At no point in human history have so many known so much about something that was once considered a dark art practiced by mustachioed tradesmen in funny hats. No, I’m not talking about cowboys. What we’re dealing with here is professional cookery, that once-cloistered, near-priestly enterprise that, like so many professions these days–drive-time radio DJ, personal trainer, rebellious skateboarding entrepreneur–has seen its practitioners elevated to the level of rock stars.
Three recent chef-centric books–a tender Francophile memoir, a frisky collection of quick-hit essays and a lengthy exercise in participatory journalism–ascribe a neat arc to the fraught American relationship with food. It’s true, we used to be a nation of shoot-it-skin-it-burn-it-eat-it folk. But sometime in the 1950s, we started to get ideas, based largely on the burgeoning postwar travel industry. Suddenly, middle-class rubes who had subsisted on brown bread and chipped beef during the Depression, and on K rations, Hershey’s bars and (when in uniform) Lucky Strikes during World War II, discovered haute cuisine.
There are those who would argue that this was when America lost its way. It was a slippery slope from sole meunière to oral sex, marijuana, campus protests, all-night raves and, inevitably, Wolfgang Puck. Certainly, a rightward-leaning Protestant establishment, tossing back a few G&Ts before enjoying a plateful of flavorless slow-stewed chicken, reeled in the face of all that French puffery (forget Italian food, which was the 1952 equivalent of today’s Mexican, a subaltern cuisine eaten by a swarthy, sweaty, oversexed breed). And it was decisively French, this initial revolution in American taste. They may have gotten manhandled by the Nazis on the battlefield, but the citizens of Gaul–with their finely calibrated ability to distinguish between subcategories of butter and salt, to turn a snail into something appetizing and to transform goose torture into foie gras in a loving gourmet exercise–came roaring back in the kitchen.
No one symbolized this grand adaptation, this gustatory conquest, more than Julia Child, a tall, brassy Foreign Service wife from Pasadena who’d been raised on a diet of Republicanism and boiled meat. Once Child hit Paris, however… shazam! Her burning bush was the aforementioned sole meunière (tasted almost immediately after she got off the boat in 1948). Henceforth, the stodgy Yankee palate would never be the same. Child spent decades in France soaking up French cooking, and as a result she became an inverted evangelist of digestion: She and her artsy husband, Paul, both OSS veterans from World War II, had headed overseas to sell the Europeans on America. She returned to convince Americans that everything they had been putting in their mouths up to that point had been wrong.
My Life in France (co-written with Alex Prud’homme, Paul’s grandnephew) is an enchanting book, a love story on several levels. It also tells the tale of how Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the most important American cookbook ever published, came about. Toward the end, we learn how Julia Child, daughter of a dull California businessman, became Julia Child, the French Chef (“Bon appétit!”) of PBS fame, and later Saturday Night Live parody (“I’ve cut the dickens out of my finger!” exclaimed Dan Aykroyd, in Julia drag). But most of all, this is a book about a book.
More accurately, it is a book about a book that probably shouldn’t have been a book. The result of a tense collaboration between Child and her French co-authors, “Simca” Beck (later Madame Jean Fischbacher) and Louisette Bertholle (Child would eventually fall out with both women), and with several different publishing houses, Mastering the Art has a paradox at its heart. It was supposed to be a cookbook written with the American housewife in mind. What Child et al. finally delivered to Houghton Mifflin, however, was affectionately described by Child as “our poor Gargantua,” a 700-page tome that would certainly have flummoxed the average American wife (with the possible exception of Martha Stewart, who reportedly cooked every recipe in the edition that Knopf ultimately published in 1961). My Life in France tells the saga of the writing of Mastering the Art, alongside the carefree tale of Julia and Paul’s expat boho sojourn through postwar Europe. The juxtaposition reveals the secret of Child’s success: her monumental naïveté. In a sense, right up to her death in 2004, she remained appealingly childlike; she never grew tired of her adult playmate, French cuisine, even when the translation of it for an American audience turned into a monumental pain in the ass. This is never less than charming, if occasionally irritating. It’s also melancholy, because reading My Life in France reveals how far our attitude toward fine food has drifted from the mother country.
