Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford








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Thanks to Bill Buford’s fine writing, reading his account of experiences with great chefs and outstanding cuisine is almost as tasty as the food itself. In Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, Buford relates his experiences at Babbo with celebrity chef Mario Batali, and with Marco Pierre White, followed by sojourns to Italy where he explores the centuries of experience in preparing great food, and in finding the best ingredients. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 26-31:


Like many New York restaurants, Babbo accepts “externs,” cooking school students who work for no pay and then write a thesis about the experience—often the final requirement in a cooking degree. The United States has two hundred and twenty-nine officially recog­nized cooking schools, which produce 25,000 graduates a year, including older ones (not unlike me) who always wanted to cook but didn’t know how. The Harvard and Yale is the Culinary Institute of America, the CIA, two hours north of New York City on the Hudson River, which offers a four-year degree course for an annual tuition of $20,000, including knives and aprons. Not cheap, but most Babbo cooks had gone there. I now understood that, when Mario took me on, I was filling a spot left by the last extern, and I felt lucky to have it. One morning, I read his thesis, which included a recipe for preparing sheep intestines for seventy-five people and the quantities of flour, eggs, and goat cheese needed to make 1,500 pieces of tortelloni—not without use, I reflected, if I found myself crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, say, and the whole kitchen staff suddenly died and word went round that a guy on board had mastered two recipes from the Babbo kitchen bible (a blue notebook containing instructions for every dish in the history of the restaurant, kept on a shelf between a juicer and a machine that pulver­izes beef cheeks into a muddy-looking goo), and hundreds of passen­gers, fearful of going hungry, huddled together and urged me into the ship’s galley, where, after searching through the cupboards and a small walk-in, I found a sufficient quantity of sheep’s intestines to put my knowledge to a practical purpose.

Elisa was routinely greeting chefs-in-training at seven in the morn­ing and telling them how her kitchen worked. Every three months or so, that’s what she did. They needed her, to complete their studies, and she, I was starting to learn, needed them to complete all the things she had to do in a day. The difference between them and me was obvious and accounted for my continuing testing time. She kept thinking of me as someone who should know what he was doing. One morning, she instructed me to run to the basement for twenty-five oranges and fifty lemons. “Use your apron,” she said, and then, noting my confused look, sighed and gathered the two corners of hers like a hammock, by way of illustration. When I returned, she held up a zester. It’s the thing you use to peel a citrus fruit. “You do know how to use a zester?” she asked with such poorly disguised irritation that I understood her to be saying, “Don’t tell me you’re so ignorant you don’t know what this is.” I then became very reluctant to admit that the zester she gave me wasn’t zesting—it was so dull it was mauling the fruit—until my cutting board was a sticky battlefield of maimed oranges and lemons, and I hesitantly suggested that maybe this zester wasn’t one of the kitchen’s better zesters.

The trickiness of my role was confirmed one Friday, always a long, stressful day because you’re preparing food for not only that evening but the whole weekend. I was in the walk-in, trying to find a place for a tray of morel mushrooms. There was no place. Elisa was on the floor, transferring chicken stock from a twenty-quart container into a twelve-quart container, because she needed a twenty-quart container and none was to be found. (Chicken stock was the only acceptable meat stock— one made from anything else would be too French—and every morning a pot was filled with the feet and water and boiled for hours. Chicken feet are a vivid sight—like human hands without a thumb, curled up and knuckly—and the first time I saw them, bobbing in their giant vat, they looked as though they were attached to the arms of so many peo­ple, clawing at the churning water, trying to climb out, the bubbling pot a portal from Hell, there in the back of the kitchen, against the wall, the hottest place.)

Andy was in the walk-in as well, devising what he called a “walk-in special,” a feature of the weekends, to clear out an ingredient that wasn’t selling before it went off. “Crispy branzino” was a walk-in special, because “we’ve bought enough branzino for twenty a night but have been doing only nine, and it’s nearly Sunday, so we’ve got to move it or toss it, and there’s some porcini, which hasn’t been moving either, I don’t know why, and there’s always pancetta, so let’s reinvent our fish dish with porcini and crunchy pancetta on top and sell the hell out of it.”

Gina DePalma was in the walk-in, too, and she was the problem. Gina was the pastry chef—an executive role, like Elisa’s—and the two women ran the morning kitchen. Elisa arrived at six and started on a long list of foods that needed preparing for the evening. Gina got in two hours later and made the desserts. Although they had many things in common—both had grown up with big Sunday lunches with their Ital­ian grandparents, for instance—they couldn’t have been more different.

Elisa was thin and sporty. On her days off, she trained for marathons and sometimes ran to work in the dawn, about six miles. (“There’s no point in arriving clean and fresh, is there?”) Her hair was graying, and she had a narrow, high-cheekboned face. Gina didn’t exercise. She had thick black hair, and was distinctly rounder, as you’d expect her to be, tasting syrups, chocolates, and creamy batters all day. She was the only person with a cell phone—in the kitchen, private calls were forbidden— partly because she looked after her own ingredients and did her own ordering, but also because she didn’t want to cross the kitchen to use the phone located on a wall where Elisa works. (The issue wasn’t the dis­tance but the company she’d have to keep when she got there.) Besides, Gina was a talker and couldn’t be without a phone.

Elisa wasn’t chatty. Mornings would pass without her saying a word. Everything—her manner, the efficiency of her movements, her face, with its firm, no-nonsense look—said purposefulness. She was capable of sulkiness (“When she’s in one of her moods, the whole kitchen knows about it,” Gina complained), but you never learned why: you didn’t know much about Elisa’s private life. You knew too much about Gina’s. You knew when, last year, she’d had a date, and what had happened, and what his name was, and then she’d wonder aloud if she’d ever date again.

