July 20, 2006

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Heat: An Amateur's Adventures As Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, by Bill Buford (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 318 pages)

If I could do it all over again, I would have been a chef.

OK, actually, if I could do it all over again, I would have studied for my SATs and had someone explain salary negotiation to me. But in my more artistic moments, I indulge in some romantic ideas of chefdom. Having the resources of a restaurant kitchen available (ah, those pans, those grills). Being able to design a menu using only the freshest local ingredients. Spending my days turning raw ingredients into someone's special night on the town, their comforting luxury after a long day at work, their best meal ever.

Buford lives my dream by lending out his body and soul to Mario Batali — Mr. Molto Mario himself — and working for free in the kitchen of Babbo. The experience is grueling, humiliating and exhilarating. He is able to both slap down my fantasies of kitchen work (want to plan a menu? Buy a restaurant) and make me envious at the same time. The feeling of accomplishment when you work in a high-tension, highly competitive environment and manage to win a bit of praise from a temperamental boss is intoxicating. Buford, during his time in the kitchen, does lots of stuff wrong (when we are right there feeling the humiliation with him) but when he does a few things right, we feel the praise as though it were directed right at us.

In addition to the thrill of the kitchen, Heat is packed with all sorts of neat foodie secrets (like how you learn if meat is cooked properly or how you know when polenta is done) that are better than a dozen cookbooks. Buford is, as are many of us who run out to buy these foodie memoirs, an enthusiast but not by any means an expert. We learn along with him how to make and cook pasta (don't, for the love of all that is holy and sprinkled with grated parm, ever rinse your noodles after cooking). We learn the origins of the Italian food we know (the red sauce stuff) and the Italian food we sort-of know (the more authentic stuff Mario cooks and the even more authentic stuff from actual Italy). Buford becomes completely obsessed with the food, not just making restaurant-quality pasta but making homemade pasta of the highest quality. He looks in Middle Ages and Renaissance cookbooks, searching for the moment when egg replaced water in pasta recipes or the evolution of the Bolognese sauce. Buford tackles it all with a lust, not just for the food but for the knowledge, that draws the reader in. Without ever talking down to the reader, he explains even the most intricate food prep so well that after reading his passages about Babbo you feel like you could work a few shifts on the line as well.

For those of us who can't afford a season of cooking classes in Europe or to quit our day jobs and head to the Culinary Institute of America, Heat offers a low-budget way to fulfill our fantasies. A

— Amy Diaz


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