The Rockstar Chef
Mario Batali always fancied himself a rockstar. In Heat, Bill Buford describes a young Batali arriving at a tiny Italian village bearing little more than an electric guitar and “a small boom-box amplifier”; fast-forward thirty-odd years and there Batali is, in Buford’s own home at three in the morning, “his back dangerously arched, his eyes closed, a long red ponytail swinging rhythmically behind him, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth, his red Converse high-tops pounding the floor”, playing air guitar to Neil Young.
In no small part because of Heat, Mario Batali became a rockstar. Just one in the long line of cooks awarded this moniker since the late 1980s, perhaps, but one of the biggest, both literally and figuratively. Much of the drama in Heat constellates around an upcoming New York Times review of Batali’s flagship Babbo; when it finally hits the papers – a rave that docks a star only because of the thundering music playing in the dining room – Buford describes it as “the perfect Batali review”: “the food was so good it could have been French; the food was so good it could have got the city’s highest accolade; but, in the final reckoning, the place was too rock ‘n’ roll, a rebel without a fourth star”.
In the wake of Eater’s report about Batali’s history of inappropriate conduct towards women, John Birdsall wrote that “maybe this’ll mark the end, finally, of our 30-year-old notion of the rockstar-y super chef”. It’s always been a tedious, overly simplistic label, but as Birdsall recognises, the Batali news puts it in a different perspective. It is no longer a matter of it being nice if we never use it again; these stories – along with many others emerging about chefs and restaurateurs abusing the status conferred on them – start to make it look more like a necessity.
The problems start with excess. Extreme debauchery has long been a favourite subject for rock journalists, but in ‘Mario Batali and the Appetites of Men’, Helen Rosner explores how a certain type of extreme masculine appetite has been codified and ennobled by food media, too. Rosner notes how people use words like “Falstaffian” and “Dionysian” to describe Batali (we might throw “Rabelaisian” into the mix, too) – and indeed, Batali fits cosily into the archetype of the cheery, chubby, replete sybarite. In appearance at least, Batali is the analogue of the rake-thin Anthony Bourdain, but they both celebrate a kind of gleeful heedless hedonism: it is no coincidence that Bourdain called his cookbook Appetites, since it was his book Kitchen Confidential that sustained the “chefs-are-the-new-rockstars” line into the new millennium, blurring boundaries between food and sex, and drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, whilst invoking them in intoxicating quantity.
This school of writing is a clear influence on Heat. Batali – even more so than Bourdain – is a man of appetites. Buford notes approvingly the “new motto” that Batali (at the start of the book) is trying out for the first time: “wretched excess is just barely enough”. The book is chock-full of stories of things that defy normal, mortal consumption: shrimp offered in such vast quantities they have to be served with a spade; tasting menus so extensive that the aim is practically to kill the recipient; accounts of how Batali and Joe Bastianich “had been known to put away a case of wine during an evening meal”.
The revelation that Batali’s “excessive alcohol consumption” was “a recurring theme” in many instances of his alleged misconduct draws an unambiguous line between these two forms of excess, as well as casting a stark light what we’re really talking about. When Anthony Bourdain told The Eater Upsell that “true rockstars are the ones like no one before them… there were no chefs that anyone wanted to fuck before Jeremiah and Marco”, he collapsed the binary in the most efficient way possible: really, whenever someone calls chefs the new rockstars, they’re just talking about fucking. As Rosner notes, “Batali has always in a sense been selling sex”: “rockstar” is a designation that ennobles excess, in all its forms – but especially as appetites spill over into the carnal (like “appetite”, another word that moves between the two worlds). Think of Led Zeppelin, a band that pushed excess to extremes both lethal and (allegedly) astonishingly vile; note how we have given the surviving members a free pass on a variety of spurious grounds: they were rockstars; the behaviour came with the territory; it was a different time. The excuses sound familiar.
Clearly, as we seek to scrutinise the structures that allow abuse like Batali’s to occur we need to be wary of words that mask and dignify behaviour like his. “Rockstar” is doubly damaging; it comes with a whole entourage of additional journalistic baggage. To write as a music journalist has historically been to write as a fan – of musicians, sure, but of rock more generally, of your subject as both a person but also an embodiment of something bigger, something more. Heat is not a critique; it is a hagiography. And all of us who read it, who thrilled to its prose and marvelled in the clarity of its portraits, who turned a blind eye to what are now unambiguously troubling anecdotes, are complicit. We all bought a ticket to the rock show; we all bought into what very first chapter refers to as “the myth of Mario”.
The current generation of bad men will not contaminate the restaurant scene for much longer: new reckonings seem to be coming daily. But if – as John Birdsall posits – it is time for “a complete tear-down” of a system that has grown “rotten”, then writers can be a starting point. They can write about their subjects critically and fearlessly, even if in the short term that may mean their access to subjects is restricted. They can dispense with mythopoesis that does the heavy lifting for them, or words that paper over what they really mean.
Chefs-are-the-new-rockstars is the most obvious place to start, if only because – three decades on – it is still endemic. It lives on in every moody, broody, White Heat-aping photoshoot, with its lingering close ups on tats and biceps and Freudian offcuts. It persists every time a journalist prints a chef comparing their far-out cooking style to Led Zep when the rest of the competition is The Beatles; it subsists in every fawning feature dredging up a pun on Rebel Without A Cause to dignify a guy who is basically just a dick.
A working historical definition for “rockstar” might be: someone who is famous enough to avoid censure for their actions. The Batali allegations present just one pattern of unforgivable behaviour. There is a lot of abuse you can inflict that is not sexual in nature. Abuse that is verbal: in front of our admiring gaze, Gordon Ramsay has built a TV career out of belittling and intimidating people. Abuse that is physical: Tom Aikens is somehow still able to hawk his talents to the highest bidder, despite his well-documented past. Abuse that is both, as illustrated by Heat’s wealth of anecdote about perhaps the original rock star chef, Marco Pierre White.
It is time we spoke more clearly. Chefs like Batali, like John Besh – like Ramsay and Aikens and Marco Pierre White – are not rebels, or high priests of excess, or bad boys. It’s time we called them what they really are – something for which “rockstar” is a convenient but inaccurate shorthand.
They’re not badasses: they’re assholes.