Book Review: “Heat” by Bill Buford

bufordheatIf I was ever granted the opportunity to teach a food-writing class, I would certainly assign Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” and Bill Buford’s “Heat” as required texts. These are two books that simply beg to be compared and contrasted. On the surface, both books rely upon engaging narratives, and they both do an outstanding job describing the chaos that can often take place within a professional kitchen. Yet, at the same time, each book offers its own unique perspective of the restaurant industry. At their very core, the two books reveal divergent views regarding professional cooking.

The differences between the books seem to stem from the authors themselves. Anthony Bourdain, after all, is a cook’s cook (even though he has certainly earned the title of “chef” over the years). Bourdain was drawn into the business at an early age, and as he points out in “Kitchen Confidential,” he was a chef long before it ever became fashionable. Buford, on the other hand, entered the business as a curious outsider, long after America’s food Renaissance was well underway. In essence, the primary difference between Buford and the average foodie is that Buford had the audacity and the gumption to experience life beyond the dining room.

While “Kitchen Confidential” often reads as an ode to professional cooking, “Heat” is more of a travelogue which begins in the kitchen. Clearly, Buford is not the type of individual who craves the adrenaline of dinner service, although he does seem to appreciate it at times. As a result, Buford’s time spent “slaving” at Babbo — Mario Batali’s West Village eatery — ultimately leads him on a quest to various regions throughout Italy. But despite his travels overseas, Buford readily admits that he has no designs of actually becoming a chef. And herein lies the true difference between a cook and a foodie: both can appreciate food, but a cook cannot resign himself to be a spectator.

As his narrative unfolds, Buford begins to concern himself with the notions of origin and authenticity. His approach to food is therefore more scholarly than instinctive. Buford’s initial interest in working at Babbo, he reveals, was merely to place himself one step closer to the core of great cuisine. Naturally, with Italian food as his focus, New York City can only serve as Buford’s launching point, and subsequently, his experiences in Italy eventually become the centerpiece of the narrative. Fortunately for the reader, the characters whom Buford encounters overseas are often stranger and more entertaining than those who toil in New York City kitchens.

As I had mentioned in my September 11 entry, no book shall ever capture life in the professional kitchen with more accuracy than “Kitchen Confidential.” Bourdain’s memoir was written by a cook, for a cook. With “Kitchen Confidential,” the reader gets to live the kitchen life vicariously (and from a comfortable distance). With “Heat,” the value of the book is much different, and its scope is much more broad. Buford’s book draws connections between the past and the present, and his journey provides the structure for a mesmerizing, first-hand lesson in gastronomy.

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