Heat by Bill Buford
Reviewed by Tom Carrico
Bill Buford is a former editor of the “The New Yorker” magazine, founding editor of “Granta” magazine and publisher of Granta Books. His hobby was cooking. He cooked for friends and business associates and on one occasion for the renowned chef Mario Batali. That occasion prompted Mr. Buford to quit his job at “The New Yorker” and sign on as an unpaid intern at Batali’s three star Italian restaurant Babbo in New York City. This book is part memoir of that experience, part travelogue, part history of Italian cooking and part observatory character studies of the eccentric personalities the author encountered. Add to this mixture a large aliquot of humor and you have the recipe for a thoroughly enjoyable book.
The memoir portion of the book details his rise from “kitchen slave” to line cook (which included a stint at the grill station) and finally to pasta maker. The author’s misadventures, including dicing the carrots too small, multiple injuries (including splatter burns and minor lacerations) and wasting food are all humorously documented. The amazing aspect of all of this to me was how much this experience (although only lasting about a year) was reminiscent of my surgical residency. The graded responsibility, the general fault-finding and learning from mistakes all seemed remarkably similar to that experience. Initially, his superiors criticize every move and use every mistake as a “teaching opportunity” (usually involving screaming). As he moves up the responsibility ladder, Mr. Buford relates his frustration when the kitchen manager (who in my mind represented the Surgical Chief Resident) demanding that certain orders be replated immediately for no apparent reason.
The even more fascinating portions of the book come about when Chef Batali talks to the author (“talking” here includes earsplitting fits of anger) and informs him that the only way to truly understand the art of cooking Italian food was to go to Italy and learn it first hand. This is, in fact, the way Batali learned. The author does indeed make many trips to Italy. First he learns the fine art of pasta making from women who run a small restaurant and were taught their skills by their mother and their aunts, who in turn were taught by their mothers and aunts. The reader learns the difference between pastasciutta and pasta fresca, when the egg was first introduced into the ingredients (it turns out nobody, including the curators of the Pasta Museum in Italy, are exactly sure, although sometime in the 13th century is a good guess), and why machine made pasta is unacceptable. On a return trip to Panzano (near Tuscany), Mr. Buford learns the art of the butcher from Dario Cecchini, who comes from a long line of master butchers. Dario has the interesting habit of intermittently screaming long excerpts from The Divine Comedy alternating with singing excerpts from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” while he works. These “performances” are fueled by generous amounts of alcohol. The meticulous care of knives, the various cuts of meat from pigs and cows and the appreciation for the preparation of meats as an art form are detailed.
The cast of characters which Mr. Buford meets while working at Babbo (including the maestro Batali) and traveling and living in Italy is colorful and very amusingly described by the author and is one of the strengths of Heat. This cast includes the characters already described above as well as the other restaurant workers who jealously guard their secrets of success, the Italians who courageously defend their ancient cooking arts in a modern world as well as the menagerie which makes up the restaurant world in New York City (including patrons, competing chefs and newspaper food critics).
I don’t know if this was the best book to read while trying to adopt a “heart-healthy” diet and mode of living, but I know that even under those circumstances this was a thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, humorous and even informative book. Heat by Bill Buford is available in trade paperback from Vintage Books.