Heat should come with a warning: “May cause loss of paid employment and long, long absences from home.”
A friend gave Heat this recommendation: “It makes me laugh so hard, but I haven’t been able to finish it because I keep giving it away so friends will read it, too.” The subtitle of Bill Buford’s book provides the best capsule summary: “An amateur’s adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany.”
Buford begins his cooking apprenticeship in the kitchen of Babbo, Mario Batali’s and Joseph Bastianich’s New York Times 3-star Manhattan restaurant. Another of the partnership’s restaurants, Del Posto, recently won a coveted 4-star review from Sam Sifton, The New York Times’s restaurant reviewer. Like a proper Italian sugo, Buford’s books are a long time in the making. For his previous book, Among the Thugs, he followed a group of British soccer “fans” and produced an eye-popping exploration of violence, xenophobia, and racism.
But Heat is not just a “watch-me-cook-in-a-professional-kitchen-book,” although this aspect is very funny. Instead, Buford follows a deeper impulse that flows right through the middle of kitchen life: “I’ve often thought that food is a concentrated messenger of a culture, compacted into the necessity of our having to eat to survive.” Buford enters the inter-generational, cultural conversation in Babbo’s kitchen, and then follows the discussion back to Italy for months at a time. Along the way he develops “an expanded kitchen awareness”, discovering how his nose can tell him when something is cooked, his ears how fast something is cooking in a skillet.
Buford educates his hands: teaching them, for instance, to touch meat and be able to tell when it is cooked to the correct degree. (Potential side effects of getting this close to cooking—multiple burns and more or less serious cuts). He watches Italian women making handmade pasta, and sees in their movements generations of women each of whom taught her daughter or daughter-in-law. Of course he enlists in this laying on of hands, spending several more long stretches in Italy, until he can feel the physical dance of the pasta in his own hands. (And body. You’ll have to read the book to learn the extremely useful employment his belly finds in the process of rolling out sheets of pasta.) After some time with the Maestro of Italian butchery at Dario Cecchini’s (the Dante-quoting butcher of the subtitle) Tuscan butcher shop, Buford finds himself gazing at a prize Tuscan steer and actually sees in the animal’s living musculature the classic triangular shape of the famous bistecca alla Fiorentina. When last heard from in Heat, Buford tells Batali he doesn’t want to open a restaurant, but instead writes: “I saw I’d mastered food in one tradition (I’ll call it the Florentine-Tuscan-late Renaissance tradition) up to a certain point: when Caterina became Catherine and crossed the Alps (or the Mediterranean) into France. I’m not ready, I told Mario. . .I want to follow Catherine de Médicis. If I’m really to understand Italian cooking, I need to cross the Alps and learn what happened next. I have to go to France.” Read this book at your own risk.