three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
24-Sept-Oct-2006
By: 
Bill Buford
user_rating: 
0

An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany

A-HeatWhat convinced Bill Buford to leave his enviable post as fiction editor at The New Yorker and start at the bottom rung of the restaurant industry? Was it the thin slices of lardo (pork fat) famed chef Mario Batali placed on the tongues of party guests at Buford’s house? Or the drunken 3 a.m. salsa dancing by the same Food Network celebrity? Whatever clicked that night, Buford fell in head first, enduring the scalding, scolding, and outright insanity of Batali’s kitchen at New York’s esteemed Babbo. He then jetted off to Italy to learn the secrets of fresh pasta and proper butchering. Taking to cookery with the zeal of an insider, Buford "stopped being an author writing about the experience of the kitchen" and became "a member of it."
Knopf. 318 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1400041201

NY Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is part memoir, part biography, and part tutorial, and its deftly intertwining narratives include everything from high-end restaurant gossip and kitchen secrets to a passionate homage to the rapidly declining traditions of handmade food." Julia Reed

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Exuberant, hilarious, glorying in its rich and arcane subject matter, Heat is Plimpton-esque immersion journalism—an amateur bumbling among the adepts—but it also has much in common with spiritual autobiography, especially that genre in which the student’s epiphanies are generously interspersed with drudgery, abasement, and humiliation at the hands of mercurial, possibly crazy gurus." Michelle Huneven

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"What has stayed with me even more than the kitchen soap operas are the quiet revelations Buford discovers as he studies while he chops and cooks and hammers. … This is better than the journalism of most of the book. It’s the lovely, gentle chronicle of a man in the whirl of a particularly pleasant form of mid-life crisis." Matthew McAllester

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"In Mr. Buford’s portrait, Mr. Batali is a combustible mix of high-testosterone swagger and outrageous appetites, generous, maniacal, bullying, foul-mouthed—part genius and part madman." Moira Hodgson

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"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." Warren Bass

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"In the Babbo chapters, Mr. Buford hits his marks. … Elsewhere, he succumbs to what might be called the New Yorker fallacy, the belief that absolutely anything, if reported on in exhaustive detail and presented in glossy prose, will fascinate." William Grimes

San Diego Union-Tribune 1.5 of 5 Stars
"When he’s not butchering a whole pig in his apartment or rolling pasta into thin, translucent sheets, Buford turns officious researcher, hunting tirelessly for that critical time in Italian history when eggs were first used in pasta dough. It’s a subject that understandably leaves the Italians—and us—unmoved." Neal Matthews

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram 1.5 of 5 Stars
"In a food word, Heat is overstuffed—and Buford’s organization of all of these disparate elements is often very confusing. The book takes one detour after another … [and] reads more like a collection of intriguing anecdotes than a thought-through work of nonfiction." Christopher Kelly

Critical Summary

When great reportage meets a great subject it’s a recipe for success, and Bill Buford, a staff writer at the New Yorker, rises to the occasion. As in his previous book, Among the Thugs, on soccer hooligans, he revels in his cast of alpha males, especially "Falstaff with a spatula" (Washington Post) Mario Batali. Heat doesn’t fit neatly into a category: it’s a hearty helping of immersive journalism with a dash of Batali biography and a pinch of gastronomic history tossed in for good measure. This suits most critics fine, since they’re content to tail along with a writer (and butcher) of Buford’s skill; however, a substantial minority of critics felt the book faltered whenever Buford strayed too far from Batali’s orbit. They felt they didn’t need to see another writer slowly realizing that the process of producing food has become too industrialized. No doubt the crew at Babbo would be glad to devise an appropriately sordid meal just for them.