Bill Buford’s book Heat is three stories in one. It’s the story of the author’s apprenticeship under celebrity chef Mario Batali and the learning process that goes on during that work experience. It’s also a mini-biography of Batali, the gregarious, slightly hedonistic TV chef and the man behind a half-dozen or so major restaurants, including his flagship, Babbo. And it’s an intermittent history of Italian cooking, albeit not a very complete one, with more of a focus on answering certain questions and tracing the lineage of certain dishes.
The book is largely fascinating, especially if you enjoy cooking or if you have interest in how restaurant kitchens really work. Buford’s follies as a kitchen slave – he uses a more vulgar term for it – are largely predictable, but the reactions of the people around him are always entertaining, and he has a talent for capturing the personalities of the various nut jobs populating the kitchen at Babbo.
The book slows down noticeably when the focus becomes almost entirely on Buford’s own personal quest to master Italian cooking, specifically his long trips to Italy to work under the most famous butcher in the world, Dario Cecchini, a man who “banishes vegetarians from his shop and tells them to go to hell.” Dario’s exploits and commentary are hilarious, and there are some solid passages that almost wax philosophical about meat, but after the frenetic back-and-forth approach of the first two-thirds of the book (bouncing from Babbo to Italy and back), the pace really slows down in Dario’s shop. But this book ends up rivaling Kitchen Confidential for its look inside a real restaurant kitchen, even beating it in some ways because of its emphasis on the least-salaried workers (including an empathetic look at the “Latins” in the kitchen, including one former Babbo worker who died).
I listened to Heat as an unabridged audiobook, which appears to be available only on Audible.com. The reader, Michael Kramer, does a hell of a Mario Batali impression, one probably forged from an all-night session of watching Batali’s TV programs. It’s exaggerated, but that’s necessary to distinguish between the voices in any audiobook. But Kramer’s big problem is a complete unfamiliarity with the pronunciation of Italian words. He stresses the wrong syllable all the time, as if he was reading Spanish words, and at one point pronounces the word “che?” (“what?”) as “chay,” rather than “kay,” completely changing its meaning. With all the Italian words Buford uses – too many, really, since they’re not necessary to tell the story – Kramer’s butchering of the language becomes a huge distraction.