Heat is possibly my favourite book ever written, and certainly my favourite on the subject of food. This qualification feels reductive: all great books contain more than and transcend their subject matter. So – yes – this is loosely about first-hand experience of trades related to cooking, or food: an account of Bill Buford’s time as a “kitchen slave, line cook, pasta-maker and apprentice to a butcher in Tuscany”, as the cover will tell you. But it is also an underdog story as compelling as anything found in sport (that comma betokening the transition from kitchen slave to line cook contains multitudes); an account of obsession; a meditation on how industrialisation is encroaching on the old ways, and whether the old ways are worth protecting in the first place.
It’s autobiographical, but layers a host of supporting characters into its weft. Mario Batali, first and foremost, for whom the book acts as a hagiography of sorts, but also Marco Pierre White, the fearsome master butcher Dario Cecchini, and many other deftly drawn portraits. For a book so relatively short, it is astonishing how many rich, distinct, tangibly human stories Buford is able to tell: the full cycle from a baby being born, to a deeply unhappy man’s lonely suicide. We get accounts of dinners at some of the best restaurants on earth; we also get an unflinching look at the reality of the New York labour market – largely Latino, largely undocumented – that exists in the shadows, ensuring your pappardelle arrives perfectly al dente.
Buford himself is the single touchpoint that links all these stories; inadvertently, in his search for the nucleus of what he calls 'the myth of Mario', he follows the journey of food (the now-hoary cliché of the farm-to-table supply chain) in reverse. We begin at the restaurant Babbo, where veal shanks are braised for hours in Barolo; we end at a macelleria in Tuscany, where animals are broken down into both a host of arcane cuts known only to Dario and the Maestro, and stalwarts from your butcher at home: neck, shoulder, trotter, and shank. On the way, we get a sense of just how many processes food goes through, and the work this involves: the daily agony of the sfoglina with her mattarello; the effort that goes into making just the marinade for that brasato al Barolo; the decades of accumulated knowledge of and familiarity with the flesh of a cow required to discern a campanello (me neither) from a girello (still me neither).
As well as seeing what happens to food on its way to people, Buford captures what happens to people when they think about food, outlining all of the many ways that food can mean. To some, food is sex, be it stereotypically virile (Gordon Ramsay, in quotation: cooking is like “having the most amazing hard on, with Viagra sprinkled on top of it”) or a subtler sort of seduction (a lengthy excerpt from Jonathan Reynolds’ monologue Dinner with Demons breathily describes a menu of shrimp Rothschild, tournedos Rossini, and an impossibly phallic desert called Le Talleyrand, after which Reynolds warns “things can get very moist”). The book starts with food as the very epitome of hospitality and friendship, Batali bowling into a dinner party with armfuls of wine and a block of lardo, which he then slices very thinly and places onto the other attendees’ tongues “with a startling flourish of intimacy”. The book closes on an anguished Dario, who flails against the dying of the light, the growing bastardisation of the food of his beloved Tuscany, the rapacious encroachment of “bizzness” on his what he refers to as his “works” (Dario: “I am repelled by marketing. I am an artisan. I work with my hands. My model is from the Renaissance”; Buford: “something, somehow (call it, once again, the twentieth century) went badly wrong, almost everywhere, as though great stretches of the globe had been inexplicably afflicted by a gastronomic amnesia and forgot that beef came from a cow, an animal that, like all animals, needed to be treated well”). The thesis is simple: food can be anything to anyone; or, put another way: food is everything.
To a 19 year-old brought up in a country still breaking free from a post-rationing fug of Puritanism when it came to this particular subject, Heat represented permission: to think about this stuff, to care about this stuff, to write about this stuff. It also represented a swoon-inducing love letter to Italy, a country that I had never, at 19, visited – I bought the book in an airport WHSmith on my first trip there – and where, ten years later, I would get married.
Via the River Café cookbook I was aware that Italian food was not just spag bol – was not, in fact, spag bol at all – but here I was lifting the lid on another side of it entirely; not the summery simplicity of Ruth and Rose’s photography, but something at once gutsier and more perfumed: lardo not supermarket San Daniele, pajata not pepperoni pizza; the mystifying, floral spice blend favoured by the Medici; the deep, haunting aroma of an authentic ragù alla Bolognese. You got a sense of just what went into making a country’s cooking a cuisine: the influence of immigrants; the power of the market (what Buford discovers is called the “dominant demand” theory of economics); the exchange of technique and ingredients from low to high – there is a wonderful digression about the rehabilitation of the shortrib and its elevation from butcher’s castoff to high-end it-ingredient – and high to low; the centuries of evolution. At one point, Buford goes a little mad in a hunt for the first cook to use an egg in making pasta; the breadth and depth of sources he forces himself to consult – taking detours via the Liber de coquina, an anonymous text from the 1200s, and into the legends of 14th century lasagnari – reveals how deep in history a given dish within a given culture can cast its roots.
