Bill Buford: Cookbooks are for wimps

The idea of pugnacious literary supremo Bill Buford taking orders from anyone is laughable. So why did he leave 'The New Yorker' to become a lowly 'kitchen slave' for one of New York's best restaurants? Danuta Kean asks him what he learnt among the pans
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Bill Buford bounds across the back room of the Union, a favourite watering hole of Soho's literati. He looks like a pocket Hemingway, dressed in slacks, grey sports jacket and black shirt, his chin dusted by a grey beard. The famously testosterone-packed ex-literary editor does not look like a kitchen bitch. But until recently that is exactly what he was.

Buford, until 2002 literary editor of The New Yorker and, as editor of Granta, once a leading light in British publishing, spent two years' "self-education by self-abasement", working his way up through the macho sweat shop of a New York restaurant kitchen and covered in blood as a butcher's apprentice deep in the hills of Tuscany. His experience is recounted in his funny and erudite memoir, Heat.

It all started at a dinner party in Buford's Manhattan apartment. Among the guests was Mario Batali, TV chef and proprietor of acclaimed New York eatery Babbo. He turned out to be the dinner guest from hell. Within moments of his arrival chez Buford, the writer knew inviting him was a mistake. Batali, one of the new breed of alpha-male cooks whose main rule is excess, took over, treating his host to his first lesson in muscular cookery and other guests to a night of macho drinking.

Buford has alpha-male tendencies of his own (at Granta the testosterone levels of many contributors were as high as his: Redmond O'Hanlon and Raymond Carver were regulars). But he was hooked and accepted the chef's challenge to work in his kitchen as a slave for whom no task was too debased. In exchange he would learn real cooking. Buford was fertile ground for Batali's influence. "I really envied the knowledge that professional cooks had," he explains. "I envied their command of food and recognised that though I might learn from cookbooks, there was a limitation to what they could teach."

The assignment should have been completed when Buford filed a piece about it to The New Yorker. But he could not let go. It is not the first time he has "gone deep", as he describes it, losing himself in a story. In the 1980s he infiltrated a gang of Manchester United hooligans. He recounted his experiences in Among the Thugs.

Oddly, like the Man U Supporters Club, Babbo's kitchen combined two of Buford's great loves: combative male bonding and learning. "The kitchen was a kind of aggressive, hands-on university," he admits. "The excitement I felt was akin to reading John Donne for the first time or finally getting a command of Shakespeare. It was the kind of excitement I had in university."

It makes you wonder about his tutorials at Cambridge, because the teaching methods of his cookery masters leave no room for fine feelings. In Heat, Buford describes the kitchen as home to the same kind of mindless, ritualistic bullying as the military. Some people get off on that; evidently Buford is one of them.

One incident he recounts happened when Batali pulled him off a work station because his pork was "undercooked". In a professional kitchen the slave cannot leave until dismissed, and Buford was forced to stand in Babbo's tiny kitchen for an hour, ignored by colleagues who pushed past him as they worked. It was like being placed on the naughty step, except that Buford was 50, not five.

Most of us would have walked. Not Buford. "I have to admit that I like all that stuff," he says. If I was looking for a deeper explanation of his fascination for primal environments he is not going to give it. I suspect there isn't one - blaming his relationship with his father seems too trite. "I found its bluntness rather appealing," he says of the kitchen. "There is a lack of politeness and political correctness - a kind of coarse reality. If people are going to be aggressive they don't hide their aggression. It is hard and fast. If a dish is a failure you know it is a failure and you're fired."

As Buford describes it, restaurant kitchens are a hybrid of army boot camp and dysfunctional family - all boundaries and sibling rivalry. Even the air is carved up according to your place in the pecking order. When Batali humiliated someone or a colleague was in trouble - one committed suicide - the cooks drew together like abused children.

Buford claims the daily humiliation was a small sacrifice to make in return for being apprenticed to great teachers. "I was lucky enough to be given a chance to be instructed by people who both knew what they were doing and had something unusual to offer," he explains. As well as Batali, Buford's other teachers were kitchen colleagues, especially long-suffering prep chef Elisa Sarno; Marco Pierre White, who comes across as a violent Falstaff, all energy and aggression; and, in Italy, restaurateur Miriam Leonardi, who taught him pasta, and Dante-quoting Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini - "way out there", according to Buford.

"At the end I came away with some real knowledge," Buford says. It is an understatement; how many amateur cooks do you know who have gutted a pig on their kitchen table? Buford is a knowledge vulture, never sated: every morsel of understanding creates rather than suppresses his appetite. "It is still not a rounded knowledge or in-depth," he continues.

