When I tell my friends I enjoy reading "food writing" they often scrunch their faces and look at me funny. Oh, it's easy enough to dismiss "food writing". I suppose in part it's because, for many, the genre is associated exclusively with recipe books. But as all good foodies know, food writing is much, much more than recipes (and in a lot of instances there are no recipes to be found!). The best food writing isn't just about cooking and eating. It's about connecting the food we eat with life, culture, art, philosophy and, most importantly, the people around us. The best food writing humanizes the process of making and enjoying food.
The only problem with good food writing is that it can be hard to find. I can count on my fingers the authors whose books in this genre I have thoroughly enjoyed. So it came as a pleasant surprise when I was given a copy of Bill Buford's book "Heat" last month. The biggest surprise was, upon finishing the book, realizing that "Heat" is hands down one of the best books on food that I've read in recent years.
The story begins with a dinner party hosted by the author. Buford invites famed chef Mario Batali (the two shared a mutual acquaintance) over to join in the festivities and the two immediately hit it off. Buford expresses an interest in learning more about cooking by working in a professional kitchen and Mario agrees to take him on as an intern and show him the ropes at his popular Greenwich Village restaurant, Babbo (Italian-inspired food, of course!).
Thus begins the first half of the book in which Buford experiences firsthand all the chaos, sweat and hard work that goes into making a successful restaurant kitchen tick. He starts as a prep chef in the morning and eventually works his way up the line at night. First as an assistant and then making a slow circuit through all the various stations: grill, sauté, fish and pasta. Through his neophyte eyes we learn about the social microcosm of the restaurant: the friction between the morning and the night crews, the strange nature of pastry chefs (they always seem to be the odd ducks in the kitchen hierarchy) and the critical role of the Latin American workers in the kitchen. The book is enlivened by all the cast of quirky characters. And the world of professional cooking seems at times, almost like Hollywood. Working the line is just a stepping ground for chefs with bigger dreams of starting their own restaurants.
Buford alternates chapters early on between these experiences at Babbo with biographical chapters on Mario Batali. We learn all about the celebrity chef: about his upbringing (suburban Seattle) his first culinary experiences (pizza joint in New Jersey) and his early training in Italy and his personal views about food and cooking (loves Italian food, hates anything French). We observe his rise from food nobody to global food titan and Food Network television star. Batali comes across as a Dionysian figure with a huge appetite for food, wine and partying (but it's abundantly clear that Buford has nothing but admiration for the man).
The second half of the book sees Buford leave Babbo to spend time at a restaurant in Tuscany where Batali apprenticed early in his career. Buford spends two significant periods of time in Italy. During his first trip he tries to uncover the secrets of pasta. Upon his subsequent trip he learns everything there is to know about meat from the man who taught Batali's father, Armandino, the butcher's trade.
It is in Italy that Buford experiences the epiphanies that make "Heat" such a joy to read. The first half of the book emphasizes the business and craft of food. The second half emphasizes the soul and art behind the cooking. When I first read the book, I had seen it the other way around. I had assumed that Buford's forays into restaurant cooking would teach him the "art" and "soul" of cooking. But Buford's emphasis throughout this portion of the story is heavily weighted on the business and marketing considerations that drive Batali. Sure, there's soul behind this food, but at times it seems that Mario's too preoccupied with the number of New York Times stars Babbo has or with how to make the business more profitable or even how to promote himself on the Food Network. It's not that Mario doesn't love cooking, but he also has a brand to develop. Contrast this with Buford's experience in Italy. In Italy he experiences the same recipes learned by Batali. But here there is no media fanfare over these dishes. Their quality and preparation are expected. The restaurant is not the sole province for fine food. In the home the food is made painstakingly by hand and the attention to detail and quality standards are no less rigorous than in Batali's kitchen.
This notion is reinforced by the fact that Buford's Italian mentors do not view their operations first and foremost as businesses. Case in point, the butcher Buford works for, Dario, takes umbrage at the idea that he is running a business. To this Italian butcher, food is life. At one point he goes so far to tell Buford "I do not want to be Mario Batali... I am an artisan. I work with my hands. My model is from the Renaissance. The bodega. The artist workshop. Giotto. Raphael. Michelangelo. These are my inspirations. Do you think they were interested in bizzness?"
And so by book's end Buford returns full circle. He had embarked on a journey to understand fine food by interning at one of the most celebrated restaurants in New York City. But Buford's biggest food revelation only comes when he returns to the roots of the food he's cooking by journeying to Italy. And, as he discovers, it's not so much the place that's the thing but the process and the attitude behind it. And the central conflict is that of modernity versus tradition, manufacture versus tradition, fast versus slow and flash versus soul.
Buford comes down firmly in the corner of soul, tradition and the handmade. And the optimistic point that Buford's trying to make, I think, is that we are all capable of this. Yes, Batali can capture it, but so can the Italian grandmother in a poor country town. In fact, we can all aspire to experience transcendent food in our own homes, we only need seek it out and take the time to engage with it. Perhaps an obvious point in hindsight but one that often gets lost among all the noise, fast food, modern appliances, conveniences and (dare I say it) celebrity chefs foisted upon us by the modern world. It's an important reminder and it's the biggest reason why "Heat" is such a worthwhile read.
Heat is available in the following formats:
Hardcover - Large Print
David Papandrew loves all foods but is especially fond of roast lamb, winter squash, stews and chocolate chip cookies. When not cooking he spends most of his time working on fanpop.com.}?>
Heat by Bill Buford
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