Saturday, August 16, 2008

Heat (2006)

I read Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford (2006), thanks to the lovely Choo who has an unlimited number of books that she is always graciously willing to loan.

Buford is a journalist (including 16 years as an editor for Granta, and a stint as the fiction editor for The New Yorker). After inviting Mario Batali to a dinner party, he decides to write a profile on Batali and his restaurant, Babbo, and embarks on a lengthy research-based journey as a slave in the Babbo kitchen -- chopping, carrying, picking, grating, braising, and boiling his way up to a spot in the kitchen during dinner service. Then after a brief period back at his desk job, Buford quits everything and goes back to Babbo.

This section of the book is an equal mix of profiles of the eccentric members of the kitchen staff, revelations of "shocking" kitchen secrets (Mario thinks the pasta dough is kneaded for 45 minutes, but they really only knead it for 10 minutes if he isn't around!), a history of Batali's education as a chef, and detailed descriptions of the work of a professional kitchen. It's this last part that was most interesting to me, and Buford's status as an outsider on the inside makes him a perfect guide. Since I don't have cable and have never seen "Molto Mario" or any of Batali's other shows, the biographical profile of him as a chef and the "behind the scenes" look at his personality was a little less interesting to me (although he is a pretty engaging character, so I got on board with him pretty quickly).

In the second half of the book, Buford follows the steps of the pre-Babbo Batali and goes to Italy to learn how to make pasta and later, to apprentice himself to a volatile and impulsive Tuscan butcher. Oddly enough, the fictional biography of Michelangelo that I read a few weeks ago takes place primarily in this same region of Italy, and I found a lot of overlap between Buford's historical profiling of the region and Irving Stone's meticulous recreation of the 15th century Tuscan countryside.

Luckily for me, Dr. M cooked exclusively pasta dishes this week, so I got a taste of the Italian food that I was reading about every day. This book made me very hungry.

If you have an interest in Italian cooking, the New York restaurant scene, or the life of a professional chef, then you won't go wrong reading this book. At the end Buford hints at a future book exploring French cooking in the same way, and I would love to read it.

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