in all things food.] But the moral and ethical lapses Buford recounted in Heat revealed a kitchen out of control and left me disappointed not only in Mario Batali but also his food.
I’ve worked in a couple of kitchens in my life. I was not trained as a chef at the C. I. A., but trained as a cook by Uncle Sam at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I know a little about heat myself. I know that working in a kitchen is arduous and I have the utmost respect for those who cook for my pleasure. But there is a choice people make when they decide to follow the kitchen path, and that choice is not an excuse for the dark, troubled, misogynistic brigade that I read about in the Babbo kitchen.
I found it difficult to resolve the perception I had from Mario Batali’s “Molto” television persona and the one painted by Buford’s book. That Batali’s a good time has historic precedent but that’s not where the books conundrum lies for me. The conundrum isn’t partying with Batali, it’s now eating Batali. And it’s Buford’s seemingly regrettable passive personal role in the face of these moral and ethical dilemmas that made me lose his voice early on in the telling. Was Buford a burgeoning Chef, who happened to be a journalist? Or was he a journalist that had the desire to learn how to cook? I’m sure that the answer lies in the book somewhere but I can only read so many pages of filler about the history of the first egg pasta before growing not to care.
In the book, Batali’s kitchen philosophy is clear: “We make money by buying food, fixing it up, and getting other people to pay for it.” Try as I might I wasn’t able to read a call for excellence into that philosophy. In fact Buford recounts several instances of Batali making what his staff considered “surprise visits” to dig through the garbage to ensure that nothing went to waste. That nothing goes to waste is certainly in line with the “whole hog-sustainable agriculture” concept, of which I’m a big fan. But garbage?
I’m one of those people who paid Batali for the food that they “fix up”, having eaten at both Babbo and Del Posto. My problem is that after Batali pulled out hundreds of celery tops (dripping in discarded grease) from the garbage, he then served them to the restaurant that night! In fact I’ve convinced myself that I was eating at Babbo the night they dug out those celery tops from a garbage bag. I've convinced myself they served them to me for my dinner.
The most disturbing aspect of reading about the workings of the Babbo kitchen was the unforgivably shameful treatment of women perpetuated by Batali. In an Oprah-like moment, you learn how much Batali reveres women chefs: he travels to Italy to stage early in his career with matriarchs of Italian cooking, he feels the best chef in his kitchen is his female prep-chef. A few paragraphs later however, Buford relates a story that pretty much sums up what appeared to be the more authentic Batali.
Babbo’s best chef comes to Batali and asks for his help in fixing a sexual harassment problem between her and someone referred to only as the Neanderthal. Batali tells her “that there was nothing that he could do about it, and for her to get over it.” Isolated case? Nope. Broccoli Rabe is referred to in the kitchen as “rape.” Serving sizes are argued over by bra size –- “cause all the guys know the size of a b-cup.”
A kitchen can be rough place to work. I know that. It is not for the faint of heart. I know that too. It’s that “kitchens are different from real life” crap that really gets to me, that attempts to justify Batali's statement that there was nothing he could do about sexual harassment in his kitchen. That’s wrong: kitchens aren’t different from real life – they are just real life in a kitchen. But Buford's book exposes deeper problems in that kitchen than just one’s rights in the work place. Buford tells us that Batali claims people’s emotions are reflected in the food they cook. It’s the one thing, maybe the only thing, which I heartily agreed with in the book. As I finished Heat, I was left with a bad taste in my mouth. Maybe it’s the taste of garbage mixed with a little fear.
Guest reviewer Patrick Guilfoyle is a maniacal Francophile, a husband, a friend, design junky, and kennel owner — not necessarily in that order. He's his own food channel 24/7. He's got a bad magazine and cookbook addiction and an opinion about everything. He fancies himself a good cook, and will eat anything, except his own words.