Published by Vintage
Publication date: June 26th 2007
I’m not sure how seriously I can take a man who is foolish enough to invite a world class chef into his home for dinner, but I decided to give Bill Buford a chance. His invitation to Mario Batali leads him to ask if he can work as an intern in the kitchen of Mario’s restaurant, Babbo. When Mario says yes it results in his Italian food lover’s dream memoir, Heat.
I realize, what with Thanksgiving last week, you might be sick of food, but Buford writes so temptingly of each of the phases of his journey you’ll quickly be lured in. When he shows up at Babbo he is immediately disabused of any cooking expertise he thought he had. He is assigned to be the kitchen slave for the prep chef and his initial tasks include everything from boning ducks to chopping celery. From there, as the months pass, he moves up to other tasks, all while trying to gain an understanding of not just how a restaurant works, but of Batali himself. Buford decides that following his path is critical so chapters are a well-blended mix of young Batali—who was, and apparently remains, a man of excessive appetites for both food and life experiences—and the inner workings of a NYT three-star restaurant and its staff.
If you know anything of Batali then you know his food is true Italian. None of this Americanized swill most of us think of as Italian; it is nose-to-tail usage of every animal from pig to cow to fowl and it is, of course, pasta. Fresh, handmade pasta, never dried. One of Buford’s first stops is Poretta, a small Tuscan village, to work with the woman who taught Batali. Over the course of several trips and many months he learns how to make the delectable but devilishly delicate pasta, tortellini.
You learn pasta by standing next to people who have been making it their whole lives and watching them. It seems simple, and that’s because it is simple, but, characteristic of all Italian cooking, it’s a simplicity you have to learn.
In between, he returns to NYC, each time working in a different part of the kitchen and being led by it to master its secrets. His last stint in Italy is in another small Tuscan village where he works for a butcher, who is world renowned, and as eccentric and over-the-top as Batali himself.
It is clear in Heat that whether Buford captures the essence of Batali is secondary. What is first and foremost is that he becomes as obsessed with Italian food and its flavors as Batali. This is clear because by the end of the book, until I read his bio, I had no real idea what Buford did or anything about his personal life. This is an ode to food and an elegy to traditions that no longer exist anywhere but off the beaten path and even then, they are dying. As he says
One moment the producer (the guy who knew his cows or the woman who prepared culatello only in January or the old young man who picks his olives in September) determined what was available and how it was made. The next moment it was the consumer.
And what do we know? We are greedy for these treasures, but in our instant gratification society we no longer respect the producer or the seasons so in come machines and industrial farming.
As disheartening as this is, Heat is not a treatise about what’s wrong with modern food. Rather it is a sumptuous meal of dishy, insider gossip about a famous chef and the inner workings of a top-tier restaurant and one man’s pursuit of knowledge about and experience in something he loves. Buford is a marvelous writer and his descriptions of all the Italian food you’ve never heard of are wonderfully vivid. Read Heat and you’ll be hungry for more, ready to chuck your day job and move to Italy to learn food.