Blame Anthony Bourdain's hilarious, profane, bizarre Kitchen Confidential for the flood of cooking and restaurant memoirs, and for publishers getting books out of everyone from sous-chefs to dishwashers. But give thanks, too, that New Yorker writer Bill Buford got the go-ahead to turn a series of magazine articles about Mario Batali, handmade pasta, and butchering a suckling pig in a home kitchen into Heat, a funny, self-deprecating, insightful book about his quest for authenticity, at least the Italian version.
In the grand tradition of participatory journalism, Buford parlays an assignment to profile Batali, the larger-than-life Food Network star, into a stint in the kitchen at Babbo, Batali's flagship New York restaurant. For the first half of Heat, he alternates chapters tracing Batali's training, rise to fame, and stint in Tuscany (where he becomes an convert to real Italian recipes), with accounts of Buford's debasing apprenticeship in Babbo's kitchen and his pilgrimage to Italy to follow in Molto Mario's footsteps. The effect at first appears hagiographic—Mario as wunderkind, Mario as culinary genius, Mario as great communicator, Mario as legendary drunk. But Buford subtly undercuts the portrait when he visits Mario's teachers (and some folks Mario never got around to). The chef's mania for the real Italian way makes great dinner theater, but in the kitchen, there are constant compromises for practicality and assimilations to American taste. Authenticity can be found, even learned, but the nature of the restaurant business means that it can't be duplicated on a large, repeatable, and relatively rapid scale.
Buford knows he's an amateur at cooking, but he muddles through, straddling writing, family, and irrational obsession in an entertaining literary simulation of Twister. The depths of cookery's mysteries yield several epiphanies—the ineluctable glories of pasta water, the nature of meat on the hoof, why polenta shouldn't be stirred. And Buford twists the knife, with a sorrowful sense of farewell, into his naïve notions of culinary purity, emerging from his odyssey as something more than a dilettante, but less than a chef. His compulsively readable story is a reminder and a guide to what eaters should enjoy, hobbyists should aim to better appreciate, and food professionals, miraculously, can accomplish night after night.