Heat is a survey of the real food of Italy; there is a small irony, therefore, that much of the book takes place at Babbo, where authenticity is fetishized to the point of inedibility – Buford recounts diners balking at some of the gnarlier specials; he cites Batali having to rebrand lardo as “prosciutto bianco” – but where the food is also, paradoxically, very much the food of a redheaded American dude born in Seattle and fond of jamming out to the Grateful Dead. Another lesson to an impressionable youth: great chefs are like artists; they have interests and preoccupations that find funny outlets in their work, signature flourishes. For Batali it is the secret hidden dose of zing (“some spicy, salty, sweety thing to get the saliva glands all worked up and full of spit”) that alleviates in part his devotion to richness (his new motto, trialled to the dismay of those who have ordered the Babbo tasting menu: “wretched excess is just barely enough”). But it’s also the obsession in letting nothing go to waste (“writer guy: busted!” he accosts Buford after a rummage through the garbage has revealed he’s been discarding carrot tops that have a plethora of valid uses); it is the monomaniacal pursuit of the taste that America is waiting for at his new pizzeria (a taste, or more specifically a texture, which leaves Buford on the verge of vomiting).
Obsession is a recurring theme; practically everyone we meet (Buford most of all) is driven by something borderline illogical into actions that to many appear incomprehensible. Stages slogging it out for no pay; women working in the toxic environment of a male-dominated kitchen; Dario fighting a losing battle against forces outside his control. When people get the break for which they have been working for years, it is astonishingly uplifting: perhaps my favourite arc in the whole book is the story of Casa Mono, the Spanish place that Batali finally helps his deputy Andy to open (especially the moment when the cooking there is pronounced “through the fucking roof” after a lengthy tasting involving Buford, Batali, and – an indelible detail – a dish-by-dish report card). Restaurant stories like this rarely have a happy ending. It is hard to open a restaurant, to work in or run a restaurant, to have your restaurant exposed to constant critical scrutiny: Heat is a how-to manual; Heat is also a cautionary tale.
It’s also the most vivid depiction of the enclosed hell of a restaurant kitchen that exists in print. Shortly after finishing it for the first time – now on a kitchen memoir kick – I picked up a copy of Kitchen Confidential. I don’t doubt the veracity of Bourdain’s stories (well, most of them, anyway), and some of them are pretty rad, if you’re the sort of dude who uses the word rad. But Bourdain’s account is all go go go, all coked-up manic energy, a nine-inch boner with Viagra sprinkled on top. Buford captures the essential boredom at the heart of every occupation, the necessary mindless routine of getting your mise sorted; it’s also a little cruel compared the hazily gonzo stylings of an only so-so writer to Buford’s elegant, endlessly readable prose. He somehow captures all of the romance and passion that people invest in food and drink without straying into cringily earnest spoddiness or throbbingly embarrassing porn; his descriptions of even menial tasks in the kitchen (cubing carrots; frying tiny leaves of thyme) are poetically spare (there is none better than his celebration of using your fingertips to test the doneness of meat; how it allows you to “see the whole cut feelingly”).
Gosh, but I love this book unreservedly. There are so many great vignettes: Mario and Marco knocking out the world’s best pub food in a toxic atmosphere; Dario upending some offending wine at the village trattoria and being hit over the head with a stack of menus by the manager in retaliation; Buford’s possessiveness over his giant pot of polenta in the face of advances from an Italian chef at an event. There are so many great lines, many of them taken direct from the mouth of Batali himself. In the end, there is just so much, which possibly explains why my copy is basically falling apart from reuse. I have read it at least once a year since I bought it in 2006; every time I go back I discover something new and delightful. On the verge of a trip to Liguria, I am about to pick it up once more; the only thing more exciting on my horizon is that the long-overdue sequel to Heat hinted at in its final pages, Dirt, may actually be coming out relatively soon. It’s about Buford's time training as a chef in Lyon, which (I hope) means it will be to France what Heat was to Italy. A love-letter to its food, but also a key to unlock it, in all its splendour, for the rest of your life.