Thursday, November 21, 2013

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen

Heat by Bill Buford
Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, by Bill Buford, first interested me because I really enjoyed his other book, Among the Thugs, in which he followed racist hooligan English soccer fans around Europe.  Buford has a fantastic way of immersing himself in a situation to understand what it feels like for people who make their lives doing something, but then he's able to step outside the box and share his insights with those of us on the sidelines in a very engaging, thoroughly entertaining way.

Heat has been on my bookshelf for a few years now, but I quite frankly don't know that I'd ever get around to reading it if it wasn't available as an audiobook download.  It's one of those books that sounded so good at the time  (Food!  Kitchens!  Drama!) but was never compelling enough to pull down off the shelf.  But when you get through about an audiobook a week (if not more than that), then it's much easier to commit to reading a book you're unsure about because, well, you have to do something during that commute.  And so I finally read Heat, and I'm quite happy that I read it as an audiobook.

I thought this book was about working in the kitchen at one of Mario Batali's kitchens.  While this interested me in a general way because I like books about food and really like to eat yummy food, Mario Batali himself was no draw for me.  I don't know much about him and while I like Italian food, I don't CRAVE it in the way that I crave Indian or Thai or sushi.

But Mario Batali is only one eccentric in a whole cast of memorable characters, and Buford's experience at Batali's restaurant only makes up part of this book.  Batali is hardly the main character.  There are many others who are larger than life than he is.  And Buford writes about them all so well.  He is so great at capturing someone's voice, to show just how passionate and earnest they are about something like how to cut meat well, even though when you think about what they're saying and how much time is being spent explaining a very obscure subject, you realize that there's a level of obsession and perhaps instability involved, too.

I appreciated getting a glimpse of life on the line in the kitchen at a major restaurant.  As I suspected, it is not glamorous, but exhausting.  I can't even imagine working at a restaurant.  You work while everyone else is out relaxing and celebrating, and when everyone else is out living their lives, you sleep.  Or prep.  There are no sick days.  There is very little thanks - all the credit goes to the celebrity chef, who often isn't even in the restaurant.  And the pay is pretty appalling.

But even with all those negatives stacked up against it, Buford makes clear that working in a kitchen is a team environment and that there are exhilarating highs and crushing lows experienced as part of that.  I really enjoyed learning about how he graduated from someone who chopped carrots (incorrectly) to someone who could tell when a dish was done just by smelling it.  So much about cooking now has been made into some sort of contact sport, complete with ridiculous ingredients, intensive preparations and instant replays.  But here we see that cooking is about satisfying a basic human need in the best, most memorable way possible, and just how gratifying that can be.

Buford also spends a lot of time in Italy learning about how to do things "right."  I found this section of the book very illuminating.  Italy is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, and while I love a lot of what Slow Food stands for, it also has a troubling xenophobic zeal, in my opinion.  Only eat what's grown locally because that's what is best.  The recipes that existed centuries ago are the ones that are truly Italian.  We are at danger of losing our heritage if we don't cook what was made here by our ancestors.  What I find exciting in the food world today is the way people can bring together their own diverse experiences and backgrounds to create something new.  Slow Food is, at its core, against that.  And this really came to life for me in Heat, in which Buford describes a man who gets angry when he sees balsamic vinegar on the table of a restaurant in Tuscany.  Why?  Because balsamic vinegar is from Modena, not Tuscany.  He doesn't even want to drink wine that originates from anywhere but Tuscany.  Ugh.  I think I would have thrown something at him.  Probably balsamic vinegar.

But the man had passion, I'll give him that.  And Buford brought it wonderfully to life in this book.  He also showcased so much of the excitement and heartache of working in the food business.  And he is a great audiobook narrator, with a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor and the ability to poke fun at others while understanding what drives them.  If you enjoy food and food writing, this is a good one!

6 comments:

  1. That's an interesting point about the Slow Food movement - I think it's important to know where you food comes from and support locally grown / made food if you can, but at the same time, taking it to ridiculous extremes like that guy's tantrum about the balsamic vinegar is just . . . wow.

    That story slightly reminds me of an incident described in a memoir I was reading recently called Silver Like Dust by Kimi Cunningham Grant. It's not a food memoir, but Grant recalls how her Japanese-American mother was dismayed to find a Chinese brand of soy sauce in Kimi's refrigerator. Later Kimi found the soy sauce had been replaced by a bottle of Kikkoman's.

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  2. Although I don't read a lot of foodie books, this sounds like a great read. I've never heard of this author, but it seems like he is one I should check out!

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  3. Whee! More foodie non-fiction for my wishlist!

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  4. No sick days? That's disturbing.

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  5. I don't read a lot of foodie-type books, not being a big food person myself (weird thing to say, I know, but there it is) -- this sounds really interesting though! I love hearing about jobs that I will never have myself, and the culture of those kinds of jobs, etc.

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  6. I think this was the first food memoir I ever read, and it totally hooked me on the genre. I bet it was fantastic in audio!

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