Friday, October 2, 2009

Dinner with Mario

I have been stalking Bill Buford for a year (Hi, Bill!). While sifting through his garbage last week I came across the final chapter of his 2006 book, Heat, which, for some reason, was rejected by the publisher. I have included the work below. I assume this is okay since I didn’t find a copyright notice anywhere in the margins. Keep up the great work, Bill. See you soon!

It has been three months since Mario joined me for dinner and witnessed the completion of my metamorphosis from student to chef. I was grateful for all that Mario had shared and was determined to make that evening one he would remember for the rest of his life.

After we had eaten I realized that Mario had never actually seen me practice the skills I had developed under the tutelage of Dario and The Maestro. This, I realized, would make the circle complete. I would put on a demonstration for Mario to allow him to see that these hands of mine, as tiny as they were, were now masters of butchery and the proper preparation of meat.

And thus with a frantic glee I proudly showed Mario the knife and steel which had been given to me by The Maestro, sharpened my blade and dispatched him with a single cut. Yes, it was a spectacular mess. The way Mario flailed and thrashed about was a reflection of his zest for life. Even in his final moments, Mario, the ultimate showman, was still grasping for a little bit more life.

Once Mario had been cleaned and broken into sections it became obvious that I was dealing with a glorious piece of meat. The quality of the meat is governed by the quality of the fat and Mario would have graded out as Prime.

The belly was spectacular, I had never seen its equal. Slicing open that belly was like unwrapping a Christmas gift; the one in the biggest box and prettiest wrapper that tormented you as it lay under the tree. You just knew that there is something wonderful inside and are finally able to tear it open after long restraint. As soon as I saw the quality of the fat on the belly I sliced off a portion and ate it raw; still warm and meltingly tender. Meat will reflect the diet of the beast and it was clear that Mario ate well; the nuttiness of the Parmesan Reggiano, the earthiness of the pastas, the saltiness of the olives, the bold fruit of the wine. I wanted Mario to experience the deliciousness of the Lardo de Mario so I quickly spread some on a slice of rustic bread and placed it into his gaping mouth.

I tried to serve Mario in ways I believe he would have served himself. I split the belly into two portions; one was simply cured with salt, black pepper and a touch of paprika while the other made for a delightful confit. The ribs were seared and braised just like at Babbo and the shanks were used for osso bucco. The chops were brined, grilled and served with seasonal vegetables while some of the tougher cuts were ground and added to a bright ragu. Bones were roasted for stock while the skin was fried and crumbled over salads.

The hands and feet were simmered with the head until they simply fell apart (it’s done when the jawbone detaches). The meat was picked and added back to the filtered aromatic broth. The mix was simmered until thickened, then poured into Mario’s cleaned stomach and left to slowly gel in the cooler. Mario would have appreciated the playfulness. He had thought about what to put into his stomach for so long that now his head is in his stomach! This is just the sort of humor Mario loved to build into his menus.

My biggest dilemma was what to do with all of the little bits and pieces of Mario left over from trimming. Mario insisted that a chef never wasted anything and instead would find ways to dress up any scraps and sell them. The thought of wasting any piece of Mario and therefore breaking one of his cardinal rules was clearly not an option. This dilemma was solved in one of those moments of brilliance, of simple clarity, that identify a true chef.

My moment of clarity came when I saw Mario’s manhood. It was incredible in proportion and very, well…manly. No wonder Mario walked with a funny gait; the poor man must have been horribly uncomfortable. “Of course”, I thought, “I have meat trimmings, beautiful fat and a perfect casing. I can make salami!”

Using short, quick strokes of my knife I slowly peeled the skin away from the organ. My newly procured casing was thoroughly salted and then pricked in multiple locations to ensure the salami could properly dry. I put the trimmings through the grinder and seasoned liberally but gently with salt, black pepper and a crisp chardonnay. For a textural contrast the fat was cut into a fine dice before mixing with the ground meat. The salami was then stuffed and allowed to ferment and dry in a cool, humid spot in my basement. When the salami is done I will send it to Mario’s father. I am sure he will appreciate the craftsmanship and will enjoy getting to spend some time with his son.

What could have been more perfect? The salami was very utilitarian, very Italian and very, very Mario. Couldn’t you just see it now? Mario running around Babbo, slices in hand, yelling, “You’ve got to try this!” Of course he wouldn’t tell anybody what it was, not until they confessed that they loved it and wanted more. Oh that Mario, he was just so Mario!

After that evening there could be no doubt, I was now a chef. I am very thankful for all that Mario so graciously provided and will forever be in his debt. No matter where I go I will always carry a piece of Mario with me.

Seriously, I made a little wallet.

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