Travel literature review: Heat

Heat: an amateur’s adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford

Rating: 5 out 5

Reviewed by Kirsten Rawlings

'You learn by working in the kitchen', proclaims Mario Batali, a New York-residing, Italian-cooking chef, TV star and all-round hedonist. The author of Heat, Bill Buford, concurs: you have to be a slave, ideally to several masters, to learn the craft of cooking. So Buford joins Batali’s highly rated restaurant Babbo as an intern/kitchen slave, initially as research for a profile of the chef. But it turns out Buford wasn’t doing this just for an article; this ambitious but unskilled home cook wanted to learn the craft. Soon, Buford has quit his enviable job as fiction editor at the New Yorker to work full-time on the line at Babbo.

Though largely about Batali, Heat is not confined to Babbo. In an effort to 'know the man by knowing his teachers', Buford heads to Britain and the nutty, screaming, dyslexic genius chef Marco Pierre White, who trained Batali early in his career (an experience that fed the second chef’s hatred of French cooking); and to Poretta, Italy, where Batali learned true Italian cooking. In fact, Buford makes several trips to Italy and, as with his year-and-a-half stint in Babbo, it’s envy-inducing armchair reading. Italian cooking has to be learned by watching, he decides, so he has an immersive experience, staying with families who teach him multi-generational recipes and divulge the food-related ins and outs of the rural Italian lifestyle. One such apprenticeship is with Dario Cecchini, often described as the most famous butcher in the world, in Panzano, Tuscany.

Heat is many things, all of them brilliant. For one thing, it’s definitely more than a typical mid-life detour. It’s part biography of Buford (covering his pursuit of making food), part biography of Batali (covering his training in Europe, the making of his reputation in the USA and his not-insignificant personality), part how-to on restaurant start-up and management, and part discovery that 'cooks are some of the weirdest people on the planet'. Buford is a word guy, so Heat is also part history of Italian cooking and cookbooks, dating back to the 13th century.

An important part of the book’s appeal is the 'kitchen confidential' element - like any good behind-the-scenes book it has some fabulous exposé moments. A couple of tips to take away: don’t order pasta after 10pm; don’t expect your food to be cooked with love if you wander into a restaurant when the kitchen is closing; don’t trust the recipes in a cookbook from a famous restaurant; at least one cook has probably sweated into your food...

Buford begins as a tourist in 'the underworld of the professional kitchen' but at some point he crosses over from observer/writer to fully-fledged member of the Babbo kitchen. Self-deprecating throughout, he plays the part of the bumbling novice, all passion and no elegance with a knife. Never mind that he does pretty well as Babbo’s 'grill guy' and running its pasta station - and that’s all quite separate from his superb talents as a writer. As far as foodie memoirs go, Heat is up there with Bourdain’s early writing - less shocking but easily as readable, and way more likeable.

Kirsten Rawlings is a professional editor at Lonely Planet, and amateur cook at home.

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