Synopses & Reviews
Linguine with Clams
If you're tempted to make linguine with clams according to the kitchen's preparation, you should understand that the only ingredient that's measured is the pasta. (A serving is four ounces.) Everything else is what you pick up with your fingertips, and it's either a small pinch or a large pinch or something in between: not helpful, but that, alas, is the way quantities are determined in a restaurant.
The downside of measuring by hand is what happens to the hands. At the end of an evening your fingertips are irretrievably stained with some very heady aromatics, and there's nothing you can do to eliminate them. You wash your hands. You soak them. You shower, you scrub them again. The next day, they still stink of onion, garlic, and pork fat, and, convinced that everyone around you is picking up the smell, you ram them into your pockets, maniacally rubbing your fingers against each other like an obsessive-compulsive Lady Macbeth.
small pinch of chopped garlic
small pinch of chili flakes
medium pinch of chopped onion
medium pinch of pancetta
4 oz. linguine per serving
A big handful of clams
NOTE: the ingredients and preparations in this recipe are approximate—experiment with proportions to make it to your taste.
Begin by roasting small pinches of garlic and chili flakes and medium pinches of the onion and pancetta in a hot pan with olive oil. Hot oil accelerates the cooking process,and the moment everything gets soft you pour it away (holding back the contents with your tongs) and add a slap of butter and a splash of white wine, which stops the cooking. This is Stage One—and you are left with the familiar messy buttery mush—but already you've added two things you'd never see in Italy: butter (seafood with butter—or any other dairy ingredient—verges on culinary blasphemy) and pancetta, because, according to Mario, pork and shellfish are an eternal combination found in many other places: in Portugal, in amêijoas na cataplana (clams and ham); or in Spain, in a paella (chorizo and scallops); or in the United States, in the Italian-American clams casino, even though none of those places happens to be in Italy.
In Stage Two, you drop the pasta in boiling water and take your messy buttery pan and fill it with a big handful of clams and put it on the highest possible flame. The objective is to cook them fast—they'll start opening after three or four minutes, when you give the pan a swirl, mixing the shellfish juice with the buttery porky white wine emulsion. At six minutes and thirty seconds, you use your tongs to pull your noodles out and drop them into your pan—all that starchy pasta water slopping in with them is still a good thing; give the pan another swirl; flip it; swirl it again to ensure that the pasta is covered by the sauce. If it looks dry, add another splash of pasta water; if too wet, pour some out. You then let the thing cook away for another half minute or so, swirling, swirling, until the sauce streaks across the bottom of the pan, splash it with olive oil and sprinkle it with parsley: dinner.
The first glimpse I had of what Mario Batali’s friends had described to me as the “myth of Mario” was on a cold Saturday night in January 2002, when I invited him to a birthday dinner. Batali, the chef and co-owner of Babbo, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, is such a famous and proficient cook that he’s rarely invited to people’s homes for a meal, he told me, and he went out of his way to be a grateful guest. He arrived bearing his own quince-flavored grappa (the rough, distilled end-of-harvest grape juices rendered almost drinkable by the addition of the fruit); a jar of homemade nocino (same principle, but with walnuts); an armful of wine; and a white, dense slab of lardo—literally, the raw “lardy” back of a very fat pig, one he’d cured himself with herbs and salt. I was what might generously be described as an enthusiastic cook, more confident than competent (that is, keen but fundamentally clueless), and to this day I am astonished that I had the nerve to ask over someone of Batali’s reputation, along with six guests who thought they’d have an amusing evening witnessing my humiliation. (Mario was a friend of the birthday friend, so I’d thought—why not invite him, too?—but when, wonder of wonders, he then accepted and I told my wife, Jessica, she was apoplectic with wonder: “What in the world were you thinking of, inviting a famous chef to our apartment for dinner? Now what are we going to do?”)
