Bill Buford: Cookbooks are for wimps
The Independent on Sunday 23rd July 2006
The idea of pugnacious literary supremo Bill Buford taking orders from anyone is laughable. So why did he leave ‘The New Yorker’ to become a lowly ‘kitchen slave’ for one of New York’s best restaurants? Danuta Kean asks him what he learnt among the pans
Bill Buford bounds across the back room of the Union, a favourite watering hole of Soho’s literati. He looks like a pocket Hemingway, dressed in slacks, grey sports jacket and black shirt, his chin dusted by a grey beard. The famously testosterone-packed ex-literary editor does not look like a kitchen bitch. But until recently that is exactly what he was.
Buford, until 2002 literary editor of The New Yorker and, as editor of Granta, once a leading light in British publishing, spent two years’ “self-education by self-abasement”, working his way up through the macho sweat shop of a New York restaurant kitchen and covered in blood as a butcher’s apprentice deep in the hills of Tuscany. His experience is recounted in his funny and erudite memoir, Heat.
It all started at a dinner party in Buford’s Manhattan apartment. Among the guests was Mario Batali, TV chef and proprietor of acclaimed New York eatery Babbo. He turned out to be the dinner guest from hell. Within moments of his arrival chez Buford, the writer knew inviting him was a mistake. Batali, one of the new breed of alpha-male cooks whose main rule is excess, took over, treating his host to his first lesson in muscular cookery and other guests to a night of macho drinking.
Buford has alpha-male tendencies of his own (at Granta the testosterone levels of many contributors were as high as his: Redmond O’Hanlon and Raymond Carver were regulars). But he was hooked and accepted the chef’s challenge to work in his kitchen as a slave for whom no task was too debased. In exchange he would learn real cooking. Buford was fertile ground for Batali’s influence. “I really envied the knowledge that professional cooks had,” he explains. “I envied their command of food and recognised that though I might learn from cookbooks, there was a limitation to what they could teach.”
The assignment should have been completed when Buford filed a piece about it to The New Yorker. But he could not let go. It is not the first time he has “gone deep”, as he describes it, losing himself in a story. In the 1980s he infiltrated a gang of Manchester United hooligans. He recounted his experiences in Among the Thugs.
Oddly, like the Man U Supporters Club, Babbo’s kitchen combined two of Buford’s great loves: combative male bonding and learning. “The kitchen was a kind of aggressive, hands-on university,” he admits. “The excitement I felt was akin to reading John Donne for the first time or finally getting a command of Shakespeare. It was the kind of excitement I had in university.”
It makes you wonder about his tutorials at Cambridge, because the teaching methods of his cookery masters leave no room for fine feelings. In Heat, Buford describes the kitchen as home to the same kind of mindless, ritualistic bullying as the military. Some people get off on that; evidently Buford is one of them.
One incident he recounts happened when Batali pulled him off a work station because his pork was “undercooked”. In a professional kitchen the slave cannot leave until dismissed, and Buford was forced to stand in Babbo’s tiny kitchen for an hour, ignored by colleagues who pushed past him as they worked. It was like being placed on the naughty step, except that Buford was 50, not five.
Most of us would have walked. Not Buford. “I have to admit that I like all that stuff,” he says. If I was looking for a deeper explanation of his fascination for primal environments he is not going to give it. I suspect there isn’t one – blaming his relationship with his father seems too trite. “I found its bluntness rather appealing,” he says of the kitchen. “There is a lack of politeness and political correctness – a kind of coarse reality. If people are going to be aggressive they don’t hide their aggression. It is hard and fast. If a dish is a failure you know it is a failure and you’re fired.”
As Buford describes it, restaurant kitchens are a hybrid of army boot camp and dysfunctional family – all boundaries and sibling rivalry. Even the air is carved up according to your place in the pecking order. When Batali humiliated someone or a colleague was in trouble – one committed suicide – the cooks drew together like abused children.
Buford claims the daily humiliation was a small sacrifice to make in return for being apprenticed to great teachers. “I was lucky enough to be given a chance to be instructed by people who both knew what they were doing and had something unusual to offer,” he explains. As well as Batali, Buford’s other teachers were kitchen colleagues, especially long-suffering prep chef Elisa Sarno; Marco Pierre White, who comes across as a violent Falstaff, all energy and aggression; and, in Italy, restaurateur Miriam Leonardi, who taught him pasta, and Dante-quoting Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini – “way out there”, according to Buford.
“At the end I came away with some real knowledge,” Buford says. It is an understatement; how many amateur cooks do you know who have gutted a pig on their kitchen table? Buford is a knowledge vulture, never sated: every morsel of understanding creates rather than suppresses his appetite. “It is still not a rounded knowledge or in-depth,” he continues.
It feels like false modesty. The book is very well researched, digressing into everything from the origins of pasta and seasonal cooking to Catherine de’ Medici. “I know quite a lot of things that I didn’t know before,” he counters. “Quite elementary things: what good meat should be like and how bad supposedly good meat can be. You can really tell from the colour, and from tasting it raw especially. Unhealthy meat is scary and you really don’t want to eat it once you know the difference.” He tears off a piece of croissant and pops it into his mouth. All I can think of is maggots.
Recipes have been included in prose narratives since Laura Esquivel’s novel, Like Water For Chocolate. Heat is no different, but Buford eschews the traditional approach. There are no food formulas, with every kilogram prescribed; instead slipped in between the tales of big personalities and ritual humiliation are mouth-watering descriptions of sauces, meats and puddings that draw a visceral response.