The Chef’s Apprentice

What Bill Buford gets right about life in the kitchen.

There are few more humbling experiences than working as a low-ranking cook in a restaurant kitchen. During my first few years as one, I learned that everything I thought I knew was wrong: I couldn’t cut an onion, mash potatoes, or even spread mayonnaise properly on a sandwich. Bill Buford tackles cooking from this same perspective in his new memoir, Heat. Because it’s a story that begins from his own gangly moment of apprenticeship, rather than a retrospective of a successful cooking career—and because he’s a terrific writer—it’s one of the most satisfying restaurant memoirs I have read.

Once the fiction editor of The New Yorker, Buford abandoned that post to cook at Babbo, the jewel in the crown of Mario Batali’s restaurant empire. Heat recounts Buford’s experience, as he rose from disposable workhorse to respectable cook, as well as his further studies in Italy learning the arts of pasta-making and butchery. His double status as outsider-writer and insider-cook is a big part of the book’s appeal. In one way, Buford remains the “writer guy,” who, since he’s not striving for a restaurant career, can coolly observe the kitchen. But Buford isn’t satisfied with picking herbs: He wants to be a serious cook, and to prove it, he throws himself with fervor into the brutal pasta station at Babbo, and the depths of cow musculature during his butcher’s stage in Tuscany. As a result, he has unforced empathy for those he profiles.

I knew Buford would not shy away from the brash obscenities and competitiveness of the kitchen, given his astute examination of British soccer hooligans in his wonderful book Among the Thugs; and he certainly captures the primal rush of a busy night on the line, often described in terms of drugs and boners. (Buford quotes chef Gordon Ramsay, who says cooking is “like having the most amazing hard on, with Viagra sprinkled on top of it, and it’s still there twelve hours later.”) But unlike Anthony Bourdain’s gonzo cook-and-tell, Kitchen Confidential, Buford’s book does not linger too long on swagger and pulsing testosterone. Babbo is a quieter kitchen than Bourdain’s, and Buford takes time to pick up on some of the less flashy dramas, which I found entirely familiar from my own restaurant experiences.

There is Buford’s crushed indignation when an afternoon’s worth of diced carrots are pitched because they’re not uniform, and the oddly tender way high-ranking Babbo cooks feed him, which doubles as a form of boasting: “This,” said one sous-chef to Buford, “is how you make tacos.” There are the cooking revelations—the development of what Batali calls “kitchen awareness,” that half-feral sense that a pot needs stirring. There is a jealous standoff in the walk-in refrigerator between the prep chef and the pastry chef over Buford, the kitchen slave. (In my experience, the walk-in is always home to conflict—an unwelcome fondling, a teary breakdown, or a territorial dispute over a shelf on the speed rack). And, there is the race issue, which Bourdain keyed in to as well. The Babbo kitchen, like most, is utterly dependent on “the Latins,” yet they rarely get promoted to the higher-status line jobs.

Of course, Babbo isn’t just any restaurant; it’s owned by a celebrity chef. Buford ably captures the gap between the public perception that Batali is at the fires every night, and the reality—his appearances are rather erratic. For cooks in a well-run kitchen, the celebrity chef’s appearance can seem like an intrusion. Buford has a choice example: Batali’s unsettling habit of rooting through the garbage to see what’s being wasted—lamb kidneys, celery leaves, green garlic stems—and then demanding that his cooks serve these precious commodities as an exercise in Italianate frugality. While Buford might dish a few unflattering Batali tidbits, he never loses sight that without Molto Mario, there would be no Babbo. Though not always on the scene, Batali is the central puzzle of the book, and as such, Buford sets out to understand him.

Explaining Batali is no easy task—he is in every way an anomaly. He is a Middle American celebrity (thanks to his long stint on the Food Network) who retains respect from the food intelligentsia (including the New York Times reviewers who have twice awarded Babbo three stars). He is clownish in his orange clogs, long red hair, and ruddy nose yet capable of making a staffer tremble. In many ways what drives this outrageous character goes unexamined—Buford does not get very close to Batali personally in the book—but he does get to the heart of Batali as a chef, creating a kind of culinary intellectual biography of the big man.

Buford tracks down recipes from Batali’s grandmother, Leonetta Merlino—ravioli stuffed with calf’s brains, pork sausage, chicken, Swiss chard, and cheese—that suggest the origins of Batali’s love for innards. And Leonetta is also a touchstone for another aesthetic Batali strives for: “More feminine than masculine. People should think there are grandmothers in the back preparing their dinner.” That Babbo’s kitchen is a harried, mostly male, vastly ungrandmotherly universe does not seem to affect this self-image.

Buford bravely dines with Marco Pierre White, the famous, and famously tempestuous, British chef with whom Batali spent a few tumultuous months in a tiny pub kitchen before either man was famous. According to Buford, Batali’s management style and his suspicion of French food developed as a counteraction to White’s example. Buford flits past Jeremiah Tower, the flamboyant California chef who influenced Batali’s taste for bright, acidic flavors—one of the decidedly non-Italian characteristics of Batali’s food today.

Most important, Buford travels to the Podunk town of Porretta Terme, Italy, where Batali learned to understand and cook Italian food. Bookish Buford tries to get closer to the heart of Italian eating by examining historical cookbooks—but it is by living in Italy that he truly grasps the cuisine that electrified Batali. Inspired as Batali may have been by the Italians, they seem uneasy with the success he has gained from their traditions. In the most poignant moments of the book, Buford’s Italian pasta mentor, Betta, says, “Mario was not very good at pasta. … I don’t think Mario understands how much we gave him. You can only learn these things here—from people who have been making these foods their whole lives.” When she gives Buford a tortellini recipe, she explicitly tells him not to share it with Batali.

Buford is incredibly attuned to the complex relationships between Batali and his mentors—their love/hate nature echoes familial bonds. They are issues reflected in Batali’s relationship to his own kitchen staff, including the simmering resentment of Batali’s longtime second-in-command, Andy Nusser, as he waits for Batali to finance his own long-awaited Spanish restaurant (two restaurants, Casa Mono and Bar Jamon, finally opened in 2003). And of course there is Buford’s own revelation of his mentor’s weaknesses, a classic act of writerly betrayal. The anxieties that these strands of influence produce give Heat a slightly squirmy, downright novelistic undertone. They also remind us that the act of learning—cooking or any other subject—is rarely as clean a transaction as we’d like.