In the event, there was little comedy, mainly because Mario didn’t give me a chance. Shortly after my being instructed that only a moron would let his meat rest by wrapping it in foil after cooking it, I cheerfully gave up and let Batali tell me what to do. By then he’d taken over the evening, anyway. Not long into it, he’d cut the lardo into thin slices and, with a startling flourish of intimacy, laid them individually on our tongues, whispering that we needed to let the fat melt in our mouths to appreciate its intensity. The lardo was from a pig that, in the last months of its seven-hundred-and-fifty-pound life, had lived on apples, walnuts, and cream (“The best song sung in the key of pig”), and Mario convinced us that, as the fat dissolved, we’d detect the flavors of the animal’s happy diet—there, in the back of the mouth. No one that evening had knowingly eaten pure fat before (“At the restaurant, I tell the waiters to call it prosciutto bianco”), and by the time Mario had persuaded us to a third helping everyone’s heart was racing. Batali was an impressively dedicated drinker—he mentioned in passing that, on trips to Italy made with his Babbo co-owner, Joe Bastianich, the two of them had been known to put away a case of wine during an evening meal—and while I don’t think that any of us drank anything like that, we were, by now, very thirsty (the lardo, the salt, the human heat of so much jollity) and, cheered on, found ourselves knocking back more and more. I don’t know. I don’t really remember. There were also the grappa and the nocino, and one of my last images is of Batali at three in the morning—a stoutly round man with his back dangerously arched, his eyes closed, a long red ponytail swinging rhythmically behind him, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, his red Converse high-tops pounding the floor—playing air guitar to Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” Batali was forty-one, and I remember thinking it had been a long time since I’d seen a grown man play air guitar. He then found the soundtrack for Buena Vista Social Club, tried to salsa with one of the women guests (who promptly fell over a sofa), moved on to her boyfriend, who was unresponsive, put on a Tom Waits CD instead, and sang along as he washed the dishes and swept the floor. He reminded me of an arrangement we’d made for the next day—when I’d invited Batali to dinner, he’d reciprocated by asking me to join him at a New York Giants football game, tickets courtesy of the commissioner of the NFL, who had just eaten at Babbo—and then disappeared with three of my friends, assuring them that, with his back-of-the-hand knowledge of downtown establishments open until five, he’d find a place to continue the evening. They ended up at Marylou’s in the Village—in Batali’s description, “A wise guy joint where you can get anything at any time of night, and none of it good.”
It was daylight when Batali got home. I learned this from his building superintendent the next morning, as the two of us tried to get Batali to wake up—the commissioner’s driver was waiting outside. When Batali finally appeared, forty-five minutes later, he was momentarily perplexed, standing in the doorway of his apartment in his underwear and wondering why I was there, too. (Batali has a remarkable girth, and it was startling to see him clad so.) Then, in minutes, he transformed himself into what I would come to know as the Batali look: the shorts, the clogs, the wraparound sunglasses, the red hair pulled back into its ponytail. One moment, a rotund Clark Kent in his underpants; the next, “Molto Mario”—the clever, many-layered name of his cooking television program, which, in one of its senses, literally means Very Mario (that is, an intensified Mario, an exaggerated Mario)—and a figure whose renown I didn’t appreciate until, as guests of the commissioner, we were allowed onto the field before the game. Fans of the New York Giants are so famously brutish as to be cartoons (bare-chested on a wintry morning or wearing hard hats; in any case, not guys putting in their domestic duty in the kitchen), and I was surprised by how many recognized the ponytailed chef, who stood facing them, arms crossed over his chest, beaming. “Hey, Molto!” they shouted. “What’s cooking, Mario?” “Mario, make me a pasta!” At the time, Molto Mario was shown on afternoons on cable television, and I found a complex picture of the working metropolitan male emerging, one rushing home the moment his shift ended to catch lessons in braising his broccoli rabe and getting just the right forked texture on his homemade orecchiette. I stood back with one of the security people, taking in the spectacle (by now members of the crowd were chanting “Molto, Molto, Molto”)—this very round man, whose manner and dress said, “Dude, where’s the party?”
“I love this guy,” the security man said. “Just lookin’ at him makes me hungry.”
