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.
10 thoughts on “If You Can’t Stand the Heat”
If I am reading you correctly, your distaste for the book was really a distaste for Batali and his actions moreso than the writer or his craft…would you agree? I found the book entertaining and fascinating (and well-written, although it dragged a bit once Buford left Babbo, IMO) but I tend to go for the larger-than-life arrogant bastards…
and it seems to me from my experience and what I’ve read that a restaurant kitchen is not the place to work if one can’t deal with sexual harassment as part of their daily routine. Not that I condone it, not at all, it just seems to be the way of the kitchen. And I could be wrong here, but maybe they call broccol rabe “rape” because it’s called “rapini” in Italy?
This is an interesting critique. I have been very moved by the book on the other hand. Finally, a book about kitchens written by an actual writer! That in itself was fabulous.
“That’s wrong: kitchens aren’t different from real life – they are just real life in a kitchen.” I think this is the heart of the dilemna. Because kitchens are indeed, or so I feel, whole other worlds. They operate with slightly different rules (like the military in a way) as the work itself is so physical, and in-the-moment, or rarely follows Federal, State or City labor laws.
Indeed the sexism expressed in the book is intense. I have often been the only female born person in kitchens I’ve worked and how I’ve dealt with it is to be as salty mouthed as the rest of them. My mother used to remind me that choosing one’s battle’s wisely was important. (My mother was a radical feminist author and politico, so I had some of the best training around.)
Mr. Buford is definitely describing New York kitchens. They are tough and harsh and dangerous. But so are many competitive fields. Imagine if we got a real glimpse into the ballet world where dancers permanantly injure each other on purpose!
I think it is difficult that the author is a visitor. But he addresses it more than once, so I forgive him. At least he takes responsibility for this fact, unlike the hordes of upper class kids graduating from culinary schools that tell them they are chefs at graduation. At least Mr. Buford, no spring chicken, goes from a very sought-after position at one of the most competitive literary magazines in the country to actually working on the line.
I commend Batali for allowing this as a possibility, even if he is rarely in the kitchen.
Because of this strange generosity or side-show, we get the benefit of a book which, although difficult for many, describes the inside of a professional restaurant kitchen with such detail as to make us all stop and think about that plate of pasta, those turned carrots, the tiny brunoise of carrot we barely notice, we eat; and to be so uncomfortable about the un-apologetic facts of an unbearably difficult craft and the industry created around the demand for its product.
The facts are this, as they are in the rest of the country: women still get paid less for equal work. Cooks rarely get paid for all the hours they spend in the kitchen. Few cooks get paid enough to afford health insurance. Latino(a) cooks are the invisible sous chefs and chefs of most kitchens on either coast. “Celebrity chefs” are almost all male, and even more of the time savoury chefs. To be famous in this industry you have to forsake your health and most relationships. Few chefs are still cooking on their own line past 40 years old. Those able to afford culinary school have no idea that the industry is still considered a working class profession and that few of them will make more than $40,000 yearly.
I urge you to re-read the sections on pasta and butchering. They have inspired me beyond words. Few chefs go to such lengths to really understand the historical aspect of food and preparation. Or are humbled by it.
Thank you for the thought provoking review.
Shuna, thanks for sharing such a thoughtful alternative point of view.
Here’s what I know for sure.
My employees think that where they work is different than real life. That I operate with slightly different rules. (Like the military in a way) I know for sure that my employee’s think that they are not paid enough and work too many hours.
Here’s what else I know for sure.
I’m a strong leader. That by working here my employees never need to chose their own battles in regards to sexism, or prejudices.
That the no spring chicken’s book is number 10 on the New York Times bestseller list. (Ann Coulerterguist’s book Godless: The Church Of Liberalism is number two on the same best seller list. Go figure)
That the story was rampant with unnecessary filler – tighter book – better story.
I am un-apologetic about my utter delight of foodstuffs that have been cut to tiny brunoise, paysanne, and a good old-fashioned tourne.
That life is about choice.
That we stand on opposite sides of the dinner table.
