Bill Buford’s Adventures in Italian Cuisine

In the Guardian, Adam Mars-Jones reviews Bill Buford’s Heat, on his adventures in Italian cuisine and Mario Batali’s kitchen.

Those of us who had dealings with Buford in his earlier incarnation as an editor didn’t find him short on testosterone but in his new context, he seems benign, virtually eunuchoid. Of the various culinary masters he meets in the book, only one has no temperament (the mentor of Tuscan butchery known as Il Maestro), and only one – that kitchen kamikaze, Marco Pierre White – has a genuine one, as opposed to the vice of using his moods to manipulate others…

[Batali’s] Babbo in New York continues to trade on the authenticity of that apprenticeship in Italy. What goes on in a restaurant is supposed to be the essence of cooking. It can seem more like the opposite of cooking. Buford isn’t writing an exposé, along the lines of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, but he might as well be. Something that starts out as a formal version of what an Italian grandmother might serve her family turns into an orgy of extravagance, hucksterism and dodgy hygienic practice.

Batali would play Bob Marley songs on the sound system, knowing the New York Times restaurant critic was a fan. He would berate staff who failed to recognise celebrities, who must be served first and given special treatment. To make a humble fish soup called cioppino, he would rummage through bins and chopping boards, collecting left overs (tomato pulp, carrot tops, onion skins), then price the dish at $29 and tell the waiters to sell the hell out of it or be fired. Short ribs prepared in advance, wrapped so tightly in plastic wrap and foil that they wouldn’t spurt sauce if stepped on, would keep in the walk-in fridge for up to a week.