Television is saturated with finger licking temptresses who answer only to the call of “goddess”, and men who see swearing and food preparation as a means to world domination. Do we really need another eulogy to these egomaniacs doing unspeakable things to our food?
Heat evolved from the author’s assignment to write a magazine feature on Mario Batali, New York’s most recognisable chef and TV cook, a man who gets through a case of wine over dinner and pops raw pig fat into the mouths of grateful dinner party guests. Meeting Batali has a profound effect on Buford, who is a former editor of Granta and a keen amateur chef. Without ever explaining how, he abandons his post at the New Yorker, joins the kitchen of Babbo, Batali’s flagship Manhattan restaurant, and works his way up from kitchen slave, to line chef, grillman and pasta maker. He follows Batali’s past, first to London and Marco Pierre White with whom the young American spent a tempestuous, abortive training, and onto Tuscany where he ends up losing himself in the traditions of rustic cooking. It’s not clear at first what the point is – is Buford seeking knowledge, fulfilment or just a good story about chefs? But soon you don’t care, such is the brio of Buford’s writing, his fine ear for dialogue and appreciation of character.
The engine room of the story is Babbo’s kitchen, a harsh, bitchy inferno redeemed only by the act of cooking and unspoken camaraderie. Of course, Anthony Bourdain has been here before with Kitchen Confidential, his depiction of chefs fornicating, fighting and overdosing. But where Bourdain’s prose was like someone pirouetting around an abbatoir with a chainsaw, Buford is more measured, offering the inquisitive view of a middle aged ingenu, which in the end gives us a better picture of how a great restaurant kitchen really feels. Everyone is constantly fighting for space; on Buford’s first day he is bumped forty times, his colleagues’ way of reminding him that he is bottom of the pile. He cuts his fingers, is burned – usually by himself but occasionally by the vindictive executive chef – is screamed at, sacked from the grill by Batali after undercooking the pork, told to walk round the kichen in circles holding a sea bass, has his food ritually wrecked, but despite the humiliation sticks in there for over a year, at which point he realises he has crossed over from tourist to insider.
As with Bourdain’s “never order fish on a Monday”, the tips, revelations and indiscretions flow thick and fast. The grill is a relentless blur of barked orders and repetitive efficiency, not unlike the McDonald’s production line; trays of meat rest on top of the dustbins due to lack of space; Batali fishes out from the rubbish bags celery florets, kidneys or anything else he considers valuable and serves them up for dinner; the pasta cooker becomes silted up with starch as the night goes on, lending the pasta a richer taste than you can achieve at home. But never order pasta after ten o’clock. By then the water has turned purple and is full of goat’s cheese, shellfish and squash from the tortelloni. Arriving late is a bad move as at a certain point, the kitchen loses interest in the customers and starts preparing its own “family meal”.
Making food in the Babbo kitchen has a raw, macho sexuality – “What else do you put in another person’s body?” one of the cook’s mothers asks Buford. It can go to ridiculous extremes, such as when the sous chef tells a female colleague that from now on portions of sweetbreads should be defined according to bra size: “Elisa, all the boys know the feel of a B-cup.”
Then there’s the long shadow of the New York Times critic. For weeks at a time, Batali and his staff are in a state of heightened alert waiting for her to drop by. Unbeknown to her, when she finally shows up, she is treated to the most experienced waiter plus a backup waiter, floor manager and two runners, with the normally absent Batali checking everything leaving the kitchen. Even the music is chosen with her rumoured taste in mind. She promptly awards Babbo three stars.
Away from Babbo we have Buford’s hilarious brushes with Marco Pierre White and, later, the elegiac sections on Tuscany. White nearly steals the show, dressed in muddy boots and a straw covered jumper, ranting like a lunatic about parsley, forgetting everything and everyone and leading Buford to decide that the process of cooking “seems more typical of how a child’s brain works than an adult’s…like learning to throw a ball.” Perhaps that explains Gordon Ramsey.
At first glance I had feared for Heat. It appeared to blend some of the most irritating modern phenomena: TV chef, self indulgent first person narrative, pretend midlife crisis, and foodie obsession. In fact, it’s a messy, brilliant book, a high brow kitchen soap opera, which never skates over the characters’ flaws but is suffused with an infectious love of food and the people who devote their lives to it.
Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures As Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker, And Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany
by Bill Buford
319pp, Jonathan Cape, Â£16.99
This piece appeared in the Daily Telegraph on July 15 2006