Heat: an amateur's adventures as kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker and apprentice to a b
Until four years ago, Bill Buford was the fiction editor of the New Yorker - in which capacity, I presume, he spent his days reading work by Lorrie Moore, William Trevor and John Updike. Such writers probably do not require much editing; I'm only guessing, but I imagine that all he had to do was give their prose a quick dusting, in the manner of a pastry chef who finishes a tart with a farewell kiss of icing sugar.
Before that, Buford was editor of the British literary magazine Granta. There, his job seems to have been more onerous. The manuscripts that landed on his desk required, at least in his opinion, hacking and sawing and stitching. In those days, he was more butcher than patissier; give him a fatty literary carcass and he would turn it into finest fillet.
Ignore my culinary analogies. What I'm trying to say is: he was a Words Man. Then something happened. He threw a dinner party, to celebrate the birthday of the novelist Jay McInerney. Among the friends of Jay's who were invited was the chef Mario Batali. In this country, Batali is not well known. But in America he is very famous indeed. He is the owner of Babbo, New York's best Italian restaurant. What is he like? Well, picture Gordon Ramsay high on grappa and Viagra, and swollen to the shape of a giant Edam, and you're halfway there. On the night in question, he turned up bearing a hunk of lardo, "the raw, lardy back of a very fat pig, one he'd cured himself with herbs and salt". This lardo changed Buford's life. Forget words. Where's the sauté pan?
A few weeks later, Buford gave up the day job and began working in the kitchen at Babbo. He was not a commis, nor was he a porter. He was a "kitchen bitch" - a rubbish chopper of vegetables, an even worse boner of ducks, and a wholly terrible griller of meat (it takes him what feels like months to become a "grill guy", and no sooner has he made it than he is temporarily fired for overcooking a rabbit). But he sticks with the heat, the bullying, the terrible pressure, and he learns - plenty. He is, though, on an odyssey now. His new skills, considerable as they are, are not enough. He decides to seek out some of Batali's mentors. First, to England, where he talks game with Marco Pierre White. Then, to Italy, where he learns the secrets of ravioli from a Tuscan cook called Betta Valdiserri, and the mystery of soppressata (this is like salami, only "meatier, fatter, bigger") from a crazed Panzano butcher called Dario Cecchini.
Summing up the book like this makes it sound as succulent as rare beef. But never trust a flowery menu. The truth is that a lot of the dishes served up here require an awful lot of chewing. The result of an obsession, Heat is too long by far; its author has been unable to leave anything out (and if an editor did set about it with a sharp knife, as I've heard, then he or she was far too timid). An account of making polenta - "it was shiny and cakey and coming off the sides" - goes on for pages; a description of the way carrots are chopped for a broth is on the lengthy side, too. Staff changes at Babbo, of which there are lots, are recorded in labyrinthine detail, and so seriously. You find yourself thinking: is this a Manhattan restaurant, or the White House?
There's some good earthy kitchen detail. For instance, Batali is a total rat when it comes to the restaurant's bins - always rooting for bits of food that his dumbo staff have wastefully chucked out. ("You're throwing away the best part of the celery! Writer guy - busted!") But, of course, thanks to Anthony Bourdain, the chef who revealed the stinky truth about Monday fish in Kitchen Confidential, this territory is not half so unfamiliar as it once was. Bourdain has a lot to answer for. Even as his book set out to demystify the commercial kitchen, it built it up as a place where only the most macho, most loony men could work - and Buford can't help but follow the same path. Heat, for all its learning and careful irony, is really only interested in one thing. This might be summed up, not very politely, as: look at the size of our dicks.
Whatever happened to the outsider scepticism of the journalist? Is he scared they won't let him join the gang? He has a veritable love-in with Marco Pierre White, a man most people tend to take with a hearty pinch of best sea salt (and yes, it is grouse - that most testosteronic of birds - that they eat together). As for the Dante-quoting Cecchini, he is treated like Moses just down from the mountain. A true butcher is a "disciple of carnality"; he "works in meat during the day and plays in flesh at night". Buford asks him what Tuscan food is. "The smell of the dirt, here, after a rain," he says.
Good grief. No one loves a properly made ragu more than me, but is all this Eric Cantona stuff absolutely necessary? Buford, like so many men, obviously thinks that it is. For him, I guess, the kitchen would be charmless without it: too domestic, too quotidian, too feminine. Don't misunderstand. I'm all for men cooking. I just wonder why they always have to make such a fuss about it.