A lot of home cooks may wonder if they could make it as a
professional chef. For 99 percent of us, the answer is no. The
heat, the stress, the pacing, the extreme personalities one often
finds in a working kitchen --- not to mention the encyclopedic body
of knowledge required to work in a top-caliber kitchen --- combine
to form an environment in which only a few manage to thrive.
Bill Buford is among the one percent. He endured the years of hard,
sweaty, often repetitive work; the constant humiliation of being
the one in the kitchen who knows the least; and the burns, gouges,
scrapes and sheer exhaustion that go into the training of a
professional chef. HEAT is the story of his experiences working in
the kitchen at Babbo, Mario Batali's three-star New York City
restaurant. Buford is very candid about his rookie mistakes in
everything from complicated kitchen politics to the right and wrong
ways to cube a carrot.
Buford is sustained only by his formidable curiosity. He really
wants to know how to make tortellini by hand, the secrets of
Florentine beef, when the egg was first used in Italian pasta, and
what the big deal is about fennel pollen. In fact, he wants to know
these things so badly that having survived Babbo, he takes Mario
Batali's advice and goes to Italy to learn about Italian food. This
requires him to find Italian chefs who will let him learn in their
kitchens, again doing the lowest work for no money, until he knows
enough to be trusted. After several months working with a Tuscan
butcher, they let him touch a knife.
In Italy he confirms what Babbo had begun to teach him: that simple
things are the most difficult and take a lifetime to really learn.
Pasta, for instance, is just flour and water, maybe an egg, but
there are hundreds of variations and just as many chances to get it
wrong. If you manage to reach this point in the book and still
think that opening a box and using dried pasta is good enough, then
you should probably start over.
I read Bill Buford's first book, AMONG THE THUGS, certain that his
subjects --- England's football thugs --- would eventually beat him
to death. HEAT doesn't have that kind of tension or that tight a
focus. On the other hand, AMONG THE THUGS didn't make me want to
attend a football game, whereas HEAT did make me want to
Reviewed by Colleen Quinn on January 22, 2011