What a great, great way to kick off Food Month!
In 2002, writer Bill Buford decided he wanted to see if he had what it took to cook professionally. Rather than going to cooking school, Buford talked his friend Mario Batali (of the orange clogs) into letting him work in the kitchen of his 3-star New York City Italian restaurant, Babbo, and Batali agreed. Thus would begin a journey that would take Buford from the kitchens of New York to the countryside of Italy, in search of the elusive secrets of good cooking.
Buford writes of the stress of working in a high-pressure kitchen, first as a prep cook, then at the grill, and then a brief stint at the pasta station, each with its own challenges and lessons. What Buford thought he knew about cooking was thrown out the window as he learned on-the-job knife skills, how to plate professionally, and how a kitchen works. He expertly chronicles the rise to fame of Batali, from unknown California chef to Food Network superstar. On Batali’s advice, Buford spends months abroad in Italy, learning first-hand from cooks who have been making pasta and butchering cattle for generations, using recipes and techniques passed down to them from family members. Throughout his journey, Buford learns a new appreciation for food and cooking as he hones his craft from the experts.
I loved this book, start to finish. It was very illuminating to read about what really goes on back behind the kitchen doors at a restaurant. I had no idea it would be so complicated to run a kitchen, how many people are involved (and how crazy some of them are!) and the long hours they work to make success happen. What appears to happen so naturally to us as diners takes a lot of coordination, talent, and personal sacrifice 🙂 His descriptions of the food throughout the book were so detailed. I could see almost every dish and wanted to eat many of them myself, or at least try to cook them. Sometimes I was laughing out loud. Buford’s description of Batali creating an over-the-top multi-course tasting menu for visiting chefs (jokingly remarking that they are going to serve him so much food that “we’re going to kill him”) was hilarious, as was the story of Batali slaving away for renowned British chef Marco Pierre White in a small British pub, shoving a shellfish reduction through a tea strainer to reduce it. I also loved the parts when Buford was in Italy, seeing how pasta is made by hand, or how cows are butchered, and the people he meets there, not to mention how differently people eat in other countries than we do here in the US.
In the end, Heat wasn’t so much about food as it was about the people who cook it and why/how they do what they do. It was fascinating. Even though I’m a picky eater and probably wouldn’t have eaten stuff like sweetbreads and sausage made with the pig’s intestines for casing, everything sounded delicious. Buford’s love for all things food definitely showed through in this book, and I wish there was more.