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

Last year I read (and very much enjoyed) Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. It tells the story of her adventures as the New York Times food critic.

That book probably got me thinking about food and restaurants a little bit more, and I noticed Heat by Bill Buford, which was on the New York Times bestseller list last summer. I was wandering the stacks, looking for new books to read, and I saw Heat and took it home.

Heat is not as lighthearted as Garlic and Sapphires, but it’s still a very interesting and entertaining story. Bill Buford, because of an interest in food, asks Mario Batali if he can be a “kitchen slave” in his restaurant, Babbo. And that’s where our story begins.

One of the reasons I’d stayed away from Heat is that I thought that it was about the kind of chef who screamed and threw things. There are a couple of times that Mario gets angry, but mostly he is of the opinion that that’s not the kind of atmosphere he wants in his kitchen. Instead, we learn about the ins and outs of a restaurant kitchen – what the prep looks like, how long it takes, what kinds of people work in a kitchen, the different positions in a kitchen that go together to create your meal. A lot of the book is about the different personalities that Buford encountered, as well as his desire to actually figure out what he is doing.

From there, we find that Buford actually does learn enough to actually be a line cook at Babbo, one of the team who actually prepares the food. Then he decides he wants to know about pasta, how it’s made, so he travels to a small town in Italy and learns from a master. From there, he decides to learn about meat from a butcher in Tuscany. His time with the butcher had him thinking about many things I’ve been considering, too – are we hurting ourselves and the planet by demanding that all food be available to us all the time? What’s the balance between the regulations that are meant to protect us and the high-quality food that is available in places with fewer regulations?

Heat is a little more dense than Garlic and Sapphires, and a few times early on I had to put it down and take breaks from it because I needed to absorb what I’d read. At the end, though, I thought it read better in larger chunks than when I read in a stolen minute here and there. I wouldn’t say that I felt a deep connection with this book, but the narrative was clear, and I wanted to know what would happen, what else Buford would learn and experience. I also appreciated the discussion of food, not just what I mentioned above, but also how the food was prepared, what makes restaurant food different than what I can prepare at home, what little tricks he learned. So even if I didn’t connect with this book on an emotional level, it was interesting and thought-provoking, as well as just plain entertaining.

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