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

by Bill Buford

Published by Vintage

336 pages, 2007






The Final Word on Preparing Polenta

Reviewed by Diane Leach

I learned many things from Bill Buford's Heat. The first is that I could never cook professionally. The second is how to prepare polenta correctly. But let us begin with the first.

Bill Buford arguably already led a life many would find enviable. Having started Granta magazine in the UK, he came to the United States and began working at The New Yorker, where he held the powerful post of fiction editor. But like many of us approaching middle age, he found himself longing to do something else. In his case, this something else was cooking for Mario Batali, he of Iron Chef, Molto Mario and a few dozen famous restaurants.

Buford sketches Batali's biography: a bad boy who does lots of drugs, drinks hugely, and eats like James Beard. After the requisite stints cooking for others, including the notoriously insane Marco Pierre White, Mario hits New York, where his
personality expands to fill the available space.

Batali allows Buford into Babbo's kitchen, and here the fun begins. Buford succumbs to verbal abuse, cuts, burns and long hours with a group of people straight out of Kitchen Confidential. He works for Elisa, a demanding taskmaster who trains for marathons on her days off. She yells at him about his knife skills and slowness, tossing his anxiously trimmed carrots and rolling her eyes at his general ineptitude.

And Buford is inept. Endearingly so. It's hard to read his description of preparing short ribs -- dropping the meat into a blazing pot, giving himself blisters atop blisters, until somebody hands him a pair of tongs -- without sympathetic fellow feeling. Or at least feeling better about your own less-than-Babbo skills. (This from a woman who recently reached into food processor blades to free a piece of bacon. You can imagine what happened next.)

Buford captures the rhythms of a restaurant kitchen: the singsong of orders, the mishmash of Spanish and English, the swearing, the sounds of food cooking at searingly high heat. You learn why you should never order pasta after ten p.m. (the pasta water) and why it is inadvisable to appear in a restaurant near closing time (if you are silly enough to need to be told).

And you learn why you, facing down 40 (eight months hence and counting), could never survive in a professional kitchen. Buford pulls eleven-hour-plus shifts, each filled with equal measures of hard work and humiliation. He must comport himself around angry, overworked people handling sharp knives and attending hot stoves. He works himself up from general chopping slave to the grill station, where the heat melts his chef's jacket to his skin. He must keep up even when slammed -- dish after dish coming in, an endless series of complex orders that must be prepared the same way every time.

Think for a moment about making a dish exactly the same way, over and over. I am not talking plain roast chicken here. Think, perhaps, about the chard dish I made tonight. It's a Paula Wolfert recipe, calling for chard, onions, garlic, coriander, dried red pepper, tomato paste and canned chick peas.

You're supposed to chop the chard and blanch it until soft. Meanwhile, pound the coriander, salt, red pepper, and garlic into a paste. Strain your chard. Now get a sauté pan and heat some olive oil in it. Add your onions, the spice mix, tomato paste, then the greens and chick peas in their liquid. Let this cook down. Serve at any temperature (if you can restrain yourself from consuming it all immediately yourself.) Add sliced lemon if you like.

Notice I left out amounts. I have prepared this dish three times, with only glancing attention to measures. Obviously this dish is not about tomato paste, so I didn't use too much. My husband dislikes onions, so I prepared them separately. I had no chickpeas, so I left them out. When the pan seemed dry, I tossed in a couple cubes of frozen chicken broth. I couldn't replicate what I did under threat of death. Fortunately, unlike Buford, I didn't have to.

Between bouts of kitchen slavery, Buford travels to Italy, where he scours medieval pasta texts, e-mails the secretary of the Roman pasta museum, and apprentices himself to Betta, the woman who taught Mario.

Betta has a large table, the right sort of rolling pin, and generations of women behind her. She teaches Buford with a mix of kindness, reluctance and amusement. In his spare time, he researches the appearance of egg in pasta, never locating, alas, the precise moment the egg assumed its role in this most sacred of foods.

Time passes -- weeks -- and Buford must return to New York, where he convinces his wife, Jessica, that another extended trip to Italy is necessary, this time so he can work with Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini. Jessica is understandably hesitant but finally caves, leaving me wondering about the wives of celebrity cooks. Anthony Bourdain jet-sets all over the place. Where's his wife, Nancy? At home in New York, watching American Idol? Standing in the shadows of Bourdain's camera crew? And what of Mario Batali's wife? I'm amazed the guy had time to marry, much less sire children.

But back to Italy.

Dario Cecchini is insane. Dante-quoting, screaming, and swearing, this is a fellow who doesn't care what you want. Never mind your pocketful of lira: you get what he has, and only if your approach suits him. He will think nothing of tossing you out. He is not interested in profit. Only meat. At dinner with his wife and Buford at a local restaurant, Cecchini throws an amazing scene, pouring a cruet of balsamic vinegar onto the floor, shouting, insulting the proprietor, throwing the menu not once, but several times. The seed of his rage? Insufficiently "Tuscan" food.

Fortunately, Dario's staff is less intimidating. The Maestro, an older butcher, offers a quiet foil to Dario's histrionics. Before a cow or pig he is an artist, expert with a knife. And Buford, incredibly, takes the reader through the Maestro's every slice, detailing animal muscle cuts, consulting sources, arriving at the amazing-but-true realization that butchery is a defiantly local art.

As for the polenta recipe, the secret is not the endless stirring your cookbooks advise. The secret is long cooking. As in hours, with the occasional whirl of the wooden spoon. Buford discovers this at a Nashville benefit, where he is helping the Mario Minions prepare a dinner for 200. A quantity of polenta is dumped into a pot of warm water and stirred. The cornmeal rapidly absorbs the moisture; more is added until "the polenta behaved as though it had quenched its thirst." Ever eager, Buford continues stirring, only to have the bubbling mass erupt onto his forearms (a painful event all polenta-makers experience), telling him, he writes, "I am not temperamental like risotto. Go on: cook the rest of the dinner."

How liberating. | June 2007


Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. She blogs at http://barkingkitten.blogspot.com. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.