Mario Batali is the most recognized chef in a city with more chefs than any other city in the world. In addition to Batali’s television show—and his appearances promoting, say, the NASCAR race track in Delaware—he was simply and energetically omnipresent. It would be safe to say that no New York chef ate more, drank more, and was out and about as much. If you live in New York City, you will see him eventually (sooner, if your evenings get going around two in the morning). With his partner, Joe, Batali also owned two other restaurants, Esca and Lupa, and a shop selling Italian wine, and, when we met, they were talking about opening a pizzeria and buying a vineyard in Tuscany. But Babbo was the heart of their enterprise, crushed into what was originally a nineteenth-century coach house, just off Washington Square, in Greenwich Village. The building was narrow; the space was crowded, jostly, and loud; and the food, studiously Italian, rather than Italian-American, was characterized by an over-the-top flourish that seemed to be expressly Batali’s. People went there in the expectation of excess. Sometimes I wondered if Batali was less a conventional cook than an advocate of a murkier enterprise of stimulating outrageous appetites (whatever they might be) and satisfying them intensely (by whatever means). A friend of mine, who’d once dropped by the bar for a drink and was then fed personally by Batali for the next six hours, went on a diet of soft fruit and water for three days. “This guy knows no middle ground. It’s just excess on a level I’ve never known before—it’s food and drink, food and drink, food and drink, until you feel you’re on drugs.” Chefs who were regular visitors were subjected to extreme versions of what was already an extreme experience. “We’re going to kill him,” Batali said to me with maniacal glee as he prepared a meal for a rival who had innocently ordered a seven-course tasting menu, to which Batali added a lethal number of extra courses. The starters (all variations in pig) included lonza (the cured backstrap from the cream-apple-and-walnut herd), coppa (from the shoulder), a fried foot, a porcini mushroom roasted with Batali’s own pancetta (the belly), plus (“for the hell of it”) a pasta topped with guanciale (the jowls). This year, Mario was trying out a new motto: “Wretched excess is just barely enough.”
Batali was born in 1960 and grew up outside Seattle: a suburban kid with a solid Leave It to Beaver upbringing. His mother, Marilyn, is En-glish and French Canadian—from her comes her son’s flaming red hair and a fair, un-Italian complexion. The Italian is from his father, Armandino, the grandson of immigrants who arrived in the 1890s. When Mario was growing up, his father was a well-paid Boeing executive in charge of procuring airplane parts made overseas, and in 1975, after being posted to Europe, to supervise the manufacturing close-up, he moved his family to Spain. That, according to Gina, Mario’s youngest sibling, was when Mario changed. (“He was already pushing the limits.”) Madrid, in the post-Franco years (bars with no minimum age, hash hangouts, the world’s oldest profession suddenly legalized), was a place of exhilarating license, and Mario seems to have experienced a little bit of everything on offer. He was caught growing marijuana on the roof of his father’s apartment building (the first incident of what would become a theme—Batali was later expelled from his dorm in college, suspected of dealing, and, later still, there was some trouble in Tijuana that actually landed him in jail). The marijuana association also evokes a memory of the first meals Batali remembers preparing, late-night panini with caramelized locally grown onions, a local cow’s-milk Spanish cheese, and paper-thin slices of chorizo: “The best stoner munch you can imagine; me and my younger brother Dana were just classic stoner kids—we were so happy.”
By the time Batali returned to the United States in 1978 to attend Rutgers University, in New Jersey, he was determined to get back to Europe (“I wanted to be a Spanish banker—I loved the idea of making a lot of money and living a luxurious life in Madrid”), and his unlikely double major was in business management and Spanish theatre. But after being thrown out of his dorm, Batali got work as a dishwasher at a pizzeria called Stuff Yer Face (in its name alone, destiny was calling), and his life changed. He was promoted to cook, then line cook (working at one “station” in a “line” of stations, making one thing), and then asked to be manager, an offer he turned down. He didn’t want the responsibility; he was having too good a time. The life at Stuff Yer Face was fast (twenty-five years later, he still claims he has the record for the most pizzas made in an hour), sexy (“The most booooootiful waitresses in town”), and very buzzy (“I don’t want to come off as a big druggy, but when a guy comes into the kitchen with a pizza pan turned upside down, covered with lines of crack, how can you say no?”). When, in his junior year, he attended a career conference hosted by representatives from major corporations, Batali realized he had been wrong; he was never going to be a banker. He was going to be a chef.
