Reading: Heat

Heat book coverIt has actually been a while since I last put down Heat - or to give its full title, Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. It took me so long to write a review of it since I wasn't really sure what I felt about it.

As a designer, I was really first drawn by the cover. That melting "a" and "t" letters are understated yet to the point, and the bright yellow really draws the eye.

The author, Bill Buford, is a staff writer for The New Yorker. As you might expect the writing in Heat is of very high quality. It chronicles his adventures as an unpaid line cook at Babbo, Mario Batali's flagship restaurant, followed by other food-related adventures - all of which are basically detailed in the title.

It has a lot of fascinating details about the inner workings of a restaurant, specifically Babbo, as well as how people who work to bring great food to the table think and work. Since more than half of the book is about Babbo, a lot of attention has been made to that section, especially some of the more unsavory elements, such as Mario Batali going through the garbage and picking out ingredients for a dish that was later served to restaurant guests. If you are squeamish I guess that could put you off, but honestly if these things really bother you, don't go out to eat at a restaurant, ever. An important part of running a restaurant is about cost control and reducing waste, and an owner in particular is very conscious of that. (I used to work a few hours a week when I was in college, doing the bookkeeping and other paperwork for a restaurant in Manhattan. One day the owner discovered to his horror that the free employee lunch had almost more sashimi than was actually ordered by the paying customers. He cancelled the employee lunch for a while after that.)

There are lots of stories about the people themselves, in the tradition of Kitchen Confidential. I do think that Kitchen Confidential is a better book in that sense though, since it comes from years of observation by a true kitchen professional, versus a sort of embedded reporter for a few months. There is a very detailed portrait of Mario Batali though, so if you are a die-hard Mario fan you would love it. (If you are such a fan you probably already have the book anyway!)

In my opinion, Heat actually gets better in the second half, when the author goes off to Italy to first apprentice as a pasta maker, then under a crazy butcher who seems to have come straight out of the cast of some comic opera. He gets rather uncharacteristically whimsical in one chapter where he observes a confrontation between the butcher and his long-time rival, but it's one of my favorite chapters.

The big problem with the book is that throughout all the narrative, the writer himself is almost transparent. This is in total contrast to Kitchen Confidential, where the personality of Antony Bourdain oozes throughout for good or bad. Bill Buford goes to work for no pay (though it's possible he got enough of an advance for the book to compensate) at Babbo then the Italian pasta maker and the butcher, but his motivation to do so doesn't seem to go much beyond "I wanted to learn about food". That's fine - but it's somehow empty. Why would he put up with the sometimes hellish conditions of the cramped Babbo kitchen? What drives him to go traipsing around Italy in search of the perfect pasta or cut of beef? You do not learn anything at all about Buford himself. As a matter of fact, the whole book feels like a series of long stories straight from the pages of The New Yorker. This can be very good of course, but to me, it felt a little like a pie with a wonderful, rich, buttery crust filled with air.

It has a lot going for it though - all those details are pure porn for a dedicated foodie, as well as for a casual reader of simply good, if slightly dispassionate, writing. Also, we have the new, very hard to obtain, trendy food ingredient detailed here: fennel pollen.

From the last paragraph of the book, it seems like there will be a sequel to Heat, where the author pursues his quest for food knowledge in France. Perhaps there will be a bit more of Buford himself in there, so we can know why he is driven to learn more.

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