At a time when celebrity chefs proliferate faster than pop stars and menus have become as dense as Russian novels, Americans, in a less-than-delicious irony, know less and less about where food comes from and how to prepare it. But not for long, as Bill Buford has arrived to chew the fat in delightful fashion, skewering conventional cooking wisdom while enjoying (enduring?) several nerve-racking apprenticeships.
In Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, getting out of the kitchen isn't an option. Even when the frayed nerves and tempers of professional chefs and cooks begin to hiss and steam, Buford refuses to remove his apron. (Except, that is, for one memorable occasion when said apron catches on fire in a Tuscan butcher shop.)
A self-described foodie with kitchen ambition beyond reason, Buford set out to solve the riddles of pastas, meats, vegetables, and seasonings – and became even more obsessed as he did so.
His coach, mentor, and, yes, warden is Mario Batali, a garrulous, demanding man who proves to be a dazzling character. Batali is lively, lewd, and shrewd. Everything about him is excessive, starting with a fixation on food-rescue that often leads him to dive into the kitchen trash and fetch bits and pieces of meats and vegetables suitable for creative, if overpriced, menu specials.
When he isn't downing cases of wine and copious quantities of every course imaginable (and some not), Batali rides herd on his staff, whips himself into a Food Network celebrity and makes guest appearances at a relentless pace.
Buford, a veteran writer and editor for The New Yorker, benefits from Batali's bombast as well as his own wry mixture of zeal and self-flagellation. The author's culinary odyssey begins when he convinces Batali to hire him as a kitchen slave at the chef's ultra-hip Babbo restaurant in New York.
Buford is a highly unwelcome addition to the kitchen staff. He doesn't even make it to the chopping block (his first assignment is helping with the staggering food preparation early in the day) before engendering scorn and abuse.
Being a novice in noshville often leaves Buford in the futile role of mixing (olive) oil and water. Babbo's kitchen is suffused not just with the heat of ovens, grills, and sauté stations, but also the searing strains of ambition. Everyone on the staff, from dishwasher to line cook to sous-chef, dreams of becoming Batali.
When Buford finally lands a coveted slot working the grill during a dinner rush, he finds the adrenaline overload exhilarating and exhausting at once.
"Again the ticker tape," he writes. "This was starting to feel like a sporting event. Sweat was running off my nose, and I was moving fast, as fast as my concentration allowed, flipping, turning, poking, being burned.... My mind was at full capacity, with only one stray thought, a question, repeated over and over again: What happens if I fall behind?"
At times, Buford's kitchen confidentials devolve into tedious bouts of gastronomy-gazing. Conveying the basic history of pasta and its importance in Italy is fine. Noodling in pasta's infinite varieties and fixating on when eggs became a vital ingredient in making the stuff? Not so much.
These gripes, though, are small potatoes. If Buford's account flags a bit in the middle, it rallies when Dario Cecchini, the Dante-quoting Tuscan butcher of the subtitle, strides onto the stage.
As a final exploration, Buford decides that he must learn the innards (and outs) of butchery. He journeys to a village of 900 people and enlists with Italy's most famous (and eccentric) butcher. Cecchini makes a new man of Buford, who returns to New York and acquires an under-the-table whole pig for practice.
As Buford drags the dead pig through a New York City market and into his apartment elevator, a neighbor looks away in revulsion. "The implication," Buford writes, "confirmed what I knew but was reluctant to acknowledge: people don't want to know what meat is."
Painfully true. But as for "Heat," its meaty morsels will leave most readers pining for a second helping.
• Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.