Being Mario Batali's Sous-Chef Was No Picnic

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Toast and RoastHow could I resist this invitation (right), which gave no hint of what was to come yesterday around lunchtime?

Mario Batali serving roast pig, which, from a previous appearance at his house in northern Michigan, I knew I would enjoy immensely. Dave Pasternack from New York City's Esca roasting and grilling octopus, which I knew from co-writing his about-to-come-out cookbook, was just about the most delicious tentacled morsel of food you could eat. And the hospitality of Batali partner Joe Bastianich, who apparently lives large on a few acres of prime real estate in suburban Connecticut.

The first mistake I made was emailing Mario to see if he was really leaving Del Posto at 10 in the morning to go to the party. I had previously e-mailed him asking if I could get a ride to the event.

From: Mario Batali (sent via Blackberry)
To: Ed Levine
yes, we really are. so cmon down (in case we run late or it gets complicated!!) see you at posto at 955!! xom

Of course this meant we were going to be getting to the party an hour before it started. Oh, well, I thought to myself. I have my Treo. I can just work for an hour in suburban splendor.

But when we got there a little before 11 a.m., it was clear that Mario had other plans for me. We set up a table right next to Pasternack's, who had a fancy-pants gas grill all cranked up to grill asparagus (right) and finish the octopus he had roasted at his restaurant.

Two hotel pans full of beautiful pork barbecue, Batali-style, smoked in the kitchen of Del Posto had been trucked up for the event. They were inside, in Joe's oven, being heated. Mario had brought three containers of his incomparable salsa verde, a combination of mint, capers, anchovy, parsley, mustard, and a few other things, that makes anything taste good, and a few bottles of his just-released NASCAR barbecue sauce, split evenly between the kind of hot and the really hot varieties.

Next to the table were four huge bags of irregularly shaped Sullivan Street Bakery ciabatta rolls. They were supposed to have been split at Del Posto before they began their journey to Joe's house. They were not, and someone had to split those thousand rolls before the guests arrived in an hour.

"Dude," Mario said, "you ready to split the rolls?"

I believe this was the definition of a rhetorical question. Mario handed me a really sharp knife, and in the absence of a cutting board, showed me how to split the rolls 85 percent of the way through by placing each one of them between my thumb and forefinger and slicing away (see photo, top).

Joe came by and said, "Dude, you are going to cut your finger. I'm going to get you a cutting board." At which point he disappeared, not be seen or heard from for an hour.

I started cutting the rolls. Piece of cake, I thought to myself. I cut the first 500 without incident. The guests started to arrive. Every one of them made a beeline for our table. No surprise there. Mario's a star. Most of them asked Mario if he had remembered them, that they had seen him at other events or at one of his restaurants or in the audience at a television show. Mario was unfailingly gracious. Just about everyone asked if Mario minded if they could have their picture taken with him. So Mario was multitasking—making pork sandwiches and having his picture taken with hundreds of guests at the same time.

One guest handed Mario his cell phone and asked Mario to say happy birthday to his mother. Mario obliged without complaint. "Happy Birthday, Mom," he said into the phone. "Your son is having a great time. But next year you should come to the party."

Unsurprisingly no one was asking Mario's sous-chef, risking digits if not life and limb while cutting irregularly shaped rolls without a cutting board, to have a picture taken or wish happy birthday to an absent family member. I did manage to sneak one of the pork sandwiches, and it was killer. The pork was incredibly tender and juicy, and just smoky enough. The salsa verde was the pièce de résistance. The NASCAR Barbecue Sauce was tasty but unnecessary.

An hour into the party, I had cut through just about all 1,000 rolls without incident. I was really proud of myself, and I started thinking, This sous-chefing stuff is all right. It's not that hard. It was kind of a picnic. I imagined asking Mario to bone a box of quail next.

There were less than ten rolls left to cut when it happened: The knife slipped off its point of entry into the roll and sliced my thumb. Blood started spurting out of it. "Shit!" I yelled, and threw down the knife. It missed Mario's clog-clad foot by an inch. I was using a napkin to apply pressure to the thumb to stop the bleeding.

Mario looked up from his kibitzing. "Dude, watch the knife," he said. "In any kitchen I've ever worked in, cutting your fingers is just part of the gig. No screaming allowed."

"Now, finish the rolls," he said, with a knowing half-smile.

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