The November selection for the Kitchen Reader was Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford, and I chose it.
Buford is a staff writer for The New Yorker who set off on a journey to learn to cook. Buford describes himself as “an enthusiastic cook, more confident than competent.” Meeting celebrity chef Mario Batali through a friend leads to Buford becoming a stage (French pronunciation: “stazh”) in a Manhattan restaurant kitchen. His experience in the kitchen leads him to trace Batali’s own path through Italy to learn more.
“What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn’t want to be a chef: just a cook. And my experience in Italy had taught me why. For millenia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer’s knowledge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expression of their families. People don’t have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it’s true, those who do have it tend to be professionals–like chefs. But I didn’t want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.”
Buford’s chronicle of learning the ropes in a professional kitchen is absorbing. The tricks, skills, and politics are all described vividly as he learns to navigate the kitchen. The honesty with which he recounts his many lessons learned and compounding mistakes is compelling without feeling voyeuristic. I will definitely think back to these pages next time I eat at a restaurant. He doesn’t list recipes, per se, but a few guidelines for dishes appear here and there. At one point I set the book down midway through a paragraph to start making polenta according to Buford’s description — it was delicious.
Having survived a professional kitchen, Buford’s next destination is Italy where he spends the majority of the rest of the book. He learns to make pasta, studies the history of Italian culinary tradition, and apprentices with a Tuscan butcher. Most of all, he learns to work with his hands. “The hands, Dario says, are everything. With them, cooks express themselves, like artists. With them, they make food that people use their hands to eat.”
I really enjoyed the weaving of stories to make this into a cohesive book. At times it felt like some topics might be unrelated, but they always came back together and proved a point. While I am not about to throw myself into a restaurant kitchen, I appreciate the perspective (and the polenta technique) that the book offers and would recommend it.
Have you read Heat? What did you think? Check out The Kitchen Reader blogroll for more reviews.
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