“My mother and grandmother had always told me that I should be a cook. In fact, when I was preparing my applications for college, my mother had suggested cooking school. But I said, ‘Ma, that’s too gay. I don’t want to go to cooking school—that’s for fags.’ ” Five years later, Batali was back in Europe, attending the Cordon Bleu in London.
His father, still overseeing Boeing’s foreign operations, was now based in England. Gina Batali was there, too, and recalls seeing her eldest brother only when she was getting ready for school and he was returning from his all-night escapades after attending classes during the day and then working at a pub. The pub was the Six Bells, on the King’s Road in Chelsea. Mario had been bartending at the so-called American bar (“No idea what I was doing”), when a high-priced dining room opened in the back and a chef was hired to run it, a Yorkshire man named Marco Pierre White. Batali, bored by the pace of cooking school, was hired to be the new chef’s slave.
Today, Marco Pierre White is regarded as one of the most influential chefs in Britain (as well as the most foul-tempered, most mercurial, and most bullying), and it’s an extraordinary fortuity that these two men, both in their early twenties, found themselves in a tiny pub kitchen together. Batali didn’t understand what he was witnessing: his restaurant experience had been making strombolis in New Brunswick. “I assumed I was seeing what everyone else already knew. I didn’t feel like I was on the cusp of a revolution. And yet, while I had no idea this guy was about to become so famous, I could see he was preparing food from outside the box. He was a genius on the plate. I’d never worked on presentation. I just put shit on the plate.” He described White’s making a deep green puree from basil leaves and then a white butter sauce, then swirling the green sauce in one direction, and the white sauce in the other, and drawing a swerving line down the middle of the plate. “I had never seen anyone draw fucking lines with two sauces.” White would order Batali to follow him to market (“I was his whipping boy—’Yes, master,’ I’d answer, ‘whatever you say, master’ ”) and they’d return with game birds or ingredients for some of the most improbable dishes ever to be served in an English pub: écrevisses in a reduced lobster sauce, oysters with caviar, roasted ortolan (a rare, tiny bird served virtually breathing, gulped down, innards and all, like a raw crustacean)—“the whole menu written out in fucking French.”
"An all-too-rare description of the real business of cooking, its characters and its subculture. I lingered over every sentence like a heavily truffled risotto." Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential
"I have never read a funnier or more authentic account of the making of a serious cook. Give Mr. Buford three stars." Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence
"Through [Buford's] eyes, we see what 'heat' truly is and why so many cooks have a penchant for Dante: cooking is hell. The pacing is quick, and the writing often mirrors the intensity of the kitchen....A well-seasoned cast of characters rounds out this culinary odyssey." Library Journal
"The book is part memoir, part biography and part tutorial, and its deftly intertwining narratives include everything from high-end restaurant gossip and kitchen secrets to a passionate homage to the rapidly declining traditions of handmade food." New York Times
"Exuberant, hilarious, glorying in its rich and arcane subject matter." Los Angeles Times
"A tour de force piece of immersion reportage." Chicago Sun-Times
"Buford breezes along with charmingly chaotic anecdotes of his travels and cooking....[W]hen Molto Mario swaggers onto the page, Heat rocks." Houston Chronicle
"Bill Buford learns that Italians take their cuisine very seriously....Heat is more than just a tasty treat; it's a memorable meal made with passion and served with brio." Boston Globe
"Its meaty morsels will leave most readers pining for a second helping." Christian Science Monitor
"However uncertain he is of his culinary skills, Buford needn't worry about his exceptional gift of writing words to esteem and savor." Seattle Times
lets readers share Buford's adoration for Italian food; one of the book's highlights is a show-stopping, hilariously insecure riff on the country's culinary neuroses....Buford was clearly already a rather impressive cook before he came to Babbo, but he becomes after stints in Porretta to learn how to make real Italian pasta and Panzano to learn how to become a real Tuscan butcher a truly exceptional one." Warren Bass, The Washington Post Book World
(read the entire Washington Post Book World review
From one of our most interesting literary figures 16 years as editor of Granta
, 8 years as fiction editor at The New Yorker
, author of Among the Thugs
, the best-selling expose of the world of English soccer hooligans a sharp, funny, exuberant, close-up book about his headlong plunge into the life of a professional cook-in-training.
