June 14, 2006
Among the Chefs

Bill Buford’s first book was “Among the Thugs,” a study of soccer hooligans. It would be timely right now, but he’s moved on to a topic equally as relevant and popular, his passion for cooking and his admiration of chefs at the top of their game, most notably Mario Batali.

Buford already was an accomplished home cook, but he wanted to learn more, so he set out on a long apprenticeship that took him from working at Batali’s restaurant Babbo in New York to a remote butcher shop in Italy.

The lessons he learned, and the talented and energetic cooks he met along the way, are drawn with engaging empathy, candor and humor in his second book, the newly released “Heat” (Knopf, $25.95, 318 pages).

The subtitle is a mouthful – “An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany” – but accurately sums up the sweep of the trip.

Buford, a staff writer for The New Yorker, didn’t observe from the sidelines, but jumped right into the middle of the hot, competitive, often rancorous Babbo kitchen to become not only a more adept cook but a student of food who pursues topics like pasta making and hog butchering to exhaustive but compelling ends.

This isn’t a cookbook. There are no recipes, though his description of preparing linguine with clams at Babbo is both so finely wrought and appetizing that readers are apt to set aside the book and bolt for the market to round up the ingredients.

The book will leave you fretting about Batali (the guy lives huge), even more appreciative of your next fine restaurant meal (the kitchen conditions and conflicts are such that it’s amazing dishes come out as cohesive as they do), and a big fan of Buford’s research, dedication and level-headed yet persistently entertaining writing.

There are lots of surprises in the book. For one, the businessman in Batali abhors wasting food, and several times Buford watched him root through the garbage to retrieve the trimmings of lamb kidneys, garlic, leeks and the like that cooks didn’t think worthy of using, but he does. For another, the Babbo short ribs “braised in Barolo,” a hearty red wine from Piemonte in northern Italy, aren’t braised in Barolo at all, but “a perfectly acceptable, very cheap California merlot,” notes Buford. And after reading his account of the differences in how dishes are prepared in the Babbo kitchen and how they were interpreted for recipes in the Babbo cookbook you’ll never wonder again why the home versions don’t evoke the same sensations as the restaurant versions.

But the most searing and lasting impression of the book is the lengths that cooks at restaurants of the caliber of Babbo will go to to practice and master their craft. They may talk like soccer hooligans, but in the end what they really want to do is nurture and entertain, not intimidate or harm.

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