“Don’t you have a flight to catch?” Gina asked me. She knew this from the morning’s chitchatty exchanges. “You should leave. I mean, really, the way we treat our externs: it’s not as if you’re getting paid.”

I nodded sympathetically, wanting to make nice, a little confused, because I didn’t yet understand the extern concept. (Externs answer to Elisa, I now understand, and the real issue for Gina was her belief that Elisa was a dour, unfriendly slave driver. Or maybe Gina was jealous that she didn’t have any slaves of her own.)

Gina continued to stare at me. I stood dumbly with my tray of morels.

“Really, you need to go. Now.”

She shrugged and walked out. Andy, satisfied by his branzino count, followed her. It was just me and Elisa.

“You do not answer to that woman,” Elisa said in a low, angry voice. She was still on the floor; I was still holding my tray of morels. “Do you understand me? You leave when I say you can leave. I am your boss. I tell you when you can go. Have I made myself clear?”

I stuttered pathetically. It was four o’clock—when the prep kitchen is normally finished—but I could see there was still a lot to do.

I returned to the kitchen, bearing my tray of morels, and thought about what had taken place. The outburst had surprised me, although it shouldn’t have: I was familiar with what I regarded as the shoulder-rubbing edginess of the kitchen. I’d seen it between Elisa and Memo Trevino. Memo was one of the two sous-chefs—a big man with a dis­proportionately big head of wiry black hair, and, at twenty-eight, emphatically in possession of an authority of someone many years older. If Memo accidentally knocked you, the blow came from the torso, not because his belly was so big but because he always led with the groin. More than once a picture popped in my head—no idea from where—of Memo with a spear and headdress. His was the swagger of a tribal chief.

I’d been in the prep kitchen three weeks when Memo took me aside, wanting to know what I thought of Elisa’s cooking. I was so unprepared for anyone’s soliciting my opinion I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“It’s not exactly perfect, is it?”

“What’s not perfect?” I asked.

“The food.”

I didn’t understand.

“Ever notice how much food she burns?” He was whispering.

No, I hadn’t noticed, although, it was true, there’d been a tray of burnt beef cheeks.

“Precisely. It’s unacceptable. Ever notice the dullness of her knife?”

I pondered the question. Actually, I’d experienced her knife firsthand and had not found it dull.

“Let me put it this way. Ever notice her sharpening it?”

“Sure,” I said. “A few times.” By then I knew the knife rituals. Frank Langello was especially proud of his. Frankie was the other sous-chef. He was about the same age as Memo, an Italian American, with wavy black hair, preternaturally long eyelashes, and the skinny good looks of one of those crooners from the forties and fifties, like a young Sinatra in the Hoboken years. Frankie and Memo had worked together at Le Cirque, a four-star restaurant then run by the famously fanatical Sottha Khunn, and they both felt they were among the few people at Babbo who understood the importance of kitchen discipline, which, evidently, included knife care. Frankie used only cheap ones, because he whipped them so ruthlessly against a sharpening steel that the blades wore out. Every now and then he used a whetstone, for even more edge: he tested the sharpness by shaving his forearms. (“When the hair grows back, I get out the whetstone again.”)

Memo was shaking his head. “That’s my point—a few times. You’ve seen Elisa sharpen her knife a few times. Trust me. Her knife is a stick. The problem is this—she lacks the dedicated, serious approach. Great chefs,” he explained, “are born, not made. It’s in your blood, or it’s not: the passion.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was a pretty small space for such strong positions. Memo didn’t like Elisa because she wasn’t serious enough. Gina didn’t like her because she was too serious. And Elisa didn’t like Gina because she wasn’t serious enough. (“Most restaurants have pas­try chefs who actually work,” Elisa said most mornings when Gina was chirpily chatting on her cell phone.)

The walk-in episode was illuminating in another way.

When I’d started, I’d jokingly referred to myself as a kitchen slave. Now I had a new understanding. I was a kitchen slave. That was the role: morning kitchen slave. In effect, I had entered into a contract: I was indentured. In the mornings, I gave Elisa my time, and she gave me instruction, and the instruction was precious enough that it entitled her to my time, exclusively, and the Ginas of the kitchen had better watch how they talked to me.

Others showed me how to do things as well. (“I am a great teacher,” Memo told me after showing me how to bone a wild boar shoulder, “and people always tell me this is what I should do, teach, but I have one problem—impatience.”) But most of my instruction was from Elisa. To my astonishment, she took me seriously. I was a project; I was being educated in how to be a cook.

The truth is, I was grateful for the run-in in the walk-in, Gina and Elisa squabbling over me: there was so much work that even I was needed. I wanted to be needed. I longed for a day when my presence would make a difference. Ever since that first kitchen meeting, I’d imag­ined my putting in so much time that I’d be trusted to cook on the line—maybe to cover for someone in an emergency or during an unex­pected crunch. I didn’t share these thoughts with Mario or Elisa or Memo, if only because I was still the guy who didn’t know how to cut an onion without slicing into the palm of his hand. And yet I was being taken seriously: I wasn’t allowed to leave.

Or maybe the truth was much simpler: Elisa needed help, and instead she had me.


The subtitle describing Buford as a kitchen slave is certainly accurate, as the excerpt proves. Buford’s humility about his skills holds Heat together. No matter how much you know or care about the world of fine food, you’ll enjoy the human stories in Heat, and will recognize the people and the places Buford describes.


Steve Hopkins, January 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the February 2007 issue of Executive Times


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