Book Review: Heat by Bill Buford

Heat, is a captivating account by Bill Buford of his journey from amateur to professional in the culinary world.  The book spans his entrance into the unknown at Mario Batali’s three star restaurant Babbo in New York city to his excursions to work with some of the finest chefs (including Marco Pierre White) and cooks in the world to gain an understanding of what food is and finally to work with tradition steeped culinary artists and tradesmen to understand what it represents beyond a briefly enjoyed source of nutrients, seeking to understand it’s essence.

I started reading it and wondered where it was taking me and what was going on. The immediate entrance into the life of a professional cook and the feelings associated with it are immediately felt not only through the writing, but the experience that is conveyed through it as your eyes pass over every word. As a reader I immediately felt what Buford was going through, reading terms that were unfamiliar, trying to understand cooking techniques that I have never used, trying to learn different stations, the pecking order in the kitchen, how meals were made and how recipes were created from a few simple ingredients . I found myself immersed in a new culture trying to keep up, every step of the way learning something new all with a very steep learning curve. Other new entrants into the world of cooking traditionally attend culinary school and gain an understanding of the kitchen and its tools. They become comfortable behind the line and working with others all before ever setting foot in a live do it now and do it right or go home environment. What Buford notices is that what tends to be missing from a formal eduction is an intimate understanding of food.

Buford starts with learning food and its preparation. Over time he gains mastery of the line at Babbo and other kitchens as once impossible tasks become practically effortless, part of his blood and soul. As he gains acceptance and transitions from a temporary worker getting his feet wet to a trusted and integral part of the team at Babbo he goes through a transformation. Preparing food is no longer something that must be learned but an extension of who he is and how he sees himself in and how projects himself to the world.

As I stated, a fascinating angle that the book takes is the breaking down of food to its roots and history learning from the masters. Buford follows the example of Batali and other great chefs and travels to Europe to understand how food is made by locals and their ancestors. He sets out to learn where it came from and why people make the food they do, learning about their past and how it is revealed and passed down from generation to generation, a form of history. He’s so obsessive with his learning he seeks to understand the smallest detail such as when eggs were introduced into the making of pasta. This education in contrast to a formal course of study is what allows one to understand food.

While in Italy he reflects that “without my fully realizing it, my mission had changed. When I’d begun this whole business-what I’d come to regard as my excursion into the world of the professional kitchen-I’d been a visitor. I’d been a tourist, and, like many tourists, I’d been able to throw myself into my journey with such abandon because I knew it would end. At Babbo, I seemed to endure abuse much more easily than others because this wasn’t my life. Now I wondered: had I stayed too long?” The desire to dig deeper and deeper into the roots of cooking and history become all consuming. His passion growing each and every day.

I hope that as I continue down this path of learning I am able to achieve enlightenment just as Buford has with the same passion and conviction that he was able to. Transforming from the desk drone to the passionate student is truthfully detailed in his account and yet through all of the abuse and sacrifice reward and peace are found in his life.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and can see myself reading its pages over and over reliving the adrenaline-rush filled moments followed by those of learning and understanding all while meeting interesting people along the way. This is a must have for amateurs and professionals alike.

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