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Interview with “Heat” author Bill Buford

by Owen Berkowitz

When George Orwell wrote of his meager existence as a plongeur (French for “dishwasher”) in a posh Parisian restaurant in his “Down and out in Paris and London,” it was penned with disdain. When Upton Sinclair exposed the diseased state of the abattoir in “The Jungle” it was done partly to bring about societal change. Of course, when Anthony Bourdain inked his kiss-and-tell bestseller “Kitchen Confidential,” his voice hit a sometimes winking, playful note. But when Bill Buford went on a brief assignment for The New Yorker magazine to do a piece about Mario Batali’s Babbo restaurant, he went in search of a story and found himself playing a central part in a grand tale. His book “HEAT – An amateur’s adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany” covers a two-year period in which he quits his job as editor at The New Yorker in order to pursue a relationship with food that will make him “more human.” He entered the kitchen looking for a method, and instead found delicious madness. His book title is apropos, not only of the obvious hot kitchen or the relationship between fire and food, but also because it describes the passionate fever that he caught for cooking and food preparation - a fever that had no simple cure.

Mr. Buford had to follow this scent wherever it might lead, and it brought him on a “here and back” journey to small villages in Italy where he would learn centuries-old secrets on ragu. He tried in vain to uncover the precise moment in history when the egg was introduced to pasta dough. Eventually the story led to the butchering skills he learned from a Tuscan master and that he later practiced on a 200-pound pig that was purchased at the Union Square Greenmarket, bungeed to his scooter’s handlebars and carefully dissected it at his own kitchen table, where it produced 400-plus different servings of pork. What Bill Buford stumbled upon when he entered the food world as a reporter looking for the mysterious mechanism that made restaurant kitchens run was not to discover some small whirring wheels and gears of steely perfection. Nor did he find precise quartz-driven clock-like movements. Instead, he found an intuitive human choreography of community, something more basic and beautiful than industry. Bill Buford found that the professional kitchen is not lubricated with industrial oil, but that it is permeated by, and infused with, its own complete and fiery soul.

Q: In your first book “Among the Thugs” You immersed yourself in the sub-culture of British football fanatics and hooligans-a dedicated, albeit fringe group. They thrived on creating orderly chaos. How does that world mirror the world you became part of in professional kitchens?

A: Well, in one respect they’re not alike at all. One group is dedicated to breaking things, the other group is dedicated to making things. One group is antisocial, and the other contributing to social occasions. But, in other ways they’re quite similar in that they’re closed societies. The kitchen is a closed group defined by not being part of normal society, they don’t keep normal society hours; it plays so that others can work, and works so that others can play. Most cooks are extremely unsocialized. They don’t know how to interact, they don’t know how to be charming, they don’t realize that the banker coming in and spending a lot of money is actually very important to their welfare, and they live inside their closed, sealed off windowless environment, following their own rules - many of which are developed right there in the room itself. It wasn’t my intention, but I felt that I was this amateur anthropologist joining this private club – I had to learn the rules in order to be accepted and participate in what the club was doing.

Q: The work ethic in successful restaurant kitchens is apocryphal; no sick days, little bathroom time during service, long hours. What drives this devotion?

A: I don’t think anybody is devoted to working in a kitchen to the extent that I’m not going to take days off, or I’m not going to have time to pee, or I’m going to have to work really long hours. There are people who get caught up in the thing and people who don’t get caught up in the thing, and the people who don’t get caught up in it, rapidly feel alienated, tired, beleaguered, resentful and they leave, and that happens to a lot of people coming out of cooking school. They end up doing something else with food or they leave it altogether.

It’s more that dedication implies intentionality and I don’t think people tend to work in that way, I just think they get up in the frenzy of making food and the frenzy of making food has its one kind of momentum; they want to be a member of the kitchen. Kitchens have their own fanatical excess. I’m now reading Marco Pierre Whites autobiography and he’s going to be coming to New York – I realize that everything I’ve heard about Marco’s kitchen, he was driven by a man who wanted to do everything in his head and it ended up getting its own momentum and its own rules – a kind of lawlessness and once you’re there and you’re on board and you’re committed to whatever that kitchen is making, then you end up following its own wild rules. I don’t think anyone goes in with the resolve of “I’m going to make the sacrifice to do this.”

Q: You initially approached the food world as a cultural anthropologist and after learning their ways, wanted to join their tribe. Do you feel you are a full member now? Do you think the tribal chiefs feel the same way about you?

A: I think I understand the tribe more, much more than most, but I’m probably not going to be a full member until I own my own restaurant, which I’m now thinking of doing.

Q: Everything about good food has quasi-religious underpinnings. Is it your sense that chefs and butchers and pasta makers are heeding a calling of some sort?

A: I don’t think they’re heeding a calling but it does seem like any serious dedicated cook is looking for extra meaning and purpose from what they’re doing. It’s what I describe as the charisma of food. Food is always on the verge of meaning so many things; existence, history, national identity, culture, art, all those things are in making a piece of food. You can find your Italian identity, you can relate yourself to Dante, you can feel your grandmothers in your fingers, and yet at the end of the day it’s also none of these things. At the end of the day it’s dinner; eat it and it’s gone and it’s that charisma of food, the elusiveness of it, its profundity that seems to result in so many chefs finding something there. It’s almost always there and it’s almost never there.