We all contain multitudes… I have read Buford’s HEAT and enjoyed it immensely. I have spent time toiling in restaurants as a dishwasher, a prep person, and an appetizer/sandwich/dessert line worker. I have been appalled by the sexism and racism I have seen displayed in kitchens. I have been appalled at the sexism and racism I have witnessed in most jobs I’ve had. This in no way excuses them. But the criticisms of Batali by Guilfoyle do seem more personal than having to do with the book. Perhaps Guilfoyle and I ‘stand on opposite sides of the dinner table’ in some ways but this shouldn’t impede an interesting discussion. One point in that discussion I find interesting is G.’s idea that “Buford relates a story that pretty much sums up what appeared to be the more authentic Batali.” Readers who think they can sum up any character in a book via one story in the greater story seem to me to run a serious risk of trivializing and simplifying the complexities within which we all must struggle to live. I disagree with G. that HEAT suffers from an excess of ‘filler’. I found Buford’s search for the origins of the eggs appearance in pasta to be fascinating as well as hilarious. I also think that Buford’s discussion of the origins of the beef at Dario’s butcher shop provides an interesting commentary on the difficulties inherent in claims to praise or damn on grounds of ‘authenticity’. I am glad to have an interesting discussion of HEAT happening here, but I would hate for prospective readers of this well written, fascinating book to be put off reading it due to G.’s distaste for what he perceives as the ‘authentic’ Batali and his boredom with the questions which Buford builds his book around. If you are interested in food history, issues of food production and ‘authenticity’, behind the scenes glimpses of modern U.S. upper echelon kitchens, the cult of personality of some of the chefs overseeing those kitchens, and good writing, then I think you can’t go wrong with HEAT. Cheers!
Here in the commentary–as so often in professional kitchens–it’s the women with the biggest balls and the deepest, clearest eyed appreciation of the facts of the matter.
To state the obvious: People make a lot of dick jokes in professional kitchens. Kitchen repartee sounds “insenitive” and potentially “hurtful” to outsiders. Incredibly–not everyone who works in kitchens has a masters degree or has been counseled in sensitivity training (!)–and the level of discourse reflects (and for better or worse has always reflected) that. (Note that even Buford is referring to people as “dickhead” by end of his immersion.)
The reviewer–as has been accurately pointed out–allows his distaste for Batali’s persona to color his analysis of a (to my mind) very fine book.
There’s an alarming tendency among serious foodies to on one hand love food–and yet have a visceral dislike for those who actually prepare it.
The professional kitchen is one of the last workplaces to remain a true meritocracy. There’s no lying. No matter what you say–you will be found out quickly if you can’t deliver the goods. Meaning: male or female, articulate or brutish, it’s what you can do–and how well you hold up your station that ultimately counts–and defines your worth.
As far as the shocking garbology? A CLASSIC French chef’s strategy for emphasizing the fundamental “Use Everything” rule. I, for one–am constantly amazed at the quality, variety and sheer volume of what they can do with Babbo’s legendarily tiny, difficult work spaces.
I think the book reflected well on both Buford–and Batali.
In Britain, there is a plant actually called rape, btw. I am assuming it is the same thing. I think the Brits are more likely to feed it to their cattle. In the summer, the rape fields are a glorious blanket of yellow flowers.
I am only half way through the book and perhaps wondering, as a consequence, why I chose to celebrate my 40th at Babbo two short months ago. But did I have a good time there? Yes I did, despite, or because, of whatever happens in the kitchen.
Sam’s right- rape is the British name for canola. Up in Canada, it’s grown throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan, and parts of Quebec (not sure where it grows in the US) and the fields are indeed beautiful. But I doubt that’s where the broccoli reference comes from.
I have to agree with previous comments regarding the review- a personal disinterest in food history doesn’t negate the book. Neither does a newly discovered dislike of Batali, which is nothing more than an unfortunate side-effect of honesty in writing.
It’s nice to see that the discussion has veered into kitchen culture as a whole, which I think is really what’s upsetting to many people about Heat. No one really likes to think about what’s going on in the back of the restaurant.
See also Ruhlman’s discussion on the “sensitivity training” of new (and old) chefs at CIA in Hyde Park. He devotes many pages to this in The Reach of a Chef.
I just wanted to throw out there that my italian grandmother served us rape all the time when she visited us. We kids didn’t think anything of it, obviously having no context, and I still am more likely to use rape, and rapini, over broccoli rabe.
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