Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: “Heat” by Bill Buford

Bill Buford is successful and happy in his career as a reporter when he befriends the famous New York chef Mario Batali. What was meant to be a simple interview spins out of control as Mario invites Bill to work for him. Untrained but eager, Bill begins work as a lowly assistant in the kitchen of Mario’s three-star Italian restaurant.

A classic comedy of errors ensues--but Bill’s perseverance and maniacal need to Understand Food sees him rise in skill and rank through the kitchen. He is sanctified (as it were) by the hellish fires of the grill.

Mario contemplates setting up the onetime reporter with a restaurant of his own, but Bill has caught the cooking fever. New York is no longer enough for him. He wants to go to Italy and learn where Italian food began. There are little old women in the hills with pasta-making secrets no one else remembers. There are butchers whose handling of meat is said to be operatic. Bill trades the typewriter for the filleting knife--perhaps for good.

  5 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)

The grill station is hell. You stand at it for five minutes and you think: So this is what Dante had in mind.
 One of you asked what it takes for a book to get a full five stars from me. Well, here's your answer! Heat became one of my favorites before I had even finished reading it the first time, and each reread entrenches it more deeply in my affections. It's a perfect serving of witty prose, evocative description, and character development, with a subject matter that catches and holds my interest.

In this case, that subject is food. And no one will ever love me as much as I love food.

The full title of Bill Buford's book is Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures As Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, And Apprentice To A Dante-Quoting Butcher In Tuscany. It's part memoir, part chef biography, part history, and all comedy. It’s a love letter to lovers of food and prose alike. It's an anthem for the ambitious but underskilled home chef who dreams of one day flipping a pancake without using a spatula, but in the meantime has batter all over their ceiling. The prose is rich and vivid, full of tiny sidelong winks of humor that has me rereading this book about twice a year if I can manage it, which is more than any other book I own.

The mood of the book shifts between dramatic and silly, which comes from the author's own mercurial moods and how much sleep he was getting at any given point in the narrative. Buford rhapsodizes over the smell of popping thyme, transforms into a human grease fire, and puzzles over the inherent goofiness of a culture that shapes all of its traditional fare (pasta) into little toy shapes.
Postage stamps, half-moons, moons, little ears, belly buttons: what exactly is going on? What over country serves up its national cuisine in the form of little toys? And what does that tell us, that Italians seem always to be playing with their food? Is the secret appeal of pasta, the world’s greatest comfort food, in its evocation of childhood? Must an Italian dinner always include a version of animal crackers?"
The chapters alternate between following Bill’s kitchen-slave misadventures, and tracing the training and history of the chefs for whom he works: Mario Batali, then Marco Pierre White, then Dario Cecchini, the butcher mentioned in the subtitle. If you aren’t that into food, but you are into comedy and good writing, I give you my permission to skip the history chapters and just follow Bill.

It’s hard to recommend a book by saying “It’s funny!” because that’s a terribly empty adjective. Trust me then, dear reader, that this book will make you grin. You will stalk around muttering “Po-LEN-ta!" You will try lighting your food directly on fire at least once. You will then foist the book off on your friends and relatives, as I am doing now. It’s a great, fast, fun read, a perfect vacation or a pick-me-up from dismal daily life.

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