Q: After a life in baking, I participated in the secret language of bakers showing each other the burn stripes on our out-sized forearms. Similar war stories and scars are displayed by cooks. Have you been showing yours around town?

A: Mine are all healed – I’m a good healer – but I do remember when I was at the end of my stint at Babbo, I started doing an autobiography of my hand and that didn’t even include my forearm, which was striped like a zebra. It was ends of fingers that were gone, burns, hair that was missing. You do feel a certain pride in the blemishes that are there and the fact that you do it.

Q: Cooking seems to me to be about finding the reduced lucidity of your ingredients so as to best communicate the passion that is behind, and inside of the food. Would chefs not make great editors?

A: I’ve often thought that they could make great editors. The business of being a chef is not dissimilar to the business of being a writer. A good cook is creating a repertoire of dishes and they might move through the seasons and they might change but basically good cooks are thinking about very specific dishes which are theirs. I’ve often found an affinity with what writers do, how we’re in a world full of stories and very specific stories that reflect themselves, and then they get made into a story that’s endlessly replicated.

Q: Do you think that now that you have worked in kitchens – do you feel that great cooking can be learned?

A: Yes, there’s an intuitive element of cooking that maybe cannot be learned, but almost all of cooking can be learned.

Q: What is it about butchering that really, really turns you on? Is it the meat or the motion, or both?

A: One of the things I got out of writing this book is an expertise of a handful of things. I can cook on the line and I know when meat is done and when it’s not and I know how to prepare lots of dishes that I learned, and the properties of all the vegetables and all the ingredients; all elementary things that I know as specific experiences that other people don’t have.

One of the things that I have is to make good pasta, how to do it and roll it out on the board. I know that the pasta I make is good. The other is learning how to butcher an animal, it’s not rocket science but it’s a skill that most people don’t have and most people just aren’t in a position to have because you learn by repetition. Most peoples aren’t in a position to endlessly take apart a pig or take apart a cow thigh. I think what I enjoyed out of it was just a very specific expertise that allows me to understand animals. I’m a meat eater and I think it’s the kind of knowledge that is rare but important.

Q: What elements of cooking do you find as satisfying to your soul in the same elementary level as your primary art form, writing?

A: I don’t think cooking is as satisfying as writing - otherwise I’d probably end up as a cook. But I do get a simple, not necessarily profound pleasure in food. It’s just starting with a handful of ingredients and ending up with something great on the plate.

Q: You went to work on the other side over in Italy. Are American Chefs still playing second fiddle or have they acquired the chops to hold their own?

A: Well, Italy is different from France. You do see a lot of Americans and Japanese and other foreigners in Italy that are there to learn what the Italians have to teach, but it ends up being very simple and it’s a different from the French kitchen. It’s not as hysterical, it’s not as driven, it’s not as perfectionist. But there is a really elementary knowledge that Italians can teach you that at its root is letting you show off your ingredients, whether its an egg or a piece of meat or vegetables. You recognize it when you come back here and you look at so-called Italian restaurants run by people who haven’t been to Italy, and you take a look at their menu and you know that they don’t get it and they fuck it up and you don’t want to go inside. It’s not that there’s a five, six, eight, ten centuries-old practice in Italy of certain ingredients going with other ingredients - there is that- but it’s that they have a simplicity of approach.

Q: An intrinsic respect for doing less and getting more?

A: Yeah, Yeah

Q: Do you still feel completely like a writer, or do you sometimes dream in the language of a cook?

A: At the moment I’m probably in both worlds and I like that. I don’t think of myself as a writer writing exclusively, I’m in both worlds and I’m enjoying that and if anything now, my effort is to get a little more in the kitchen to advance my knowledge and keep up in that field.

Q: And which “e” word scares you more, editor or expeditor?

A: What word scares me more? Editor, I don’t want to be an editor anymore, I’ve done that and am very happy with what I’ve done but I was an editor for more than 27 years and that’s enough. I’ve spent a long time fixing other people’s writing and feel very happy doing my own writing, and its nice that it coincides with the liberation to do a new thing.

Q: Finally, what single morsel of knowledge that has been passed on to you by a culinary master that you would like your reader to come away with?

A: Probably the thing I learned is the thing that Mario describes as “kitchen awareness.” Other chefs have different ways of describing it. Whatever it is, you are learning the properties of your ingredients and you’re learning how to follow its changing relationship with heat, and knowing that it’s a moving dynamic. Once you know that, you could smell when your beets are done, you could smell when your boiling potatoes are cooked, you could smell when your meat is starting to change, not only its smell, but its touch. It’s getting comfortable in the kitchen and not being intimidated by the kitchen and recognizing that most people go into the kitchen by learning a set of rules. So, kitchen awareness is the great thing that I came away with.

Owen Berkowitz is a baker, writer, and food business broker who lives in Westchester County with his wife and many sons. Mr. Berkowitz can be reached at 914-813-8395, and owen@buy.biz





           

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