Friday Risk Reading: Inside Mario Batali’s kitchen

In keeping with the debut of the “Cooking Chronicles” on this blog, I have selected Heat, by Bill Buford, as this Friday’s recommended risk reading.  Heat is a lively, insightful account of Buford’s experience as an amateur cook in the kitchen of renowned chef Mario Batali.

Buford abandons the security of his desk job to indulge his curiosity about cooking by becoming an apprentice in one of Batali’s top restaurants, starting at the absolute bottom.  Along the way, he develops his technique (after shedding much blood and sweat), and begins to understand the motivations, passions and world-view of professional cooks.  Over time, he becomes a capable line cook, and earns the respect of his kitchen colleagues and Batali himself.

The cooks Buford encounters are, like him, risk-takers – constantly creating dishes for instant judgement by customers and critics alike.  They are a restless bunch, even slightly mad, but never dull.  One of the book’s many pleasures is its up-close view of Batali, a remarkable, larger-than-life chef/entrepreneur.  There’s a brief passage that quotes Batali in one of his television appearances talking about risk:

“ ‘At home, you rarely get the depth of flavor that you find in a restaurant,’ Mario said on his first show, browning mushrooms in a ferociously hot pan, ‘because home cooks are not prepared to take the risks of professional chefs, who push their pans right to the edge.  They want it browner than you’ll ever do at home, darker, hotter.’  He has been repeating the lesson ever since….’ ”

About halfway through the book, as Buford’s skills improve and his interest deepens, he realizes he’s stumbled onto something bigger.  The book then becomes less of an insider’s peek at the world of the professional kitchen and more of a meditation on life and food’s place in our lives.  In this passage, Buford describes the importance attached to making food, something that appears so routine that it’s often overlooked:

The satisfactions of making a good plate of food are surprisingly varied, and only  one, and the least important of them, involves eating what you’ve made.  In addition to the endless riffing about cooking-with-love, chefs also talk about the happiness of making food: not preparing or cooking food but making it.  This is such an elementary thing that it is seldom articulated.  After my stint at the pasta station, Frankie urged me to go back to the grill and master it properly, because it would be more fulfilling: at the pasta station, he said, you’re preparing other people’s food.  The ravioli, the ragú – they’ve been made beforehand.  But at the grill, you start with raw ingredients, cook them, and assemble a dish with your hands.  “You make the food,” he said.  The simple, good feeling he was describing might be akin to what you’d experience making a toy or a piece of furniture, or maybe even a work of art – except that this particular handmade thing was also made to be eaten.” 

That also seems to capture what happens in any creative pursuit.  It certainly explains why I like to cook, and why I also enjoy putting words on a page. At first there is nothing on the page – and then, words.  And if the works are good, they convey an idea or a feeling, sometimes my own or, at other times, those of a client.

To cook is to perform a small miracle, every day.   Whether cranking out a hundred magnificent meals at a top restaurant or just a few plates on the family dinner table.

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