Big Boys in the Kitchen Cooking Up a Gutsy Meal

“More feminine than masculine” is how the famous chef-proprietor Mario Batali describes his Greenwich Village flagship, Babbo, in the beginning of former New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford’s new book. “People should think there are grandmothers in the back preparing their dinner.”

With all due respect to Mr. Batali, not to mention legions of grandmothers, this remark seems a trifle disingenuous. As opposed to the effete high temple Jean-Georges, say, or the tutti-frutti nouveau-society palace Le Cirque, the Rabelaisian Babbo is in fact an intensely masculine, if not downright macho experience, from its literally gutsy menu—visitors boast about tasting the warm tripe “alla parmigiana” or the beef cheek ravioli with crushed squab liver and black truffles—to the brash classic-rock soundtrack that apparently cost it a fourth star from The New York Times; to the sexist bombast of the kitchen, where Mr. Batali talks about food giving him a hard-on (and where sometimes there are no women working at all). Even the equipment is, as Mr. Buford puts it, “boy things with big engines.” And though it’s superficially about cooking, the molten center of Heat is about men: male pride, male bitterness, male betrayal. Burnt might’ve been a more appropriate title, pace Nora Ephron. Except her book had more recipes than this one.

People who buy Heat expecting a palsy biography of cuddly Mario from the Food Network are going to be disappointed. I highly doubt that it will be sold at the cacophonous portals to Mr. Batali’s various high-profit establishments (besides Babbo, there is Lupa, Otto and now Del Posto), alongside the many cookbooks featuring photos of the chef in titian ponytail and matching clogs, consolation prizes for the tourists who come in droves, clamoring plaintively, “Is Mario here?”

Mr. Buford was welcomed warmly into Mr. Batali’s world: first as a customer, then a reporter (the book grew out of a profile he did for The New Yorker that—inexplicably—no one else wanted to write), then as an apprentice or “kitchen bitch,” in the lingo of the field. But it’s unclear whether he’ll still be a friend after publication. Though he’s portrayed here as a genius, and certainly generous after a fashion, Mr. Batali also comes across as a thoroughly debauched creature, almost medieval—coarse, gluttonous, lewd, lecherous, mercenary, possibly homophobic, celebrity-toadying, drug-using, dictatorial to the point of sadistic, swaggering, with an ego the size of his massive belly. “You fucking moron! You fucking motherfucking moron!” he screams at Babbo’s maître d’ after the latter fails to recognize a record producer at the bar. His terms of endearment are equally profane.

In fairness, the author hardly spares himself. He admits to being tentative, awkward, a “word guy” with a “desk job,” hopelessly epicurean, eager for approval, meek, fumbling, wimpy, soft, fanatical—Master Mario’s submissive “slave.” “I wanted to be needed,” he writes tremulously of his trials at the prep and grill stations, which leave him with welts and blisters and sliced fingers. “Did I just burn you?” growls one of his temporary colleagues, who greet the interloper with grudging tolerance at best, splattering oil. “Good.” Another splatter. At one point, preparing a ragu alla Medici, Mr. Buford actually catches fire—and he doesn’t even stop, drop and roll.

With his frequent television appearances, the flamboyant, flaming (but not gay!) Mr. Batali is of course a seasoned professional entertainer as well as a cook—not for nothing did he major in Spanish theater and business management at Rutgers. And though it’s a chicken-and-egg question, one often wonders how much of his outsized shtick is for the benefit of the journalists who arrive, dutifully, to record it.

I was one of those journalists, back in those crazy, hazy days of late 1999—too squeamish to appreciate the offal gleefully pressed on my timid young self, but not too naïve to appreciate what a decadent moment in history it was.

Many of the best bon mots Mr. Batali fed me (he’d probably hate that term, because he hates the French) are served up again here—which is appropriate, because one of the major precepts of the man’s operation is recycling. We see him diligently digging through the garbage, retrieving discarded lamb kidneys and celery florets (“What the hell is this?”), making a cioppino from scraps and selling it to the suckers outside for $29, a combination of thrift and bluster. I remember noting at one point, when Manhattan menus were really striving for novelty, that it wouldn’t be completely surprising to see shit gussied up and served on a platter, and it appears that I wasn’t far from wrong.

Mr. Buford puts my youthful efforts to shame, lavishing diligent pages on minute gastro-academic questions, solving the impossible problem of being a fly on the wall in a crowded, busy and not wholly sanitary kitchen with a media-conscious subject by actually setting himself the task of becoming, if not exactly indispensable, at least a competent cog. Heat is a marvel of (sometimes slurred) note taking; the author has an amazing ability to knock ’em back in the name of scholarship without seeming like a corrupt junketeer. He gets everyone’s story of ambition and heartbreak, including the dishwashers’.

He also had a more capacious research budget, flying to England on a whim to interview the temperamental chef and erstwhile Mario mentor Marco Pierre White, for example, or to Porretta, Italy, with “my enthusiastic American thrustingness,” to learn the excruciating piecework of making tortellini. Most of these experts terrorize him—“You look like an old woman,” says embittered Betta, dame of the dumplings—and again, he appears to enjoy it.

The book cools down a bit when it becomes about Bill Buford’s midlife crisis and he goes to work for a butcher in another picturesque Italian village, Panzano. All of a sudden, we’re mired in a Miramax cliché of sun-dappled hills, spreading grapevines and round-hipped women breaking blissfully into “O Sole Mio” in stucco kitchens— Under the Tuscan Sun for the smart set—and though this makes Mr. Buford self-conscious, hey, he kind of likes that too.

Luckily, he can laugh at himself and the pure, obsessive indulgence of the whole enterprise. It’s hard to forget the image of him—ah, home again!—lugging a whole dead pig through the greenmarket on a scooter as tout organic New York scowls at him. (The disembowelment and gorging that follow are not for the faint of heart.)

Ninety percent of Heat is wonderful, and lots of it is genuinely lip-smacking—Nicholson Baker’s U and I meets meticulous Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten.

Don’t read it with an empty larder.

Alexandra Jacobs is features editor of The Observer.