Book: Heat by Bill Buford

Fascinating in some ways but ultimately flawed

Bill Buford
Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
Vintage, 2006
ISBN: 978-1-4000-3447-5
318 pages

Bill Buford edited the re-founded literary magazine Granta for 16 years and started and ran the associated publishing house. He subsequently worked as the fiction editor for New Yorker magazine. While working there, he got himself assigned to write a profile of the Seattle-born celebrity chef Mario Batali. Heat is, pretty much, an expanded version of that article. One of the ways in which it's expanded is that we hear from Mr Buford about his personal experiences learning about Mr Batali. We learn a fair amount about Mr Batali in the book and about the unique, even crazy, and often profane world of a busy restaurant kitchen.

Mr Buford begins the book as an amateur cook who has a little more enthusiasm than skill. (He mentions that his dinner guests once had the poor timing to arrive in the middle of a grease fire.) It seems that as Mr Buford did research for the article and book, learning about Mr Batali quickly became learning from him. To some extent, I imagine that that makes sense. If you really want to know about a chef and his food, it makes some sense to work in his kitchen. Mr Buford is accepted at Mr Batali's restaurant, Babbo, as what is called an "extern" in that business but most people would probably call in intern. His hours of prep work fetching things, chopping vegetables, de-boning poultry, and so on, are unpaid and that's the "Kitchen Slave" part of the book's subtitle.

That might be enough insight for most writers. But Mr Buford quit his job at the New Yorker and went on to positions of increasing responsibility in Mr Batali's kitchen. That's the "Line Cook" part of the subtitle. He worked the grill station and then the steamy pasta station. In the midst of all that, Mr Buford decided to learn about the part of Mr Batali's apprenticeship that took place in Europe. In the UK, Mr Buford met the colorful celebrity chef Marco Pierre White who had once cooked with Mr Batali in the kitchen of a pub. Soon enough, Mr Buford begins wondering what he should learn in Europe. He makes an extended trip to Italy to learn about pasta (the "Pasta-Maker" in the subtitle) and then more trips to learn butchering in the tiny Tuscan mountain town of Panzano (that's the "Dante-Quoting Butcher"). Between trips, Mr Buford buys a slaughtered pig and butchers and cooks it in his Manhattan apartment. At one point, he even tries to persuade his wife to quit her job too so that they could spend more time in Italy while he learns about cooking.

The book's title says that it's about Mr Buford's own experiences and it is. A book of that sort could be very interesting, but this one misses the mark because almost nothing of Mr Buford's own personality comes through. Mario Batali comes across as a fascinating and vivid character and so do various other people. But Mr Buford is is hardly at all introspective in the book. We see the evidence of his increasing obsession with food and cooking, but we learn almost nothing of what he thought and what motivated him. He must have become something like the many larger-than-life personalities he meets, but we learn very little about that progression and that's disappointing.

There are some interesting nuggets of information about food in the book, but they're only about whatever Mr Buford was currently obsessed with so they're rather miscellaneous.

Posted: Wed - March 12, 2008 at 06:02 PM   Main   Category: