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Friday, June 23rd, 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

The Joy of Cooking

A review by Warren Bass

"Heaven sends us good meat, but the Devil sends cooks," mused David Garrick, the 18th-century English actor. What's especially impressive about this observation is that Garrick died in 1779, which makes it pretty unlikely that he ever met Mario Batali. Nevertheless, spending time with the hard-driving, hard-drinking chef behind New York's splendid Babbo would surely have confirmed Garrick's theory. From the dining room, fine restaurants seem to be temples of cultivation and taste, but behind the scenes, they often look more like a soccer riot. In fact, Bill Buford's last book was about soccer hooligans, and it's hard not to think that it must have been the perfect preparation for spending quality time with chefs.

In Buford's delightful Heat, Batali is perfectly cast as the ringleader to this kind of circus -- the sort of bruiser who, if he finds a sacred cow, is likely to serve it up medium rare. Chefs are "some of the world's nuttiest people," Buford notes, and Batali rules by sheer force of his personality over the tough, burly crew of eccentrics -- full of curses, bravado and liquor -- who produce Babbo's exquisite food. "Wretched excess is just barely enough," runs one of his mantras; he's Falstaff with a spatula. With thanks to the Almighty's central casting department, Batali is a big, rough, stocky man ("He has [expletive] big calves, doesn't he?" muses one of his mentors. "He should donate them to the kitchen when he dies. They'll make a great osso buco") with a wicked glint in his eye and a crimson ponytail that dares you to make fun of it. The altar at which the chef worships is consistency: "If someone has a great dish and returns to have it again," he believes, "and you don't serve it to him in exactly the same way, you're a [expletive]."

As this blunt language suggests, Babbo -- a famous Greenwich Village shrine to Italian food that sometimes inflicts Led Zeppelin from Batali's iPod on its patrons -- is not for the weak. "We're going to kill him," Batali chortles as he prepares a devastatingly intense seven-course tasting menu for an unsuspecting rival. Nor does he have time for those who don't appreciate his wizardry; at one point, Babbo's maitre d' returns a half-eaten plate of orecchiette, explaining that a diner complained that there weren't enough florets on the broccoli accompanying the ear-shaped pasta. As the kitchen crew peers at the offending vegetables, Batali sighs, "Nature isn't making big florets at the moment." He hands a new dish to a server. "When you give this to him," he orders, "please pistol-whip him" in a fashion that cannot be responsibly described in a family newspaper.

If this is enough to start to bring you under Batali's spell, you'll have some sense of what inspired Buford to write this charming, crazy book. While working as a top editor at the New Yorker, Buford was having a hard time finding someone to write a profile of Batali (whose Food Network show "Molto Mario" had made him an unlikely celebrity), so he took the gig himself. That led to a six-month apprenticeship in Babbo's kitchen starting in Jan. 2002; two months after that ended, Buford left one of the best jobs in magazine journalism to suffer more journeyman abuse.

That unexpected career lurch gives Heat its MacGuffin: Buford never directly explains why the chef's life seemed so irresistible to him, but he shows you, page by delicious page, why the whole enterprise is so seductive. There's the "simple pleasure" of doing something "as fundamental as the earth"; the "boyish longing" to shift from 23 years of editing into a job where one's days are "spent standing up"; and, perhaps most bluntly put, the hunger to join the Babbo kitchen's "roomful of adrenaline addicts."

As Buford moves from kitchen slave to line cook, there's no glamour to be found; it's "a long, arduous, confidence-bashing, profoundly humiliating experience." He stands a post above a grill station that, after five minutes, makes him think, "So this is what Dante had in mind." He overHeats so badly that when he crawls into bed in the wee hours, he continues "to radiate Heat, my insides a meaty something still cooking, my mind unable to stop the recurrent thought that this was my life: I'd become a sausage."

Much of what he learns has all the subtlety of a traffic accident. Amid an aria to the intoxicating mysteries of short ribs, Buford offers this advice about how to make a sauce: Take the "dense, aromatic, already highly extracted liquid" in which the ribs have been cooked, put it "on a burner and boil it to hell. Just torch it. Full blast. Lots of yellow-frothy melted fat will rise disgustingly to the surface." Making a real Italian ragù? Take a piece of meat and cook "the [expletive] out of the [expletive]." As he learns, Buford gets cut, scalded, jostled, bullied, set (briefly) on fire -- and hopelessly addicted to "the shoulder-rubbing edginess of the kitchen."

Heat focuses more on production than consumption; Buford is a lovely, precise writer about cooking, but he's often quite vague about eating. Taste is a notoriously hard sensation to convey in print, and Buford doesn't have the gift of an M.F.K. Fisher or a Ruth Reichl (in last year's Garlic and Sapphires) for summoning up foodie spirits from the vasty deep. His style is far closer to Anthony Bourdain's in his swaggering Kitchen Confidential: happily obsessed with a weird subculture, woozily in love with both cooking and the foul-mouthed, refined-palette world of the chef.

Heat lets readers share Buford's adoration for Italian food; one of the book's highlights is a show-stopping, hilariously insecure riff on the country's culinary neuroses, especially the endearing Italian fear that the French view them "as a tribe of amusing primitives." Buford was clearly already a rather impressive cook before he came to Babbo, but he becomes -- after stints in Porretta to learn how to make real Italian pasta and Panzano to learn how to become a real Tuscan butcher -- a truly exceptional one. Marinated as he is in Mario Batali's wisdom, though, he never quite fully absorbs the master's outlandish, exuberant worldview. At one point, Buford comes across a 15th-century Italian recipe for meatballs seasoned with cannabis, which inspires him to offer a learned little disquisition; Molto Mario, on the other hand, would have lunged gleefully for whatever it took to recreate the feast.

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