Book World Live

Bill Buford
Author, "Heat"
Tuesday, June 20, 2006; 3:00 PM

While working as a top editor at the New Yorker, [Bill] Buford was having a hard time finding someone to write a profile of [Mario] Batali (whose Food Network show 'Molto Mario' had made him an unlikely celebrity), so he took the gig himself. That led to a six-month apprenticeship in Babbo's kitchen starting in Jan. 2002; two months after that ended, Buford left one of the best jobs in magazine journalism to suffer more journeyman abuse.

That unexpected career lurch gives Heat its MacGuffin: Buford never directly explains why the chef's life seemed so irresistible to him, but he shows you, page by delicious page, why the whole enterprise is so seductive.--( Review : The Joy of Cooking, June 18)

Bill Buford was online Tuesday, June 20, at 3 p.m. ET to field questions and comments about his new book, "Heat," and his experiences working in the kitchen of Babbo, the famed New York restaurant owned by celebrity chef Mario Batali.

Join Book World Live each Tuesday for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.


Bethesda, Md: Bill,

What is it about italian cuisine that fascinates you more than other world cuisines?

Bill Buford: I've thought about this question for a long time, not least because many of the Americans who go to Italy have some kind of Italian ancestry that they're chasing. I don't. My family comes from Louisiana. There's nothing Italian about Buford. In fact, it's probably French.

But what I found in Italy was a respect and understanding about food that were profound and deeply attractive. It's really an agrarian attitude, a feel for the seasons, and a respect therefore for the ways of the earth.


Reston, Va: I remember reading your account of the early days of Granta. There was the image of a cramped unheated loft (I recall you became an expert at typing with gloves on). You were working to, and past, deadlines. Call it happy pressure, or pressure with a purpose. How much of your rebirth as a chef was inspiered by a desire to relive that happy pressure? How unlike Granta was Conde Nast? And finally, how do you reckon Ian Jack is doing with Granta?

Bill Buford: That's true, I learned very early on that it's possible to type with gloves-preferably the kind cut off just behind the knuckles. As to the pressure? I think I like pressure. I love deadlines. And I always have. (Personally, I think Ian is a great editor-in fact, he was originally a contributor to the Granta I edited.)


Washington, DC: I finished your book recently - it was a joy to read. A couple of questions though: are you still cooking professionally? After all the passionate writing about food and the lifestyle, it seems like you'd still be doing it. How much havoc did a chef/cook's schedule play on your life? How did your wife react? Did you make it to France yet? At what point were you - or were you ever - paid for the work with Batali?

And, the lingering question: you said in the opening lines that Batali said only an idiot would rest his meat wrapped in foil. Why?

Again, excellent work, thank you.

Bill Buford: Thank you for reading the book. For the time being I've figured out to remain in the kitchen without having to run a restaurant: I'm going to keep writing about it and will be doing a monthly column for the New Yorker on food and drink. In fact, there's one out this week, on dessert. (My wife, meanwhile, has learned the patience of Job, and I think of all the things I was doing, the hardest was waiting for me when I was working on the line at Babbo: because she never knew what time I'd be back; for that matter, I didn't either.)

The point about foil is that, if the meat is wrapped in it, it carries on cooking. It also is being steamed. Otherwise, when you cook meat, you let it rest, and the meat gradually stops cooking, the tissues relax, the liquids return to the center.


Richmond, Va.: First off, I have your book on hold at the Fountain, a great little bookstore in Richmond's Shockoe Slip. Very much keen on reading it, once I have an unclaimed $26.

Now, my question: My 19-year-old son, a bright, fearless lad who just didn't cotton to school, has landed in the kitchen of a high-end restaurant in Eugene, Ore. He has risen from the dish pit to the line, taking heaps of abuse along the way but still loving what he's doing. I've encouraged him to soak up the experience, and he considers it his college. But do you think it would be wise for him to pursue a culinary degree, or continue in the trenches. I suggested he also consider the Batali route and apprentice in a humble but learned environment in Europe.

Very much appreciate you counsel. "Heat" is headed to Fred, my son, when I'm through with it. Regards, Steve Szkotak

Bill Buford: I'm not sure what's the best thing to do. Mario hated culinary school, and his advice to his long-time deputy, Andy Nusser, was Don't do it. (Andy then promptly went to culinary school.) And the view in the restaurant is that the best education is got by actually cooking in a real environment. Even so, most of the cooks there have also gone to culinary school. I think he should keep cooking, and try to get to Europe, and do the European tour. Most of the great cooks have done some kind of tour of the kitchens there. Good luck!


Charleston, SC: I loved Mario's show Molto Mario and I've eaten at Babbo twice and loved it each time. I really enjoy Mario's approach to regional and seasonal cooking. Yet I wonder now if he is overexposed. He's got cookware and commercial pasta sauce, and Iron Chef America and cooking demos. Wasn't his original idea that you should use whatever you could find, and make your own pasta sauce? Even for Mario, shouldn't it still be about the food?

