Devils in the Kitchen
What do Bourdain, Batali and White talk about in a bookstore?
A couple of weeks ago I went to a panel discussion that was part of a publicity tour for Marco Pierre White and his new book, Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef. Famed for being the youngest and first British chef ever to receive (and give back) three Michelin stars, White is equally known for his bad behavior.
Borders often holds these wonderful cooking-oriented events and I went not so much for chef/author White but the other two men sharing the dais at their Columbus Circle store: Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain. While an overflow crowd waited, White was about 20 minutes late for his own party, leaving Mr. Batali and Mr. Bourdain to start without him. Their first story was of Batali's brief stint working for White, a tale that ended with a dissatisfied White dumping a pan of risotto onto a young Mario, who got his retribution by quitting -- but only after adding fists-full of salt into pans of the flawless beurre blanc sauce that was a signature of White's restaurant.
Mr. White finally showed up and joined the conversation and the telling of favorite stories, polishing his image as insulting bad boy. Despite the best efforts of Mr. Bourdain -- who is as charming, articulate, intelligent and dashing as you would hope he would be given his wonderful books and television programs (a bit of a crush?) -- the tales of kitchen violence, ego and theatrics continued. Mr. Batali is witty and very amusing but also actively prone to profanity. The three chefs spoke into microphones that broadcast throughout the crowded bookstore, plus the event was in a space adjacent to the children's section, making Batali's steady stream of vulgarities seem less like rough kitchen talk and more like potty mouth. I wished better from him.
White's comments were often self-pitying, full of laments about the long kitchen hours that kept him from his children. Yet there were no regrets for the brutalities he foisted onto workers or customers (he's equally proud of the bombasts he directed at a customer who would have the audacity to have a culinary point-of-view). There was also frequent hand-wringing about his wasting years doing something he didn't love as the reason he left his restaurant kitchen. Still, White couldn't quite resist resuming his old pose: when asked how he was able to give back his Michelin stars, he said, "I was being judged by people with less stars than me; that's why I could give mine back." He vowed to never return to a professional kitchen while at the same time spoke of the "fifteen to twenty interests" he currently has, including a chain of restaurants that will include spots in Dubai, Las Vegas and Shanghai. No more chef White, he is clearly on the road to mogul White. That can only be good news for the men and women who may end up working in any of the chain's kitchens.
For an hour these three influential men told their war stories and advanced the testosterone-tainted aura of professional kitchens. A few days later I was telling my friend Pat about this event and knowing I've spent a little time in restaurant kitchens, she asked why they have to be so brutal. "To begin with, there's all that fire and all those knives," I said, pointing out that even without a risotto-throwing chef, they can be dangerous places. But a great kitchen is also all about the food, something left largely unmentioned in the Marco Pierre White roast.
So here's to cooking in home kitchens where it's always all about the food. We may have less fire and fewer knives, but no one is dumping a fist of salt into our beurre blanc. They wouldn't dare.