Heat by Bill Buford

Siena

That’s how it always goes. I’d been meaning to read Bill Buford’s Heat after seeing it seemingly everywhere: at Barnes and Nobles, on Amazon, via my Good Reads ‘Recommend For You!’ page. After my independent study tutor casually mentioned Heat — not because it was related to my topic, except peripherally — I ordered the book that afternoon.

Heat’s subtitle more accurately describes the book than any blurb: ‘An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany.’ Buford recounts his experiences working at various stations in Babbo’s kitchen. He describes his trips to Italy during which he served as an apprentice at a small country trattoria and at the Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop in Tuscany. Yet ‘amateur’s adventures’ doesn’t get to the real interest of the story. Rather than chart his own development in the kitchen, Buford tries to understand what drives people who love to cook; both in professional kitchens and in front of the stove at home. His own journey serves as a lens through which he introduces extravagant chefs, fresh pasta and Italian culinary history. Although you start reading about a home-cook’s experience in the alien world of professional kitchens, Buford’s story never limits itself to memoir.

Buford’s clear and funny writing makes Heat easy to love. He portrays larger-than-life personalities as surprisingly sympathetic in their reality. He presents specialised knowledge that appeals to both those who are and those who aren’t familiar with what he discusses. While cooking and food guides the narrative — indeed, most readers probably come to the book interested in Italian food — Buford ensures that our desire to know what’s going to happen to Batali, at Babbo, and in Poretta Terme keeps us reading. Our curiosity as to Dario Cecchini’s antics turns the pages, not discovering what Babbo’s pasta water looks like at the end of the night.

Yet Buford’s self-portrayal separates the book from the countless other kitchen-memoir/trying-new-things stories on book shelves. Buford puts himself on our side: he’s jut like us, bumbling through the kitchen, trying to improve his technique and gain confidence. He makes the mistakes we would make (do you know what a chiffonade is? Now can you carry it out in minutes?). Even as his skills grow, the reader never loses their connection with the narrator. Unfortunately, this bond is rare for memoirs, least of all kitchen memoirs. In a field where most books describe routines and processes that will forever remain foreign to the reader — are you really going to go out and drink with chefs at 2 am? — Buford’s story stands out. True, you won’t share Buford’s experience but you will share his point of view. And, perhaps, enjoy a nice bowl of fresh pasta cooked in plenty of salted water.

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