Expanding on his August 2002 New Yorker article, Bill Buford now gives us a richly evocative chronicle of his experience as "slave" to Mario Batali in the small, chaotic, highest-standards kitchen of Batali's three-star New York restaurant, Babbo, and of his apprenticeships with Batali's former teachers. In a fast-paced, candid narrative, Buford describes three frenetic years in the kitchen: trials and errors, disappointments and triumphs, as he worked his way up the Babbo ladder to a line cook... his relationship with the larger-than-life Batali, whose story he learns as their friendship grows through (and sometimes despite) kitchen encounters and after-work all-nighters... and his immersion in the art of butchery in Northern Italy, of preparing game in London, and of handmade pasta at an Italian hillside trattoria.
Heat is a marvelous hybrid: a memoir of Buford's kitchen adventure, the story of Batali's amazing rise to culinary (and extra-culinary) fame, a dazzling behind-the-scenes look at a famous restaurant, and an illuminating exploration of why food matters. It is a book to delight in, and to savor.
From Bill Buford, one of our most interesting literary figures--eight years as fiction editor at "The New Yorker"--comes a sharp, funny, exuberant, close-up account of his headlong plunge into the life of a professional cook. A marvelous hybrid, "Heat" offers a memoir of Buford's kitchen adventure as well as an illuminating exploration of why food matters.From Bill Buford, one of our most interesting literary figures--eight years as fiction editor at "The New Yorker"--comes a sharp, funny, exuberant, close-up account of his headlong plunge into the life of a professional cook. A marvelous hybrid, "Heat" offers a memoir of Buford's kitchen adventure as well as an illuminating exploration of why food matters.
Bill Buford—author of the highly acclaimed best-selling Among the Thugs—
had long thought of himself as a reasonably comfortable cook when in 2002 he finally decided to answer a question that had nagged him every time he prepared a meal: What kind of cook could he be if he worked in a professional kitchen? When the opportunity arose to train in the kitchen of Mario Batalis three-star New York restaurant, Babbo, Buford grabbed it. Heat
is the chronicle—sharp, funny, wonderfully exuberant—of his time spent as Batalis “slave” and of his far-flung apprenticeships with culinary masters in Italy.
In a fast-paced, candid narrative, Buford describes the frenetic experience of working in Babbos kitchen: the trials and errors (and more errors), humiliations and hopes, disappointments and triumphs as he worked his way up the ladder from slave to cook. He talks about his relationships with his kitchen colleagues and with the larger-than-life, hard-living Batali, whose story he learns as their friendship grows through (and sometimes despite) kitchen encounters and after-work all-nighters.
Buford takes us to the restaurant in a remote Appennine village where Batali first apprenticed in Italy and where Buford learns the intricacies of handmade pasta . . . the hill town in Chianti where he is tutored in the art of butchery by Italys most famous butcher, a man who insists that his meat is an expression of the Italian soul . . . to London, where he is instructed in the preparation of game by Marco Pierre White, one of Englands most celebrated (or perhaps notorious) chefs. And throughout, we follow the thread of Bufords fascinating reflections on food as a bearer of culture, on the history and development of a few special dishes (Is the shape of tortellini really based on a womans navel? And just what is a short rib?), and on the what and why of the foods we eat today.
Heat is a marvelous hybrid: a richly evocative memoir of Bufords kitchen adventure, the story of Batalis amazing rise to culinary (and extra-culinary) fame, a dazzling behind-the-scenes look at the workings of a famous restaurant, and an illuminating exploration of why food matters.
It is a book to delight in—and to savor.
About the Author
Bill Buford is a staff writer for the New Yorker, where he was the fiction editor for eight years. He was the founding editor of Granta magazine and was also the publisher of Granta Books. His previous book, Among the Thugs, is a nonfiction account of crowd violence and British soccer hooliganism. He lives in New York City with his wife, Jessica Green, and their two sons.
