Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford
Narrated by: Michael Kramer
Length: 12:17 (336 pages)
I ignored this very popular book for years because I wasn’t that interested in restaurant culture. I love food and cooking, but the day-to-day schedule of a line cook, preparing the same thing every day, wasn’t something I found exciting.
My assumption was that this would be the account of Bill Buford spending a month or two in a kitchen, waxing poetic about the strong work ethic and the screaming chefs, but it’s much more than that. He spent nearly four years working on and off in Mario Batali’s New York restaurant, Babbo, working with Batali’s former boss in London, and visiting Italy to apprentice as a butcher. That’s a level of dedication I didn’t expect coming into this.
I also didn’t know that this was partly a high-level biography of Mario Batali’s cooking life, from arriving in Italy for the first time as a youth to his rise to fame as a celebrity chef. He’s a chef that other chefs consider legit, but I’m somewhat unfamiliar with him and really had no interest to learn more. Buford’s descriptions also made him out as a bit of an asshole, especially at the beginning, which killed my enthusiasm somewhat.
But I quickly got over that, because this is a fantastic read. Buford’s an engaging writer who can easily transport the reader directly into the middle of a hectic kitchen or in front of a plate of spectacular food. I mentioned I wasn’t interesting in the restaurant side of things, but he really won me over. In spending so much time in Batali’s kitchen, he was able to move from station to station and really give the reader a sense of how a professional kitchen works. Each station has its own challenges and lessons, and I really enjoyed being able to see it from a newbie’s perspective. Restaurant kitchens are usually written about by veterans as they look back, but here we see it through fresh eyes.
I hate how romanticized the stereotypical screaming Gordon Ramsey style chef has become, which in most cases is really just macho posturing in an attempt to cover the fact that the chef has no business leading other people, and Buford does a decent job of not falling into that. In one chapter he has a sous-chef slapping food out of his hand over and over in an attempt to make a point that, honestly, doesn’t exist. It’s ridiculous and wasteful, and Buford doesn’t try too hard to turn it into a life lesson. He just presents it as it happened, which I appreciated.
A few reviews that I came across complained that the chapter-long digressions into food facts were too dull, but they were some of my favourites. I enjoyed the chapter on the history of pasta and the chapter researching when cooks started added eggs to their pasta dough. He presented them in a way that made you feel like you were following along with his research, looking over the shoulder of a foodie Indiana Jones as he digs through his father’s journal. Those chapters, and the chapters detailing his apprenticeship in Italy, were my favourites in the book.
I wasn’t completely on board with the premise of this, but Buford really won me over. His writing draws you in, and I loved the near obsession he has in his research. I’m hoping he writes another food-related book at some point.