November 29, 2013

AMONG THE COOKS (profanity alert):

THE SECRET OF EXCESS : How a life became cooking. (Bill Buford, AUGUST 19, 2002, The New Yorker)

The first glimpse I had of what Mario Batali's friends had described to me as the "myth of Mario" was during a weekend in January last year, when I invited him to dinner with some friends. Batali, the chef and co-owner of Babbo, an Italian restaurant in Manhattan, is such a proficient cook that he is rarely invited to people's homes for a meal, and he went out of his way to be a grateful guest. He arrived with a jar of quince-flavored grappa, which he'd made himself (the fruit renders it almost drinkable); a bottle of nocino, which he'd also made (same principle, but with walnuts); three bottles of wine; and a white, dense slab of lardo--literally, the raw "lardy" back of a very fat pig, which he'd cured with herbs and salt. I was a reasonably comfortable cook, keen but a little chaotic, and I was delighted to have Batali in the kitchen, if only for his pedagogical interventions. He has been cooking for a cable-television audience for more than six years and has an uninhibited way of telling you that only a moron would wrap the meat in foil after cooking it. The evening, by then, had been effectively taken over. Not long into it, Batali had cut very thin slices of the lardo and, with a flourish of intimacy, laid them individually on our tongues, whispering that we needed to let the lardo melt to appreciate what the pig had eaten just before he died. The pig, evidently, had been five hundred and seventy-five pounds, almost three times the size of a normal pig, and, near the end, had lived exclusively on walnuts, apples, and cream. ("It's the best song sung in the key of pig," Batali said.) No one at dinner that evening had knowingly eaten pure fat before ("At the restaurant, I tell the waiters to call it prosciutto bianco, or else people won't touch it"), and by the time he had persuaded us to a third helping my heart was racing and we were all very thirsty.

On trips to Italy made with his Babbo co-owner, Joe Bastianich, Batali has been known to share an entire case of wine during dinner, and, while we didn't drink anything like that, we were all infected by his live-very-hard-for-now approach and had more than was sensible. I don't know. I don't really remember. There was also the grappa and the nocino, and one of my last recollections is of Batali around three in the morning--back arched, eyes closed, 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 had recently turned forty, and I remember thinking that it was a long time since I'd seen a grown man playing air guitar. He then found the soundtrack for "Buena Vista Social Club," tried to salsa with one of the guests (who promptly fell over a sofa), tried to dance with her boyfriend (who was unresponsive), and then put on a Tom Waits CD and sang along as he went into the kitchen, where, with a machinelike speed, he washed the dishes and mopped the floor. He reminded me that we had an arrangement for the next day--he'd got tickets to a New York Giants game, courtesy of the commissioner of the N.F.L., who had just eaten at Babbo--and disappeared with three of my friends. They ended up at Marylou's, in the Village--in Batali's description, "a wise-guy joint where you get anything at any time of night, none of it good."

It was nearly daylight when he got home, the doorman of his apartment building told me the next day as the two of us tried to get Batali to wake up: the N.F.L. commissioner's driver was waiting outside. When Batali was roused, forty-five minutes later, he was momentarily perplexed, standing in his doorway in his underwear and wondering why I was there. Batali has a remarkable girth, and it was a little startling to see him so clad, but within minutes he had transformed himself into the famous television chef: shorts, high-tops, sunglasses, his red hair pulled back into a ponytail. He had become Molto Mario--the many-layered name of his cooking program, which, in one of its senses, means, literally, Very Mario (that is, an intensified Mario, an exaggerated Mario, and an utterly over-the-top Mario)--and a figure whose renown I didn't fully appreciate until, as guests of the commissioner, we were allowed on the field before the game. Fans of the New York Giants are happy caricatures (the ethic is old-fashioned blue-collar, even if they're corporate managers), and I was surprised by how many of them recognized the ponytailed chef, who stood on the field facing them, arms crossed over his chest, and beaming. "Hey, Molto!" one of them shouted. "What's cooking, Mario?" "Mario, make me a pasta!" On the East Coast, "Molto Mario" is on twice a day (at eleven-thirty in the morning and five-thirty in the afternoon). I had a complex picture of the metropolitan working male--policeman, Con Ed worker, plumber--rushing home to catch lessons in how to braise his broccoli rabe and get just the right forked texture on his homemade orecchiette. (Batali later told me that when the viewing figures for his show first came in they were so overwhelmingly male that the producers thought they weren't going to be able to carry on.) I stood back, with one of the security people, taking in the spectacle (by now a crowd was chanting "Molto! Molto! Molto!")-- this proudly round man, whose whole manner said, "Dude, where's the party?"

"I love this guy," the security man said. "Just lookin' at him makes me hungry."

Mario Batali arrived in New York in 1992, when he was thirty-one. He had two hundred dollars, a duffelbag, and a guitar. Since then, he has become the city's most widely recognized chef and, almost single-handedly, has changed the way people think about Italian cooking in America. The food he prepares at Babbo, which was given three stars by the Times when the restaurant opened, in 1998, is characterized by intensity--of ingredients, of flavor--and when people talk of it they use words like "heat" and "vibrancy," "exaggeration" and "surprise." Batali is not thought of as a conventional cook, in the business of serving food for profit; he's in the much murkier enterprise of stimulating outrageous appetites and satisfying them aggressively. (In Batali's language, appetites blur: a pasta made with butter "swells like the lips of a woman aroused," roasted lotus roots are like "sucking the toes of the Shah's mistress," and just about anything powerfully flavored--the first cherries of the season, the first ramps, a cheese from Piedmont--"gives me wood.") Chefs are regular visitors and are subjected to extreme versions of what is already an extreme experience. "We're going to kill him," Batali said to me with maniacal glee as he prepared a meal for Wylie Dufresne, the former chef of 71 Clinton, who had ordered a seven-course tasting menu, to which Batali then added a lethal-seeming number of impossible-to-resist extra courses. The starters (variations, again, in the key of pig) included a plate of lonza (the cured backstrap from one of Batali's cream-apple-and-walnut-fattened pigs); a plate of coppa (made from the same creamy pig's shoulder); a fried pig foot; a porcini mushroom, stuffed with garlic and thyme, and roasted with a piece of Batali's own pancetta (cured pig belly) wrapped around its stem; plus ("just for the hell of it") tagliatelle topped with guanciale (cured pig jowls), parsnips, and black truffle. A publisher who was fed by Batali while talking to him about booking a party came away vowing to eat only soft fruit and water until he'd recovered: "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 start to feel as though you're on drugs." This spring, Mario was trying out a new motto, borrowed from the writer Shirley O. Corriher: "Wretched excess is just barely enough." 

"You learn by working in the kitchen," Batali told me. "Not going to cookery school. That's how it's done."

That's what I wanted to do--to work in the Babbo kitchen, as Mario's slave.


Mr. Buford's Among the Thugs is one of the classics, if not the avatar, of immersion journalism, with the book that grew out of this profile--Heat--a worthy successor.  Here's all you really need to know to get a flavor for it : the soccer thugs in the former are more sympathetic than the cooks in the latter.


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Posted by at November 29, 2013 6:46 PM
  

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