Reading Group Guide
1. Buford says, “I came to regard the prep kitchen as something like a culinary boot camp” [p. 18]. In what ways do the other chefs, Elisa in particular, appear almost militaristic in their approach to cooking? How does Bufords description of the psychical exhaustion he endues help convey the similarities between the Babbo kitchen and boot camp?
2. Throughout Heat, Buford describes himself as a “kitchen bitch” and “kitchen slave.” What does he mean? Do you agree with his assessment of his status in the kitchen of Babbo?
3. Mario Batali tells Buford, “You learn by working in the kitchen. Not by reading a book or watching a television program or going to cooking school” [p. 10]. While Batali has done this in his own career, he is also the host of several cooking shows and author of several cookbooks. Do you agree that the best way to learn to cook is in the kitchen? What have you learned from cooking shows and cookbooks?
4. In what ways does Batalis celebrity affect his interactions with the staff of Babbo? How is this especially noticeable in his dealings with Andy?
5. Do you think that Buford is correct in his assessment that Marco Pierre White is the first person to show Mario Batali what a chef could be? Why do you think Batali and White were unable to work together?
6. When the Babbo cookbook is about to be published, Batali tells his staff that they will have to come up with new recipes since all of the secrets of Babbo will be revealed. Would knowing a restaurants recipes alter your dining experience? Why or why not?
7. Dario and Batali try to waste as little as possible. Likewise, when Buford brings home the pig from the green market, he uses all of it except for the lungs. Aside from the obvious financial motivations, why are all of these men unwilling to let any food go to waste?
8. Buford is completely flummoxed by the lack of interest among the professionals he encounters in the history of pasta. Why do you think Buford is so obsessed with finding out when the egg first appeared in pasta dough in learning this information? In what ways does he differ from the professionals that he encounters?
9. Throughout Heat, Buford argues that “food is a concentrated messenger of a culture” [p. 25]. What are some of the examples he gives to illustrate his point? Can you think of any examples of this in your own life?
10. Buford goes to Nashville as part of the Babbo kitchen team to assist in the preparation for a benefit dinner. How is this a turning point for him?
11. Before Betta teaches Buford how to make tortellini according to her recipe, she repeatedly makes him promise not to share her recipe with Batali. Why is she so emphatic about this request? Do you think that Betta is right to resent Batalis success?
12. Dario sees himself not as a businessman or butcher but, rather, as an artisan. How does this impact the way that he runs his shop and interacts with his customers? What does Buford mean when he calls Dario “an artist, whose subject was loss” [p. 285]?
13. Has Heat changed your views on dining out and the world of professional cooking? If so, how?
The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading that follow are designed to enhance your groups discussion of Bill Bufords Heat, the memoir of his quest to immerse himself in the world of professional cooking. Part travelogue, part gastronomical history, part meditation on the very nature of food, Heat is an insiders look at cuisine, infused with Bufords manic energy and humor.
Q: How did you decide to work in the Babbo kitchen?
A: When I started this project, I was the fiction editor of The New Yorker, and, attended a regular ideas meeting for features and profiles. I had just met Mario Batali. I concluded that he was an insane, eccentric wild man, the likes of which I had never seen in my life: that is, a perfect subject for a New Yorker profile.
The idea of working in the kitchen is the kind of thing one might to do to report a piece. But the truth is: it was an excuse for me to work in a kitchen. I’d always wanted to work in a kitchen. And this was a chance.
Q: In Heat, you write about many of the young chefs that you got to know working in the kitchen. Where are they now?
A: A few people have remained: when I go back to Babbo now, I’ll still see people I worked with. But many people have moved on. Andy Nusser, the executive chef, had been working for Mario for years: first at Po, Mario’s first New York restaurant, and then at Babbo since it opened. He then got the chance to open up his own place, with Mario’s backing, Casa Mono.
Tony Liu, who left after Frankie was named executive chef, now runs August in the West Village (it just got two stars and a rave review from Frank Bruni in the New York Times). Holly Burling joined him there.