Child was always something of a food wrangler. Her overall approach was anything but dainty. However, she understood that cooking French meant paying attention to detail. If the classic French kitchen–feminine, elegant, tender–that she so affectionately translated for American consumption is a version of heaven, then the professional boiler rooms that feature in the works of Anthony Bourdain, and now Bill Buford, are hell. This is a significant shift. Prior to the advent of the TV Food Network, Iron Chef and the hyper-competitive big-city restaurant scene, American cooking didactics were viewed as having two trajectories: unassuming ladies fussing over the flakiness of their pie crusts and that greaseball in the hairnet who whipped up your bacon-cheese omelet. In other words, cooking was not a contact sport, much less rock and roll, as it is today. It was the province of the spinsterly and the otherwise unemployable.
The transformation has been remarkable. My grandfather, an Army cook, disliked Julia Child. His was a culture of mashed potatoes in vats, not delicately sliced vegetables. His was the old school–of America, not France. Of course, after a brief period of exile during which society was widely feminized by, among other things, Child’s TV show The French Chef and its image of cooking as something gentle, slow, perfectly domestic, the old-school approach staged a comeback in the mid-’90s. By the time Bourdain and Buford hit the field of play, the hard-core realm of the masculine professional kitchen was where the action was. Forget serving your family a maternally roasted platter of spring lamb. In the early twenty-first century, professional cooking is presented to the public as the highest expression of foodie ambition, and it is hand-to-hand combat against coarse, unyielding foodstuffs–shanks and hocks and slabs of lard and beef–conducted by scarred, brutal men in the brimstone regions of expensive New York restaurants, in stainless-steel purgatories filled with fire and knives.
This brutal realm is now well-known to Americans, through Bourdain and his bestselling Kitchen Confidential. His latest, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones, is what it says it is, a gathering of essays published in a gaggle of American and British magazines. Familiar Tony is at the helm, sustaining his reputation as the Iggy Pop of the professional kitchen. He would be boring by now if he weren’t such a thoroughgoing romantic, always ready to fall in love again with food both high and low, from the futuristic concoctions of Spanish avant-garde chef Ferran Adrià to the off-road eel shops of Hanoi. He’s repetitive, but he has soul. For example, he’s emphatic about who does, and who should do, most of the cooking in big-time restaurants: Latinos. It shapes his take on the recent immigration debate: “We need more Latinos to come here. And they should, whenever possible, impregnate our women.”
Bourdain caused a paradigm shift with Kitchen Confidential. Before the article that would become the book was published in The New Yorker, diners still viewed the restaurant kitchen as off-limits. But in the same way that Watergate taught us to distrust government, Bourdain taught us that the professional kitchen is not a gentle place of bubbling stocks and vegetables quietly diced. It’s more like prison, full of swagger and dysfunction and violence. (George Orwell very nicely mapped out the grunge and the grind in his 1933 roman à clef Down and Out in Paris and London.) You’d have to be totally nuts to want to work there.
But increasingly, people do. Either they install a professional kitchen at home, or they take sabbaticals from dreary corporate law to become novitiates in the restaurant trade. They’re not happy cooking at home, according to the Rules of Julia. They want to try their hand at the real thing. I’ve never understood this. Like cliff diving, professional cooking seems like a game for the young. Why else would you subject yourself to a nightly roasting in a demeaning environment, for no money, if you were not a young person who could close out the night after a shift at some nocturnal chefs’ hangout, drinking hard, boasting harder, singing ribald chef songs and perhaps worse? Success, improbable as it is, brings the promise of immediate escape from this life of penal servitude. Bourdain details the reality of the celebrity chef, which by and large involves no cooking whatsoever. Once you get rich off this cruel occupation, why would you ever want to step back in front of the stove?
For the buzz–the degenerate, adrenaline-fueled buzz (it’s no accident that Bourdain once endured a bout of heroin addiction). Bill Buford gave in to the siren call of the sous-chef when he decided to quit his job as fiction editor at The New Yorker and place himself under the tutelage of New York’s most celebrated celebrity chef, Mario Batali. “That’s what I wanted to do,” he writes, “to work in the Babbo kitchen, as Mario’s slave.” In Heat, which grew out of a New Yorker profile that Buford claims he couldn’t get anyone other than himself to write, a lot of ground is covered. But on page after page, Buford’s midlife apprenticeship in the kitchen at Batali’s flagship feels like a gigantic bait-and-switch operation. Ideally, Heat would have been subtitled “Mastering the Art of Mario Batali,” but in the end what we mostly get is the bumbling of Bill. “Molto Mario” of Food Network fame is glimpsed only intermittently; what we learn is that he’s one savvy businessman, a world-class cheapskate (he scavenges scraps from Babbo’s trash and excoriates the kitchen crew for wasting the opportunity to transform garbage into gourmet cuisine, notching profits) and a heroic drinker.
