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Review of Heat by Bill Buford

Subtitle: An amateur’s adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany.
Year published: 2006
Genre: Memoir, food writing
Setting & time: New York, USA, and Tuscany, Italy; starting in 2002

Bill Buford became obsessed with learning to cook like a pro and on the basis of his friendship with celebrity chef Mario Batali was accepted into the kitchen of one of Batali's restaurants, Babbo, as an assistant, working his way up to line cook in about a year. Then he became obsessed with learning to make perfect pasta, and went to Italy to learn. Then he became obsessed with meat, and again went to Italy and became an apprentice to a butcher in Tuscany. The story of this journey is interspersed with snippets of Batali’s biography, stories about Babbo kitchen antics and politics, discussions about food and excursions into Italian culinary history.

Here is a guy who is just as obsessed with food as Jeffrey Steingarten, but instead of writing articles about it, he has written a book. Buford is a skilful writer and is able to be self-deprecating without becoming clownish about it (which I absolutely hate). He also doesn’t spare anyone else when they deserve it.

Celebrity chef Mario Batali comes across as a larger than life figure in the hands of Buford, who obviously likes him very much, but without worshipping him. For a while I thought the book was shaping up to be a sort of biography of Batali, interspersed by recollections of Buford’s friendship with him, but then Buford changed directions and started writing about his experiences in Italy, first as a pasta-making apprentice and then as an apprentice in an old-fashioned butcher shop in Tuscany, which I found to be the most interesting part of the book.

However, the descriptions of working in the kitchen of one of New York’s best restaurants were by no means boring. The kitchen, which is organised in ranks almost like a military organisation, seems to have been staffed with a collection of big egos, some of whom seem to have enjoyed abusing the lower ranks. Some of the descriptions of the kitchen practices and treatment of food rival the ones in Antony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential in their ability to gross out the reader. These two books have convinced me that the less one thinks about what could be going on in a restaurant kitchen, the better one can enjoy one’s meal.

Ultimately, although Buford writes much about Batali and others, this is his story, and it makes for interesting reading. It seems clear to me that Buford was either going through an existential crisis of some kind, which made him quit his job to pursue unpaid apprenticeships in careers he clearly had no intention of entering, or that his intention right from the beginning was to have those experiences so he could write a book about them. Perhaps both notions are right. Whatever the truth is, the book is interesting and entertaining and full of information any foodie will enjoy.

Rating:3+ stars.


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