Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
In Heat, we follow Buford as he encounters star chef Mario Batali and decide to follow Batali’s path to becoming a chef through the different people that have influenced his cooking. More than that, Buford also enlists as a kitchen help in Batali’s three star restaurant: Babbo. Buford, nothing more than a foodie at the time, gets to learn from the best in the business in one of the most celebrated and busy kitchen in New York. The book also doubles as a biography of sort for Batali and following his rise to the top of the culinary world, from apprentice to Food TV.
Heat is a terrific read if you are in any way shape or form interested in the food business, how kitchens are run and how difficult it can be to work in the conditions these people work. Kitchens in high end restaurants are just like the ones in corner dinner, simply hot, filthy messes that there is a good chance that your meal has been seasoned with sweat and some other people’s food. More to that is the physically demands required by a job where you are in front of a very hot grill, standing up for 9 hours at a time without any breaks. From preparation the ingredients in the morning to the cooking and serving of those same ingredients at night, every step is on the clock, one fatal mistake can halt everything for a long time. The pressure is something a kitchen thrives on apparently and as Buford dutifully explains when in particularly tense situation:
“It was, I concluded, my first glimpse of what Mario had described as ‘the reality of the kitchen’- a roomful of adrenaline addicts”
Heat is more than just the memoir of a man trying to survive in busy kitchen, which he did admirably BTW, despite the cuts and bruises and the fact that he is in his late forties. Heat is about a quest of culinary knowledge bordering on the obsessive. What starts with Buford interviewing and getting to know Batali’s past as a chef soon evolves in a full fledge mania about the history of Italian cuisine and a search for the authentic in a country with as many variations on a dish as there is regions. The simplicity and the charm of Italian cuisine soon takes center stage as he interns and interviews some of the people trying to keep the cuisine as authentic as possible in a context where cuisine is as much global in its influences as it is local, cooking with local ingredients being increasingly important.
The Tuscan Dante-Quoting butcher of the title is the incredibly entertaining, but also troubled, Dario Cecchini. The most famous butcher in the world it is said of him, but he is also a fierce defendant of Tuscan cuisine that yells at “unworthy” customers and throws balsamic vinegar of the floor of local restaurants (it is from Emilia-Romagna). Cacchini is troubled by the fact that his Tuscan heritage is disappearing all around him and he doesn’t seem to be able to stop it, despite the fact that he is doing the food cop all around his small town. Buford comes into this situation and gets to learn from the Maestro himself and also gets to reflect on the state of Italian cooking, where it came from and where it is going.
The book addresses some of the important questions about Italian cooking as it found today and the way it has evolved, or rather, not evolved since the renaissance. It touches on sour subjects like Caterina de Medicis’ passage to France and how that might have influenced French cooking, probably the most recognized cooking in the world. The leaves us on a question mark and certainly another volume from Buford that seems as passionate and as manic in his research about cooking than anything he has done before. The tone of this book is incredibly light and fun and describes with accuracy the culinary underworld, as Anthony Bourdain would say, and describes Batali as would Rabelais in all his excess and charms. In the end, Batali only seems like a jumpstart to Buford’s awkward quest that becomes a lot more entertaining than anything Batali has done. One more on the plus side, the food descriptions are mouth watering.