By Deborah Bowers.
A few years ago Bill Buford, a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, invited super chef Mario Batali to a birthday supper for a friend. “What in the world were you thinking of, inviting a famous chef to our apartment for dinner?” cried his wife. But Mario Batali came, bearing homemade grappa, wine and a slab of lardo, which is the raw “lardy” back of a very fat pig. It was the first time Buford or any of his guests had eaten pure fat but assured by Batali that they would taste the miraculous diet of this very happy pig in each bite, they happily downed slice after slice of Mario’s lardo. And, as Batali predicted, they could taste the walnuts, apples and cream that the pig feasted on before he became lard.
Thus begins Bill Buford’s exhilarating book Heat or “An Amateur’s Adventures as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.” Buford convinces Batali to take him on as an apprentice in the Babbo kitchen, and then promptly quits his New Yorker job to make the leap from home cook to professional cook. Buford makes the distinction early on. A home cook can make a recipe several times but it might be slightly different each time. A professional makes the same dish over and over and it is exactly the same each time out of the oven.
Interspersed with the kitchen lore is a biography of Mario Batali and his route to cooking stardom.
As Buford?s skills improve, his passion for Italian food takes him out of the kitchen at Babbo to the source in Italy. At first, he only hopes to answer a one serious question: “When in the history of food on the Italian peninsula [did] cooks start putting eggs in pasta?” His quest takes him to the hill towns of Tuscany where he learns to make pasta and to properly butcher both pig and cow. In the course of these extended studies, Buford realizes that real, handmade food is disappearing as rapidly as you can say Big Mac.
Add Heat to your list of must-have food books. Don’t look for recipes. You”ll have to buy Mario Batali’s cookbook for those. But through Buford’s skillful narrative you’ll meet memorable characters, experience life in a restaurant kitchen and you’ll feel that you too might someday cook and eat such wonderful real food.
(Heat by Bill Buford. Vintage Books, paperback, $15.)