Eating Out

In January 2002, the middle of the journey of his life, Buford, a distinguished magazine editor, abandoned his job and his common sense with such passion as normally afflicts the reproductive appetite of men his age. Quitting The New Yorker, he bound himself as a “kitchen slave,” an unpaid trainee, to his idolized friend Mario Batali, a Dionysian chef-proprietor whose appearances as Molto Mario on the Food Network have made him a national celebrity and his restaurant, Babbo, a shrine. But Babbo is more than an obligatory tourist destination with its ovate proprietor on display at the bar, a life-size Humpty Dumpty in orange pigtail, knee-length pantaloons, and kitchen clogs.

Babbo is a fine restaurant with a bold and often brilliant menu that reflects Batali’s passionate commitment to the traditional cuisines of Tuscany. In living memory New York has not seen Batali’s equal, nor is it likely that such a bubbling ferment of genius, taste, enthusiasm, steely resolve, and Rabelaisian appetite will soon come this way again. This book, actually a collection of linked essays, began as a New Yorker assignment to profile Batali. But Buford wanted to be his subject’s clone, not simply his Boswell. In this book he volunteers to work without pay for Batali in New York and later apprentices himself to the Tuscan cook who taught Batali the art of pasta. Heat is the story of a one-sided culinary love affair pursued with only occasional, restrained sniping by Buford at Batali’s unequal response.

Babbo’s kitchen, which Buford entered as an unpaid “slave” in January 2002, was a fiery hell, as Buford describes it, cramped, hot, and dangerous with knives flashing and greasy flames shooting from stovetop to ceiling. Frantic cooks worked the grill and over the boiling pasta pots, responding to shouted orders from a temperamental chef, terrifying and terrified lest an undercooked chop be served to the New York Times critic who, having awarded Babbo three stars, might drop in unannounced to reconsider her verdict and sink the place with all its crew. Or still worse, that Batali himself, who had turned the kitchen over to his staff before Buford signed on, might arrive in the midst of the hectic dinner service and find something to complain about. This happened one busy night when Batali intercepted on their way to the dining room an undercooked tenderloin of pork and an overcooked rabbit that Buford himself had prepared and for which Batali fired him from his hard-earned post at the grill. To become a “grill guy” Buford had begun as the prep cook’s helper, arriving early to chop celery, cube carrots, disassemble ducks, and so on which the line cooks needed for the evening service. Self-deprecating as he presents himself in his book, he is an avid observer and quick to master the essential techniques. Soon he moves on to work the flaming grill, to which he was reinstated as soon as Batali departed, and then the dangerous pasta pots …

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