Thursday, September 13, 2007
Ever wonder what it was like to work in the kitchen of a world-famous restaurant?
Well Bill Buford, a staff writer for the New York Times, did. One night, many years back, he was having a small party at his home and invited along a man by the name of Mario Batali. The Food Network was new back then but its biggest star was "Molto Mario" - the larger than life chef with the flaming red hair, drawn back in a ponytail, and the colorful clogs. He became that way after the enormous success of his New York restaurant: Babbo. Batali was brash, loud and the center of attention wherever he went. Before the end of the night he had taken over the kitchen, the party and had Buford in an agreement to become an apprentice at his restaurant, a role that Buford would soon come to recognize as a kitchen "slave".
If you ever thought that working at a restaurant like New York's Babbo, Batali's mega successful venture and one still difficult to get a table at without 30 days notice, is all glamor and glitz, guess again. It's more like an ongoing soap opera of personalities crammed into an inferno of a closet called a kitchen and scrambling every day to keep their jobs, produce the food and sooth the burnt skin on their arms. Yet for all the grueling, gritty reality Batali's simple premise of taking food, fixing it up and serving it for a profit comes across clearly as the bottom line. It's a real education.
The book at times becomes a quest for the origins of the true Mario Batali, chronicling his fabulous career and the misadventures that led to it. Timing is everything, I say. And having a room size personality doesn't hurt either. Batali is now a literal one-man empire. Buford follows his tracks to Tuscany, where he works, just as Mario did, alongside a butcher who quotes Dante and fights daily to hang on the artisan creation of local foods against an ever-increasing tide of corporate, technologist, mass produced food and dining "experiences." For him, the regional cuisine of Tuscany is sacrosanct.
We then travel to London for a glimpse into the life of Marco Pierre White, another Mario teacher, whose disorganized and eccentric ways seem to have not affected his success. In fact, sometimes you feel as though some of these famous chefs became famous not because of but in spite of themselves!
Take one part biography of Batali, one part journalistic view of food apprenticeship and one part travelogue and what you come up with is the recipe for a journey that any foodie would happily take if one had the unlimited amount of time and no need for income that Buford seemed to have. I was jealous! The book is the epitome of food, travel and fun, a fully entertaining read, to say the least, and as satisfying as the meal had with that Saturday night dinner reservation at Babbo or Del Posto!