Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 04 Mar 2021

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

I hesitate to use the word ‘privileged’ to describe a person’s life because it has become something of a weasel-word. Its real sense stripped away, one now seems to hear it deployed most frequently as a term of disapprobation by some of the most self-evidently privileged. I prefer to use the term ‘gilded’.

Anyway, gilded is how I would describe the existence of the American writer Bill Buford. Educated at the University of California and King’s College Cambridge, Buford relaunched what at the time was a defunct Cambridge University literary magazine, Granta. Throughout the 80s and 90s Granta achieved an enviable reputation in literary publishing, gradually turning into a prestigious publishing imprint specialising in literary journalism as well as cutting-edge new fiction. He left Granta to become the literary editor of The New Yorker magazine and a significant figure in US and UK publishing.

But in the early-2000s he walked away from The New Yorker. Cooking had long been something of an obsession and he decided that the only way he could learn to be a better cook – and understand the real, daily life of the world’s great chefs and the restaurant kitchens they dominate – was by becoming a ‘kitchen slave’, an unpaid ‘apprentice’ serving whichever great chef would have him.

This experience was the basis for his 2006 book, Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany – to give it its (very) full title.

How many people can afford – willingly – to work unpaid for months at a time while also travelling to Italy to investigate traditional pasta-making or to become a butcher’s apprentice in Tuscany? This is what I mean by having a gilded life. We have to assume that whatever his book may say to the contrary, Buford could either afford this self-inflicted penury or – more likely – found a way to do it while also making money.

Anyway, Buford’s adventures start in New York city where he becomes a kitchen slave in one of the bustling pasta restaurants owned by his friend Mario Batali, a corpulent Falstaffian figure notorious for his appetite for ‘extreme’ food and for his rambunctious food shows on US networks where he is known as Molto Mario, much Mario, the most Mario-esque of all. In more recent years, however, Batali is known primarily for a spectacular fall from grace following numerous charges of sexual assault and the consequent loss of his profitable business empire. It should be said that there is no hint of these sexual scandals in Buford’s book, although reading of Batali’s apparently ungovernable appetites for sensual pleasure do at times seem to prefigure what was to come.

The obvious antecedents for Buford’s book are Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (reviewed here on Letterpress) and similar exposés of the hellish kitchens that drive even the poshest restaurants.

But Buford’s book is arguably more learned and certainly more far-ranging than Bourdain’s. And by linking the story of his own ‘enslavement’ directly to the tradition of kitchen apprenticeships that has existed since medieval times, Buford further enriches the story.  For he is emulating his heroes. Batali himself, as well as many other great chefs – such as Marco Pierre White, who in the 1980s exemplified celebrity and excess and the rise of cookery as the new rock ‘n roll – have all taken this same route. Buford’s point, I think, is that to become great one must learn from the great; in order to tolerate the unbearable tension and chaos of a professional kitchen working at full-tilt, one must first abase oneself at the feet of a master.

I have now read Heat three times and each time I find something different to dislike about it. (Batali is an obnoxious loudmouth; Buford’s unspoken ability to walk away from a glamorous highly-paid job and work for months without a wage.)

But each time I also find something different to enjoy. This time it is the insights Buford offers into the business of restaurants. They’re posh; some are so highly acclaimed that gourmets will book tables months in advance; the best are sexy, dining as theatre, reviewed in the pages of the Sunday papers and in glossy lifestyle magazines. And yet, no matter how inflated their sense of self-worth, nor how complex the business empires they are part of, the purpose of restaurants, as Batali says, is simple: ‘buy food, fix it up, and sell it at a profit’. Buford describes Batali rummaging through the kitchen waste bins for stuff discarded in haste during the intense hours of lunch and dinner prep – celery tops, botched meat, offal – that can be repurposed in ‘chef’s specials’ the following day. One has to admire his economy and singleness of purpose.

If food and food culture and history, cookery and perhaps most of all the business of restaurants are subjects that interest you, then I think you’ll find something to enjoy in Heat. But I would also say that if you enjoy reportage and literary journalism, especially the New Journalism of the 70s and 80s, then Heat may be for you too. I don't remember the last time I ate a meal in anything other than a greasy spoon and yet I still find this an enjoyable and highly entertaining book.


Alun Severn

March 2021