Sunday, July 23, 2006


What started life as a profile for the New Yorker of the star New York chef Mario Battali and his restaurant Babbo turned into a full time obsession for Bill Buford, the author of Heat. First he begged to be allowed to act as unpaid slave in the restaurant kitchen, then he followed this with trips to Italy to learn the arts of pasta making and butchery at the feet of the masters.

Buford, during his time in England as editor of Granta Magazine, developed something of a reputation. His exploits and appetites were legendary; mischievous, demanding, unreliable, he erupted roaring on to the English literary scene like a volcano. And the fire motif carries on throughout this book. The title (‘If you can’t stand the heat…’) is apt. The kitchen at Babbo appears as a searing hellhole. Battali himself is a presence on the edge, rarely seen, constantly felt. The workers toil in Hades, sweating, literarily, into the pasta water. Tempers fray, profanities are the accepted form of communication, dreams turn into nightmares. Buford negotiates all these dangers with his critical faculties intact, but his arms burnt, his fingers slashed, and, at one point, his clothes on fire.

That he returned time and again for more abuse is testament to the narcotic of the total food obsession. The excursions to Italy to learn the craft at source appear as pastoral light relief, with the master butcher, appropriately enough, expounding Dante to his customers. Buford, moving through the Circles of Hell, not only learns how to cook and butcher, he also forms new ideas about food and its provenance – it’s not fast food that has destroyed our appreciation of it, it’s big food, conglomerates that give the customer what the customer wants, even if the customer is sometimes not altogether – right.

This is a book with a real odour of machismo; the water boils and seethes, the knives slash and fillet, the oil splashes and burns. A man’s world. When women appear they are on the fringes, making delicate pastries, passing on the lore of their grandmothers, supporting their ever more crazy spouses and partners.

The word ‘berserker’ comes to mind. Berserkers, those most scary of all the Vikings, had a reckless disregard for their own safety, possibly having ingested quantities of amanita muscaria fungi to enable them to ignore pain and wounds. Heat suggests this full-on approach to the culinary arts, portraying a restaurant kitchen as nothing short of a war zone.

And then there are the filmic moments when everything seems to go into slow motion, and the whirring chopping browning blends into a zen motion and rhythm where fingers and hands and body move together in a fluid dance – probably a pasa doble. Maybe this – being in the zone – is what it’s all about.

As a roller coaster ride through the flames of hell it is a great read, often thoughtful and with huge educational value. This is what goes into the success of one great New York restaurant. Sitting in an English country garden I devoured it at one sitting.

Heat. An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford.

Jonathan Cape, London


Sam said...

wow - you should be a book reviewer. That'a an amazing write up. I am still only half way through the book and plan to review it at the end. But since I couldnt do such a good job, maybe I should skip the idea.

June said...

Oh Sam, that's so kind. Thank you.

Jeanne said...

Hi June

That's a GREAT review. None of the usual turgid stuff that one finds so much of these days - you had me on the edge of my seat! This is definitely going on my Christmas list ;-)

Susan in Italy said...

True, great writing, June. I wonder if Buford is the same guy who was interviewed on National Public Radio (little American cousin to the BBC) about his painfully gut-stretching bacchanal taste-trip to Italy. He tagged along with Batali et. al.

June said...

Gosh guys, you are too kind. Susan, I think it probably was BB - gut-busting seems to be the preferred prandial exercise with Battali, along with a couple of cases of wine!

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