Bill Buford – Heat
Read By: Michael Kramer
Length: 12h 12m (318 pages)
Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir
Started: 22 February 2012
Finished: 08 March 2012
Where did it come from? The library.
Why do I have it? I like foodie books and chef memoirs, so I was all over this.
I’ll be classy and
resist the easy “…get out
of the kitchen!” pun.
Summary: Bill Buford managed to turn a journalistic assignment on superstar chef Mario Batali into a chance to work in the kitchen of Mario’s NYC restaurant Babbo. He’d always been an enthusiastic cook, but he soon discovered that working in a restaurant kitchen is not at all the same thing. But as soon as he gets his bearing as a prep cook, and eventually as a line cook, he starts getting hungry for more: more food, more techniques, more authenticity, more history. He then travels to Italy, following more-or-less in Mario’s footsteps, to learn how real pasta is made, and to learn from the last in a long line of small town butchers about Italian meat.
Review: Kitchen Confidential introduced me to an entire sub-genre that I didn’t know I’d been missing: the restaurant/chef memoir. And, fairly or unfairly, it is the standard to which I compare all other entrants in the genre. Fortunately, Heat stands up to the comparison fairly well.
There are some things that I think Heat didn’t do as well as Kitchen Confidential. As a portrait of a celebrity chef, it’s certainly interesting, but less immediately compelling, presumably because it’s written about Mario rather than by him. (Also possibly because I like Bourdain – as a personality – more than I do Batali.)
There are some things that Heat does about as well as Kitchen Confidential. As a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant world, it’s certainly not as thorough as KC, but it does have the benefit of being seen through the eyes of someone who is not a restaurant professional, thus making it easier for the reader to imagine themselves in the middle of that world. And the individual anecdotes are just as good, but I could seriously sit and listen to tales of chef-ly hijinks and bad behavior and food preparation all damn day.
There are also some things that Heat does better than Kitchen Confidential, mostly when it varies from formula and away from the restaurant. Buford’s got a passion for food, clearly, but also for food history, and I found that his digressions on the subject – his obsession about when pasta dough first started being made with eggs, for example – were totally fascinating. I dare anyone to read the later sections of this book and not immediately want to jet off to Italy and beg someone to take you in and teach you about real food.
Buford’s writing is drily witty at the same time as being cheerfully enthusiastic, and while the book is structured roughly linearly around Buford’s various apprenticeships, there are frequent diversions and tangents – not only the pasta history one mentioned earlier, but also pieces of Mario’s backstory, visits to England, a polemic about the proper cooking of polenta, etc. The bad news is that this meant that if I got distracted, I could often wind up a little lost, and that I had a hard time keeping all of the other kitchen staff straight, since they would disappear from the narrative for chapters at a time. The good news is that when I did get lost, it didn’t really matter, since there wasn’t really a plot to keep track of, and a new topic would be coming along soon anyways. Michael Kramer did a fine job with the narration, although hearing first-person memoirs read by anyone other than the author always takes a little getting used to.
Overall, while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Kitchen Confidential, that’s a high bar to clear, and it was definitely a solidly enjoyable listen. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: Recommended for foodies, those who like behind-the-scenes-style memoirs, and those who are both and looking for something else to read after finishing Kitchen Confidential.
First Line: The first glimpse I had of what Mario Batali’s friends had described to me as the “myth of Mario” was on a cold Saturday night in January 2002, when I invited him to a birthday dinner.
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