Memo is the executive chef at Dos Caminos, the one on Houston: a great restaurant. Mark Barrett finally returned from Italy and was made the chef at Bread Tribeca. And, recently, has returned to Italy.
The truth is: the list is long. The Babbo kitchen turned out to be a kind of boot camp for some of New York’s great cooks who have gone on to run many of New York’s good restaurants.
Q: What was your culinary upbringing?
A: In college, I cooked tedious variations on The Joy of Cooking, which has probably ruined American cooking forever. My friends and I, in our better moments, did a little bit of Southern cooking. We were Southern exiles, at Berkeley. I got interested in food accidentally, and embarrassingly, and reluctantly, when a friend of mine who knew a lot about food and wine told me to bring a really, really good bottle to a Christmas dinner. I found a bottle of Burgundy that turned out to be amazing. And that completely changed everything. I didn’t know that kind of stuff could go on in your mouth. I tasted it for about three days. And that led to wine and food, and then food.
Q: What do you most enjoy about cooking?
A: I like lots of things—buying, feeding, nourishing—but, more than anything else, I like the physical act of making food, which seems to satisfy some kind of need both to work with food and work with the hands. One of the unexpected pleasures of being on the line at Babbo as a line cook was the demand to making so many plates well. I don’t know how many I made when I was working at the grill station. Maybe fifty in a night. But each time I completed a plate—each one had its own architecture, its own composition—and then set it up on the pass, where it was inspected by the executive chef and handed to a runner who rushed it out into the dining room, I enjoyed a little buzz of achievement, a tiny moment of happiness at having made something well, even if it was about to be demolished by the hungry person on the other side of the kitchen doors.
Q: Do you have a favorite recipe?
A: I usually have food obsessions that coincide directly with the seasons. I’m answering these questions on a warm spring morning, so my current food is ramps, the wild leeks that come from the wild areas of upstate New York, but, in a week or so, the ramps will start getting woody, and I’ll be on to the next thing: peas, probably, which offer twenty-five different possibilities (with mint and lemon zest and olive oil, pureed into a summery soup, or served with pea shoots and guanciale and home-made pasta). My favorite meat thing continues to be peposo, the peppery beef dish I learned when I worked in the butcher shop in Tuscany, just because it’s so simple and so surprising and so resoundingly healthy-seeming every time I prepare it. I get two shanks (pretty cheap—they’re not a trendy cut), bone them (or, better, have the butcher butcher bone them), trim off as much connective tissue as I can, cutting the meat into bite size chunks, plop it into a pot, add a whole garlic (chopped up), about three tablespoons of coarsely ground pepper, one tablespoon of salt, a bottle of good chianti, and put it into the oven at low-to-medium temperature (about 225°F), and don’t take it out until the next morning. At home, we eat it while drinking a bottle of the same wine we cooked the meat in. It’s transporting.
Q: Where do you do most of your shopping in NYC?
A: The Greenmarket. Its virtue is its overwhelming limitation. Farmers are allowed only to sell what they grow. Nothing imported from elsewhere. So, on this same spring day, there is no lettuce, no tomatoes, no fruit except stored apples. There is no citrus. No bananas. In fact, on this particular spring day, the market isn’t so great. But in a week it will change. And in a month it will change again. And by the summer, it will be overwhelming, and everything tasting of the earth it was pulled out off, only the day before, if not that very morning. I love it and go market crazy, often making two trips a day, filling up the fridge and covering the counters and making the whole kitchen into a no-go zone only because there is no room for anything else.
Q: In the book, you make some interesting observations about food and American culture.
A: The observation is that the mass-marketing of food is killing it. What makes our food so plentiful has ruined what makes it interesting. Basically, if you can refrigerate it and ship it, then it’s ruined. What I learned from all these people in Italy—they’re all extreme in their traditionalism—is how to make food with your hands, and how the kind of food that you can make with your hands is going to be idiosyncratic, expressive, and unique to the place where you are. You’re trying to make food that’s unique to the place it comes from. That’s what it comes down to, in a nutshell. The closer the food is to the place, the more intense the flavors–more vibrant, more alive, more of the earth.
