Heat by Bill Buford
I'm tempted to say that Heat would have made a terrific long magazine article, except that I tend not to read long magazine articles, so I'm glad that it was a book, because I do read books, even if this book seemed a tad padded, like it might have made a better long magazine article.
Be that as it may, the basic premise here is, to me, instantly appealing: Buford, a New Yorker editor and amateur chef, finagles his way into working as a line cook at Mario Batalli's red-hot, three-star Babbo for a year. The subsequent scenes inside the kitchen—the tension, the craziness, the triumphs, the egos, the nastiness, the screw-ups, the camaraderie—are all totally engaging, filled with funny, technically interesting, well-told stories from a world we appreciative diners out front would rather not know too much about (it's not quite like putting the slaughterhouse out of mind when you're cooking a steak at home, but it's similar). This forms the core of the Buford's adventure, and I loved every minute of it.
Unfortunately, Buford also decides to go to Italy, to learn what Battali learned, from the people who taught him. With the exception of the hugely entertaining portrait of Dario Cecchini, the most famous butcher in all of Tuscany who also happens to be completely insane, Buford's quest, occasionally slipping into an almost mythic tone, feels simply self-indulgent. I don't intrinsically care when people—Italians? Spaniards?—first began using eggs to make pasta, and nothing in the 20 or so pages that Buford devotes to the topic changed my mind. At least half of the book takes us away from Battali and Babbo, and my interest never failed to flag when it did.
Even so, Heat is a quick read, with more than enough memorable moments to make it worth your while. Here's an excerpt, from Buford's time at the Babbo pasta station.
This is an emulsion: an agreement between two unlike elements (butter and water), achieved by heat and motion. If you get it slightly wrong—as when the sauce starts to dry out, destroying the balance between the fat and the liquid—the unlike elements pull apart and break up. Sometimes, during slow moments, I deliberately let my sauce get ugly, so I could witness its snapping back into condition with a small flick of water, like an animated chemistry lesson. Once, I was caught in mid-reverie.
I was making a mushroom sauce that illustrated two things that were characteristic of the station: how to use heat and how to stop it. Like most sauces, this one was prepared in two stages and used only a few ingredients: mushrooms (yellowfeet, although any wild mushroom works), some fresh thyme leaves, a finely chopped shallot, a little butter. To begin, you needed lots of heat. You put your pan on the flattop until it got really hot, until it darkened, until it seemed as though it might start melting, and then you splashed it with olive oil—the pan went smoky very quickly—followed by the mushrooms. Then: nothing. You didn't move the pan until you detected the sweet wood smoke smell of the mushrooms caramelizing. The mushrooms now had a crunchy, sugary crust, not burned but on the verge of burning. You sprinkled the pan with the shallots and thyme, held it until they reacted to the high heat, and then shoveled in enough pasta water to stop the cooking: the pan hissed, steamed, and went quiet. That was Stage One: from high heat to no heat. Stage Two was when the order was fired. You retrieved the pan and made an emulsion: the butter, the swirling-swirling routine, until the mushroom water became a sauce sticky enough to adhere to a pasta.
The reverie occurred at the end of Stage One, when I lifted the pan off the flattop and sprinkled it with the thyme. What can I say? I loved this moment. For a few seconds, nothing happened. The leaves were on the hot metal of the pan, taking in the heat. Then, one by one, they swelled, barely perceptibly, and exploded, a string of tiny explosions, like minuscule pieces of herby popcorn. And with each pop there was an aromatic eruption of thyme. I closed me eyes and put my face into the pan, breathing in the exploding herb leaves. I don't know how long I stood there.
"What the fuck are you doing?"
I opened my eyes. It was Frankie.
"What the fuck are you doing?" He was standing inches from my face. The others were staring at me.
"I like the smell of the popping thyme," I said weakly. I was expecting scorn or a string of profanities, mockery at the very least. Instead, Frankie seemed surprised and didn't know quite what to say. He face became soft and puppy-dog-like.
"Oh, well, then," he said, finally. "That's all right." I think he was embarrassed.