Bill Buford: Hey, everything's working for him. Can you blame him?


Tallahassee, Fla: Is it really necessary to verbally abuse kitchen staff to achieve one's goals of excellence? This is certainly not the way to get top performance out of employees in any other field.

Bill Buford: True enough, but a kitchen is like no other work environment in the modern civilized world. It's like the military, with a military sense of rank and discipline. Is it right? Probably not. But it's an entertaining place to visit.


Ashburn, Va: Having long been a dedicated reader of 'Granta' and 'New Yorker', I take your new adventures with mixed feeling (The first 50 issues of Granta ,which you edited,is among my most cherished possession). While I look forward to reading 'Heat' with eager anticipation, can you share what you will be working on next (or your new career)?

Bill Buford: You're obviously a sophisticated and discerning reader (I, too, prize my first fifty issues of Granta). I view my current position thus: I've finally moved from management to labor, and after a life fixing other people's writing, maybe it was time to do a little writing of my own. The very next thing is a New Yorker gig, including a piece out this week.


Washington, DC: Hi Bill - Loved the book. You pretty clearly set up a new journey at the end of the book: following the food over the Alps and tracing its evoultion into French cuisine. Have you started on that journey yet? Will there be a book 2 tracing your path into the art of French cooking?

Bill Buford: My wife is still recovering from the last journey. As soon as she's rested (there has also been the modest interruption of her giving birth to twin boys), we're off!


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Buford,

Your book "Among the Thugs" is one of my all-time favorites. Who's worse: soccer hooligans or bullying Gordon Ramsay-like chefs?

Bill Buford: They're all thugs. (In fact, sometimes I wonder if this book isn't Among the Thugs, volume 2.)


Falls Church, Va: What do you see as the connections/ similarities between writing and food (if any)? I'm curious as someone drawn to both.

Bill Buford: Actually, there is much less of connection than you'd suspect, and I think that's because most chefs are not writers (in fact, most of the good writing that has been done about the kitchen has been done by non-chefs: from George Orwell and Julia Child to Elizabeth David.) There are exceptions: among our contemporaries, the glorious Tony Bourdain. Then again, he's stopped cooking.


New York, N.Y.: I walk into Babbo. What would you most want me to order, and why should I order it?

Bill Buford: The pasta. The best thing in the restaurant. The best, I suspect, in America. (Italy, of course, is another story.) Split plates with the others at the table (you can split them three ways) and sample as much as you can.


New York, NY: What are you currently doing for work and was Mario Batali upset after you published his "secret" recipe for pasta?

Loved your book!

Bill Buford: Thank you for liking the book. Mario has been a hero. He was, he wrote me on finishing the book, 'suitably weirded out,' but otherwise an utter champion. Me: I'm now figuring out what to do, write or cook (or both).


Washington, D.C.: Now that you've published Heat, do you have any plans to return to the magazine world or are you hooked on cooking?

Bill Buford: I'm back at the New Yorker, with a difference: now I'm writing about cooking. What's not to like about that?


Raleigh, NC: What advantages and disadvantages do you see for chefs appearing on shows like 'Iron Chef America'? How do you feel about the format of that show?

Bill Buford: To be honest: I haven't been able to bring myself to watch a whole episode. I think I watched too much of the Food Network, and am now fasting.


Washington, D.C.: Bill, to what do you attribute the disinterest of New Yorker writers in profiling Mario Batali? It seems inexplicable to me. Thanks.

Bill Buford: Oh, sometimes the most obvious subjects are the easiest to miss. (We think we know the stories, but we know nothing: if you see what I mean.)


Silver Spring, Md: Your first answer sounds like the mantra of the Slow Food movement. I am attracted to that ideal too - fresh food, local food, seasonal food. It tastes so much better. What are your thoughts about factory farmed animals, and our American farm corporations?

Bill Buford: It is very similar to the Slow Food movement, you're absolutely right, and I don't know why I'm so reluctant to jump on board. Too slow? I think the future of food is in small farms (we get all our food from the local green market).


Washington, D.C.: Bill, I loved "Heat" as much as I did "Among The Thugs," so thanks for writing both. My one question: I recall reading that you tabulated up all the meals you produced from your slaughtered pig and found that ultimately it cost you (I believe) 50 cents per plate. I arched an eyebrow over this. With my apologies for either misreading or misremembering, how did you get so many meals out of one pig? Are you counting the barest scraps as a meal, or minute pig-ingredients used in primarily non-pig dishes?

Bill Buford: Well, we made a lot of ragu. I mean A LOT OF RAGU. And you know, if done the Italian way, you only use a little bit of it. I probably made enough ragu for a thousand plates of pasta. I was giving the stuff away.