Buford, meanwhile, takes an inordinately long time rising to the level of flunky, much less slave, which would imply that Batali was actually interested in what Buford was doing (it’s never entirely clear that he was). Top props for Buford eventually come not from Batali, who evidently missed that this book might be good PR, but from a surrogate Babbo slavemaster, Frankie (one of many minor characters who come to dominate Heat). “You did good,” Frankie tells him after a rough night at the grill station. “You saved our ass.”
As many amateur cooks and Batali partisans know, Mario hates classic French cuisine. This former pizza cook from Seattle experienced his own version of Julia Child’s Gallic epiphany when, after achieving some moderate early success, he decided to bag it all and immerse himself in Italian country cooking, specifically in the Emilia-Romagna region. He returned to New York several years later and opened Po, the ultra-authentic Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village that, to borrow a Kitchen Confidential phrase from Bourdain, enabled Batali to “make his bones.” From this modest platform, he launched the full-scale shift in big-city American restaurant culture away from its French roots. As the Batali empire grew (he now operates seven restaurants in New York with his partner, Joe Bastianich, and there’s talk of one opening in Los Angeles), the era of the French culinary temple faded. Since Babbo opened, La Côte Basque, La Caravelle and Lutèce have all closed. We don’t want our restaurant food to represent the culmination of a century of French innovation. Instead, we want simple, sustaining peasant chow, served in casual surroundings. Of course, the qualitative difference between a dazzling restaurant such as Le Bernardin (still open) and a more populist establishment like Babbo is indisputable. But nobody wants to become a slave to Le Bernardin’s head chef, Eric Ripert. Ruddy, roly-poly, rock-and-roll Mario is more like it.
This doesn’t make life in Batali’s kitchen any easier. So, after putting in his time at Babbo, Buford shifts gears and pulls a Mario of his own, leaving New York to learn traditional butchery in Tuscany at the feet of the man many consider the greatest meat guy in the world, Dario Cecchini. Buford had already visited the mother country to learn the arts of pasta making, but it’s only when he trades carbohydrates for raw flesh that things really get going. Recommended to Buford by Batali’s father, Armandino, Cecchini is from a family that has been in the meat business for centuries. He is a butcher’s butcher. “I want only bistecca, dripping with blood,” he says at a representative moment, when he and Buford go out for a late meal. “A butcher likes raw…. A butcher likes the warm tissue of an animal freshly killed, tasting only of blood.” Cecchini’s creed of the butcher then extends to an unsurprising realm. “You are now a member of the carnal confederation of butchers,” he tells Buford. “You must now make love like a butcher.”
Yeah, baby! How could Buford, whose last book, Among the Thugs, was about English football hooligans, not be seduced? And it just gets better. Cecchini is a Tuscan absolutist, determined to insure that the region’s old ways are not lost. In Heat this attitude is observed with the proper mix of admiration and fear. At times, Cecchini seems very nearly insane (he is at least prone to deep depressions). “A butcher never sleeps,” he insists. “A butcher works in meat during the day and plays in flesh at night. A true butcher is a disciple of carnality.”
A true butcher is also highly quotable, even when he isn’t reciting Dante. But this is a lot of book to wait for Buford to finally get revved up. He finds his stride, however, with Cecchini and the discipline of carnality. The awkward year in the Babbo kitchen fades, replaced by scenes of Buford, one-on-one with an entire pig, hacking it up serial-killer style in his New York apartment, or bonding, Grasshopper-like, with Cecchini’s most skillful associate, known as the Maestro, as he teaches Buford the ancient jujitsu of the true Tuscan butcher. “In the Maestro, I found a tranquility I hadn’t witnessed before: a patience, a sense of order, a stable relationship to a world that was old and trustworthy.” In other words, the antithesis of a frantic New York City restaurant kitchen–or perhaps office life at The New Yorker.
It doesn’t last. In a denouement with Batali, Buford confesses that his curiosity is far from satisfied. I’m not sure this is good news, but he sets us up for a sequel. First Mario and the Maestro; next… well, I was surprised, too. Buford will be walking in the steps of Julia. He’s headed for France.