New Yorker staff writer and obsessed foodie Buford (Among the Thugs, 1992) infiltrates a top chef’s kitchen to plumb Italian food as haute cuisine.
The author worked as a lowly, often humiliated cooking intern at New York’s celebrated Babbo restaurant—the “slave,” as he puts it, of chef and partner Mario Batali. Buford sometimes has trouble not stooping to grovel when he brings the American-born, Italian-trained Batali onto the scene, but he nonetheless manages a full portrait of the celebrity chef as occasional paranoid, willful boor and megalomaniacal disciplinarian. The chef frequently assumed a highly visible seat at Babbo’s bar, doing no cooking but sipping wine and making sure to be seen while the underlings he had molded labored in the kitchen to fulfill the promise of his innovative menus. Celebrated for personal excesses with food, drink and more, Batali serves as Buford’s icon of culinary contradiction, railing against “faggoty French cooking,” then, in a pensive lapse, affirming that only women are ultimately capable of “cooking with love.” There was plenty for the author to learn as he bungled knife-sharpening, carrot-dicing and other basics, barely tolerated by professional colleagues who were often at each others’ throats, all trying to master the art and get their own joints. Buford’s experiences at Babbo led him to attempt the delicate art of pasta-making in Italy. Regrettably, his dogged inquiry into the historical transition that led to using eggs instead of water in the dough is a needless drag. After that, he apprenticed himself to a Tuscan butcher, beginning his studies with the pig but moving on to the cow in “graduate butcher school,” where he learned the mantra, “It’s not the breed. It’s the breeding.” As he pursues his culinary obsessions, Buford provides an abundance of esoterica on fine Italian cooking, as well as a lot of inside dope on some not-so-savory aspects of selling top-dollar restaurants to the public.
Brightly rendered and sophisticated, as befits a New Yorker writer, but very uneven.