Not Italian Either, Florida: Love your comments about Italian contributions to appreciating food. In fact, it reminded me of a recent "Sopranos" episode where Uncle Junior screamed at his fellow nursing home residents that "We TAUGHT you people how to eat!"

Bill Buford:

And we still have a lot to learn.


Washington, DC: HI there! Wonderful book. I was wating for a few years since the initial book buzz, and was really glad when it came out. We will be heading to Babbo later this month for the first time. Besides the two minute calamari, anything new on the menu that we must try?

Bill Buford: The old favorites are worth eating. The lamb's tongue salad, for instance. Genius. Mario is now selling his father's salume (Armandino's). And the pasta. You want to get a few different plates of pasta.


Fredericksburg, Va.: Can you describe what exactly it is you find so intriguing about cooking professionally, and how you knew you wanted to quit your job to pursue that passion?

Bill Buford: Well, the real answer to that would take a book to write. Actually, I think I tried to write it. But in a nutshell: what I liked about professional cooking was the no-nonsense over-the-top you-can-do-it ethic of the place. You have to do so much so often and so fast that you end up learning how to cook in some kind of deep memory: as though it's in your muscles. I recall cooking a course at a friend's birthday dinner, at a time when I was working on the line at Babbo. In fact, I was preparing a linguine alla vongole for about a dozen people. But I was incredibly relaxed, because I'd prepared it so many times I didn't have think twice about anything. In fact, I don't think I was even thinking. And I enjoy having that kind of command and knowledge.


Richmond, Va.: I've read all of Bourdain's kitchen confidentials, and wonder if his tales are supported by your experiences.

One more: I've read a lot of contemporary restaurant/cooking books, but can you recommend a seminal work. Again, thanks

Bill Buford: Tony Bourdain is probably the smartest person writing about cooking out there. I'm in the middle of reading his new book, The Nasty Bits, and have been struck, over and over again, by his smarts and his humanity.

There isn't a seminal book, although some people have found one in Julia Child's work or Elizabeth David's. But hey: that stuff is French


Washington, D.C.: So let's just say, hypothetically, that I am also a journalist who would really like to get into food but don't think that being a chef is my calling. What other roads do you think are worth taking, and what's necessary to do it? Culinary school?

Bill Buford: If you're a journalist, your first obligation is to come up with a story that other people aren't telling. It's the fundamental obligation of any writer. It doesn't have to be the experience of being a cook. It could simply be knowledge. But you need something. And culinary school would be a start. But so would working on a vineyard, or making wine, or cheese, or helping serve in a great deli, like Lou di Palo's place, in Little Italy. But something


Washington DC: Bill,

I'm an avid reader of "The New Yorker," and I loved your recent article about your apprenticeship to an Italian butcher. Even as a non-cook (can't even boil an egg -- seriously), I find your work accessible and fascinating. I look forward to your future "New Yorker" articles.

Bill Buford: You're obviously a serious and discriminating reader, and I applaud your intelligence. I hope I'll be doing stuff for the New Yorker about every month, but writing is hard work: much harder than cooking (unfortunately).


Food Writing: It seems to me that food writing is experiencing a renaissance of sorts--Ruth Reichl, Julie Powell, Amanda Hesser, and countless blogs are all doing wonderful takes on food writing plus memoir. Do you think that the market for this kind of a book and food writing in general has grown over the last ten years or so? Which food writers do you particularly like?

Bill Buford: Yes, you're right, it's starting-I repeat, starting-to get interesting, and that's because people are starting-and, I repeat, starting-to treat food as a serious subject that requires all the techniques and skills and hard work of any good writing (narrative, use of detail, a feeling for story, etc). At the moment, I'm reading Tony Bourdain's new book and loving it.


Washington, DC: Bill,

Is Mario as genine and humble as he seems on TV?

Bill Buford: The simple answer is yes. What you see is what you get. A more complex answer is yes, but edited: after all, it's television


Largo, Fla: For those who dream of just up and quitting their day job to take up cooking full-time (like me, for example), I think it would be most helpful to share what a line cook in a place like Babbo actually makes a year. Can you share that?

I have a feeling that bit of information would be a real eye-opener!

Bill Buford: Oh, it's ugly. Unfortunately I'm not remembering the details and so I hesitate to cite any numbers. But (as an illustration) I remember when I was sitting in on the hiring of Holly Burling, one of the new line cooks, she was offered five hundred dollars a week. That's what? A little over $25,000. That was, I hasten to add, four years ago. And it was a starting pay. And it is accepted that you get raises much more often than any other line of work. But still: it's sobering.


Washington, DC: How will you be able to write about cooking for the New Yorker? I haven't read anything in there for the last eight years that wasn't about bashing George Bush. Not sure how you will work that into a story about cooking. Maybe "Bush Gets his Just Desserts?"

Bill Buford: Very funny. (And not a bad idea actually.)

_______________________ Thanks to Bill Buford and to all who participated.


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