Q: But, even in Italy, some foods are becoming less local, right?
A: Working with Dario, I discovered that in Tuscany there’s a whole beef culture. In Bologna it’s pasta, in Tuscany it’s beef. They have great traditions and great recipes for preparing beef. But most of the pastures that were used for cattle have been replaced by vines. Wine is now big money. The town of Panzano might have two butcher shops—there might have been six at one time—and three bakeries and two alimentari, grocery stores, but they have eighteen winemakers. It’s great wine, and they’ve always made wine there, but in the past they made wine and grew olives and wheat and corn and raised cattle–lots of different things.
Q: You spent a great deal of time in Italy while writing Heat. What do you learn from going to Italy that you couldn’t learn from a cookbook?
A: You learn a number of things. For one, there are a lot of Italian orthodoxies. I know that Italian cooking is meant to seem sometimes quite improvised and informal, and you don’t really use measurements. But, actually, it’s highly codified. There are things you do in Bologna, say, that you would never do in Tuscany. When the Maestro finally taught me how to cut beef and was breaking down a cow’s leg and going through each piece, he explained, “In Tuscany, you eat this part with peas and olive oil, but in Umbria you eat it with fava beans and olive oil.” Something about the way he said it told me that you’d never, in Tuscany, eat it with fava beans. It just wouldn’t be done.
One night Dario Cecchini and I and my wife and his wife at the time went to a restaurant not far from Dario’s house. He looked at the menu and saw air-dried goose. He threw the menu down, he screamed, he shouted at the owner of the restaurant, he humiliated him in front of a party. He just went berserk. To the restaurant proprietor, Filippo, he said, “Filippo, you have a beautiful panoramic view”—the restaurant was on top of a mountain—“of all of Tuscany. When in your life have you ever seen a goddamn goose in that sky, ever?” And then he threw the menu down. “Cazzo! Cazzo!”
In Italy, what you’re really learning is centuries of a culture of producing food in a particular region. As Mario Batali has said, these guys have been doing it pretty well for seven, eight, ten centuries—who’s to think you’re so smart that you can do it better? Here in America, it’s not so codified. One of the things that baffles the Italians who taught Mario is how Mario can be so successful when he does things like put raw eggs on top of his spaghetti carbonara. They were really perplexed. One of them said, “I’ve seen it! I’ve seen it with my own eyes—the eggs were raw! The eggs were raw!”
Q: Did your cooking skills change dramatically in your home kitchen after the time at Babbo?
A: My skills didn’t change. But I had only one: enthusiasm. I acquired new skills. Lots of skills. I could write a book about the skills I learned. In fact, I tried, which is why this book is so late: I learned about so many skills that I tried to describe them all. It would be boring for me even to list them. Trust me: every single day I learned a new thing. Some days I learned three new things. I’m sure I was learning more. It was, all and all, the most intense learning experience—since when? I don’t know. Since I learned to throw a baseball. A long time.
Q: After the experience of working in a kitchen and at a butcher shop were you relieved to return to writing full time?
A: Actually, I enjoyed the physical pleasure of working in a kitchen, and I miss it. I don’t miss it enough to start my own restaurant, although the idea recurs, but I’ve certainly enjoyed it enough to want to keep going back to a kitchen in some capacity. And also to the butcher shop. I made a vow to keep returning to Panzano and working with the Maestro every year, even if it’s only for a week or so, and I will keep to that vow.
Q: Where will your next culinary adventure take you?
A: I want to find myself in a kitchen where I can learn to make desserts. My understanding is that meat cooking is largely intuitive, because you’re dealing with the tissues of living creatures. But pastry is more of a scientific interaction of ingredients in a composed situation. You need specific weights and quantities. You’re setting up a chemical formula with an expected result. It’s a very different kind of attitude. Pastry is the thing I can’t do, so I would like to know how it works. Sugar’s been in the human diet forever, in various forms, but, at some point—when the New World was colonized by Europe and sugar became part of the European cooking tradition—the dessert entered the menu and has since wreaked complete havoc on all the people who eat it. Especially me. I can never stop eating dessert.