Author: Bill Buford (Knopf, signed first edition $24.95)
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Reviewed by: Jamie Kornegay
For his profile of celebrity chef Mario Batali, New Yorker staff writer Bill Buford went to extremes, signing on as a "slave" in the kitchen of Batali’s three-star Manhattan restaurant Babbo. To understand Batali — famous for his own excesses — Buford had to understand Italian food. In the Babbo kitchen his great education began, as well as his friendship with Batali. Buford won a James Beard Award for his article, but that was only the beginning.
His new book, Heat, expounds on that article, and it is a remarkable case of full-submersion journalism. What begins as the story of a famous chef becomes the chronicle of the author’s quest to sate his own intellectual curiosity. Buford graduated to line cook at Babbo before following in his teacher’s footsteps, traveling to Italy where he learned from Batali’s mentor how to make pasta by hand. Ultimately he went beyond even Mario’s training and studied meat under an unlikely pair of Tuscan butchers, who taught him the simplicity and unwavering tradition of Italian cuisine.
"I didn’t want this knowledge to be a professional," Buford writes, "just more human."
Alongside the author’s journey, the reader is treated to a rich seasoning of kitchen lore and fascinating character studies of various chefs, both volatile and sage. Buford is expert at describing food preparation, working great recipes right into the narrative, and he shares a tremendous amount of knowledge about old-world Italian cooking. The result is a triumph of great food writing — instructive, entertaining, naughty, and sometimes gossipy, but always interesting. By the end, readers may feel as if they too know more about food and will approach the kitchen with a renewed passion.
An Interview with Heat author Bill Buford
For those who have yet to read the book, could you describe the contrast in philosophies you encountered between traditional Italian cooking and the Italian-American/celebrity chef culture?
Italian and Italian-American cooking are obviously related, but much more different than I’d expected. The difference might be summarized thus: in Italian American cooking, you want to add as much to the plate as you can—more meat balls, more sausages, more sauce, more cheese, hey, what about some mozzarella as well? In Italian cooking, you want to add as little as possible. The challenge is to locate a good ingredient and prepare it as beautifully and simply as possibly. This is especially true with seafood; there Bill Bufordare Italians who believe that a little lemon on your fish is ruining the dish. (If it’s good and fresh, why do anything at all?) So, the way to cook meat: first, you start with good meat, and then you grill it. Nothing else. Or a vegetable, an eggplant for instance: grilled then drizzled with good (that is, very good) olive oil and some lemon. You might serve your pasta with butter, but it’s only a little butter and, say, one leaf of sage (and only one). Even the pasta itself: it’s really just flour and eggs (but very good eggs). Italian cooking is all about the ingredients.
As for food celebrities: there are food celebrities in both Italy and America. Who knows why? It’s a kitchen moment all over the world.
You pull no punches describing your subjects in this book. What sort of reactions have you had from Mario and Dario?
Both men have been very generous. After reading the book for the first time, Mario confessed to being ‘suitably weirded out’ and he ‘couldn’t believe the access we gave you,’ but was full of praise. ‘It was,’ he told me later, ‘like standing naked in a room full of mirrors for twenty-four hours.’
Dario doesn’t read English, so I don’t know his response to the book yet. He did, however, read an excerpt that appeared in the New Yorker. (That is, the excerpt was short enough that someone could have translated the whole thing and read it aloud to him.) He was delighted to have his butcher shop recognized in the magazine and described at such length; and especially delighted to find descriptions of the people who work there. (Dario’s response is in a letter that I’m about to frame and hang on the wall above my writing desk.)
After your intense education in cooking, how does it change the way you eat?
I worked in various kitchens, pretty much without a break, for about three years. It amounted to a three-year cooking course. At the most elementary level, I just know how to make more things than I did before. Now, finally, I can go to a market—like the seasonal one in Union Square, here in New York—and look at what’s fresh and interesting and figure out how to make dinner. I’m not sure I had that kind of knowledge before. It seems utterly elementary and the kind of knowledge we should all have.
Are you more particular about the foods you eat and who cooks them?
I don’t care who cooks my food. I love to be cooked for. That’s more true now, now that I understand how kitchens work. There are few pleasures greater than having someone else prepare your food. Having said that, I make most of the meals in our home, and the only thing I’m particular about is probably meat. The difference between good and bad meat is alarming. You want to know where your meat comes from. You want to buy your meat from someone you know on a first-name basis.
What is your favorite Italian cooking book?
I like any Italian cookbook that seems like it’s the real thing: that is, inspired by real, lived experiences in an Italian kitchen. I love Mario’s books, and use them constantly. I especially like the very first, Simple Italian Cooking, simply because it is such a direct expression of the time he’d just had in Italy. But there are others. Benedetta Vitali’s Soffritto, which is available in English, because it captures the simplicity of Tuscan cooking. Or even a classic like Pellegrino Artusi’s The Art of Eating Well, also available in English. This is Bible of Italian cooking, written around the turn of the 19th century, and full of preparations that Italians follow to this day.
In the book you mention how your earliest experiences in cooking came from growing up in Louisiana. What similarities do you find in the home cooking styles of Italy and the American South?
The best southern cooking is agrarian. It’s the kitchen of the farm. It depends on the seasons and the health of the livestock. Italian cooking falls into two kinds, urban (the pasta of the Bologna, for instance, or the intense flavors of the Roman kitchen) and rural. Tuscan cooking is very rural, and, as such, as many basic affinities of the cooking of the American south: it depends on the seasons and the health of the local livestock.
How is cooking an art, like literature, painting, and music?
Generally, you can’t eat literature, painting, or music. The miracle of making food is that it is something made, created, even conceived, like an artistic object. But then it’s gone: after all, it’s just dinner.
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