It feels like false modesty. The book is very well researched, digressing into everything from the origins of pasta and seasonal cooking to Catherine de' Medici. "I know quite a lot of things that I didn't know before," he counters. "Quite elementary things: what good meat should be like and how bad supposedly good meat can be. You can really tell from the colour, and from tasting it raw especially. Unhealthy meat is scary and you really don't want to eat it once you know the difference." He tears off a piece of croissant and pops it into his mouth. All I can think of is maggots.

Recipes have been included in prose narratives since Laura Esquivel's novel, Like Water For Chocolate. Heat is no different, but Buford eschews the traditional approach. There are no food formulas, with every kilogram prescribed; instead slipped in between the tales of big personalities and ritual humiliation are mouth-watering descriptions of sauces, meats and puddings that draw a visceral response.

"There is a convention for doing recipes, where you set out the ingredients and you set out the steps and it's a received formula. But one of the things I was trying to do was describe how you really prepare food in a kitchen and for that the conventional recipe doesn't work. Not only does it leave out ingredients, but it leaves out the labour, hours and philosophy that go into a dish."

Is it not also about conveying the animal pleasure of food, its taste, smell and appearance? No, he says. "A conventional recipe doesn't capture the narrative of making food. Food is a narrative, each dish is like a mini short story and most dishes have a history, most have a culture and a beginning and middle and end. It is usually not a surprise ending - unless I am the cook," he laughs. "I was trying to capture those basic narratives in the book."

By linking these narratives with tradition and history he reminds us that food is not fuel, it is our most fundamental link with the Earth, a link severed by our dependence on processed food. It is not a new idea, but Buford is a recent convert, so for him it has the power of a fresh revelation. "I think part of the interest in food television at the moment is that there is probably no point in the whole history of civilisation when we have been more ignorant about the origin and preparation of food than now."

He leans forward, tapping the coffee table that stands between us lightly with the tips of his fingers, "It is a really simple knowledge, but is also an agrarian knowledge, which is about knowing what to do with the seasons and what your grandmother did and what her grandmother did and how to make food. We have lost that knowledge, probably because so much of our food is prepared by supermarkets and we are so disconnected with the food process. It is just a bit of ordinary civilising information that we no longer have." He pauses for a second to add emphasis. "To lose that connection is to lose your connection to the earth. The most fundamental connection we have to the earth is how it sustains us."

This less mechanistic approach reminds us that cooking is a creative process that demands more than a formula. "When you go to prepare a dish it is not that you go and put on your cooking cap and have to follow these instructions exactly," he explains. "The idea is that you are dealing with food in the way that you would deal with anything else in your life - you are dealing with it with all your senses. It is not like you are just reading and making inferences and using the deductive facilities of your brain. That is much less important than your senses. By using them you can cook much more intuitively and more accurately."

A pivotal moment came when Buford stopped lamb shanks burning. He had his back turned, but instead of checking his watch for when they were done, he instinctively knew and turned at the precise moment. It was an epiphany. For the first time he had reacted on instinct, unconsciously recognising the subtle change in the sound they made in the pan when cooked. Recalling it makes him launch into recipe mode.

"There was a dish at Babbo that is a great way of making Brussel sprouts," he explains like a seafarer recalling an epic catch. "You blanche them in hot water for a bit, then you put them in ice water to stop them cooking, then you cut them in half and put them side down in the frying pan. Then put in some olive oil and turn the frying pan up really hot. It caramelises the bottoms of the sprouts. You can hear when they are cooked because the sound of the oil changes, because when the sprouts harden it starts echoing off their surface. That is when you stick a spatula underneath and flip 'em. You don't want to do it too early because you don't want to stop them caramelising. So, you listen. It is not something you can do with a cookbook." My mouth waters; I want to eat.

It comes as a surprise that Buford does not want to open a restaurant. After all it is the fantasy of many a middle-aged male. "It would be great fun, I just know it would involve more than I want to do," he admits.

Knowing too much has not put him off a return to the kitchen though. He had to be pulled back from getting in "too deep" after a New Yorker assignment with a pastry chef. "I thought, oh this is a place where I could really go deep," he admits. Thoughts of his wife, magazine editor Jessica Green, and his twin baby boys, George and Frederick, pulled him from the brink. His frustration is evident though. "It felt like I hadn't done anything and the truth is I had only just begun. I have a capacity to go deep which is a little alarming to everybody around me."

He will make up for it next year. "There is a possibility that maybe next spring I might attach myself to some lunatic French chef," he confesses. "I can't speak French. So I will be doing the whole thing again." The "lunatic chef" should be warned of what he is letting himself in for. Buford may be a willing bitch in the kitchen, but his pen has bite. "Batali described reading Heat as standing naked in a room full of mirrors for 17 hours," he says, laughing. As revenge goes, it beats the naughty step.

To order a copy of 'Heat' by Bill Buford (Cape £17.99) for £16.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897