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Taking the 'Heat' in Mario Batali's Kitchen

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Taking the 'Heat' in Mario Batali's Kitchen

Food

Taking the 'Heat' in Mario Batali's Kitchen

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. If one of your friends did what Bill Buford did, you'd probably think he was a little crazy. Bill left a dream job at The New Yorker magazine to work as a kitchen grunt in one of New York's most famous restaurants, Babbo. It all happened one night when he invited Babbo's celebrity chef Mario Batali over for dinner.

You invited a professional chef, a celebrity chef, a star chef, to your kitchen?

Mr. BILL BUFORD (Author, Cook): You're getting something of the tone that my wife adopted when I told her the news after I hung up and he said, sure, sure why not?

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Well, it took just one endless night of eating, drinking, and drinking and more drinking with the insatiable Mario Batali to convince Bill Buford that this chef would make a great subject for a New Yorker article. Mario did agree to allow the writer to work in the Babbo kitchen, and soon, Bill Buford realized, there was enough material for a book.

BRAND: The result is Heat, Bill Buford's new book about his year in the Babbo kitchen and his search for the origins of Italian cooking with grandmotherly pasta makers and a Dante-quoting butcher. When we spoke recently, Bill and I talked first about his mentor, Molto Mario.

(Soundbite of television show, “Molto Mario”)

Mr. MARIO BATALI (Celebrity Chef): (In television clip) Hey, welcome back. Well, now as you can see, with slow, proper cooking we get these succulent little melanzana or eggplant out, and the main thing here…

BRAND: A lot of us know Mario from his onscreen persona, his Molto Mario persona. Is he like that in real life? Was he like that in your apartment?

Mr. BUFORD: He's way, way, way, way worse. He's way over the top. He's filthy for a start, and he's very, very, very funny. You know, he came over with this gigantic top of a pig, basically raw pig fat, that he came and sliced very thinly and delicately and intimately and put on the back of our tongues and said, mmm, can't you just taste what the pig was eating in the last days of his life? Which is disgusting.

BRAND: What is it about cooking, about restaurants that attracts these characters?

Mr. BUFORD: There is a theory that the people who really excel in the kitchen are people who couldn't do anything but excel in the kitchen. It attracts a kind of person who can do things with his hands and work under pressure. It's not a verbal profession.

They don't do what we're doing now. They don't use a lot of words. They don't read books. They don't read anything. It's all physical, and it's all with your fingers. So, it does attract a certain kind of person that you don't find anywhere else normally in your civilized life. But in addition, there is something about food - I now describe it as the charisma of food - that attracts a passionate personality.

BRAND: And allows you to work in his kitchen?

Mr. BUFORD: It wasn't a given. The kitchen is extremely small, and it's filled with some very highly driven, high testosterone, slightly mad - and in some cases - very, very mad people working under a great deal of pressure, extremely long hours, and producing a lot of food. If you're not interested in cooking, it was a pretty miserable place to be.

But if you're interested in cooking, and you wanted to know how you did that and how you did this and what you do with artichokes and what you can do with fennel and how you can tell whether meat's done or not and how you cook pasta -and every time I turned, there was some new thing I didn't know, and it was like an intense, happy school experience.

And I wanted to go back just because there was so much more that I wanted to learn. But I also wanted to go back because it was a pretty brutal experience, and I think I was excited by the challenge of proving I could do it.

BRAND: You write in the book that not only did you get a little carried away, you actually went over to the other side. That you gave up your identity as a tourist, if you will - something that we journalists do all the time is go in and sort of observe and leave - but you became a participant. You became a chef - or a cook, at least, a professional cook.

Mr. BUFORD: This is something that finally occurred to me when I got to Italy and was working in a butcher shop. And there was a moment when I realized, hmm, I'm butcher. Not only that, but I'm an Italian butcher. And a tourist came in and took a photograph of me and I thought, whoa, this is kind of confusing. I'm no longer the tourist, but I'm the tourist attraction.

What journalist's do, what we all do, is we get enough for our story, and sometimes it doesn't have to be very much. I never quite learned how to do not very much, but you know, you go out and you get your copy and can frame the story, and you got your beginning and your end. You often know what your story is before you begin. What I did was I lost my story. And, you know, I was no longer getting enough to write a book. I was - I just went deep and was learning how to become a cook.

BRAND: Because the initial impetus was to do a profile of Mario Batali, and it became more about you and your quest to learn about Italian food.

Mr. BUFORD: It became a quest to become a cook, to learn about Italian food, to learn Italian, to learn about food. Yeah. It became a whole kind of renaissance, self-discovery, reinvention thing. I didn't mean for it do that. That just happened. And everybody was patiently waiting for me to return to the New Yorker, and my publisher was patiently waiting for the book, and I was on an Italian hilltop singing songs.

BRAND: I'm wondering, you go back to Italy to Mario's teachers, and they seem a little resentful of the fact that he's a big celebrity chef.

Mr. BUFORD: I finally made sense of it when I thought about all these musicians that used to go down to the Delta to learn how to play the blues. There's some amazing, amazing musicians down there, and they're very, very poor and they've got astonishing licks. But there is, in all of them, even the very successful ones, a profound resentment of the white kids who come down and learn their licks and go back and become famous musicians.

And it's a little bit like that. Mario comes. They think Mario's a - they can't believe that he's a cook. And he tears the pasta, and he doesn't know how to do the things that they do, and they really kind of find him quite laughable -only in time to be astonished that he sort of gathered up all their good recipes and converted them into the heart of a restaurant that is unbelievably successful in the middle of New York, and a television show and another restaurant and another restaurant and a restaurant empire. And now he's an extremely man. They still scratch their heads thinking, man, I can't believe that guy. I can't believe that was the same guy who came here.

You go to Italy and you learn a way that people have been preparing food for hundreds of years, and Mario comes in and does them, but then he does, like, variations. And, you know, you don't do variations. What's this guy doing? And now he's a success and he does variations. It doesn't make sense to them.

BRAND: So, you end this journey by coming back to New York. You spent several, several sojourns in Italy learning how to make pasta, and butcher a pig and a cow and become quite adept in the kitchen. And what does Mario think of you at the end? Does he see you as an equal or a colleague or someone to be respected?

Mr. BUFORD: Well, in a couple - I was going to say in a couple drunken moments, but actually only one of them was drunken. A couple of moments he did invite me to start a restaurant if I wanted to start a restaurant. One was a very drunken moment, but that was counter-balanced by one which was very sober.

BRAND: And did you think about it?

Mr. BUFORD: We thought about it, but I think what I understand now of how much work it is. But the point of this whole thing wasn't to learn how to start a restaurant. I wanted to understand the food that I eat and the food that I want to cook. And we're in a very peculiar generation where we're fantastically ignorant about the preparations of food. More ignorant, probably, than any other time in our humanity. At the end, I think I understand food better, and I know how to prepare more of it, and I still feel I've got a lot to learn.

BRAND: Well, Bill Buford, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

Mr. BUFORD: Thank you very much.

BRAND: Bill Buford's new book is called Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: And you can hear Bill Buford reading from his book. It's that section about that crazy dinner party with Mario Batali. Go to our Web site, npr.org.

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