Bill Buford is about to become a household name. His new book, Heat,
is a guaranteed bestseller: it’ll be on airplanes and beaches around the world
this summer. It’s funny, accessible, and as addictive as Mario Batali’s lardo.
The book grew out of a wonderful profile that Buford wrote on Batali for the
New Yorker, wherein Buford got himself a job as a kitchen slave at Babbo to
see how restaurants really work. What neither Buford nor Batali expected was
that Buford would like the work so much that he’d quit his job as fiction editor
of the New Yorker and go back to work at Babbo for another year. And Babbo wasn’t
enough: Buford also went to Italy, to learn both pasta and butchery at the hands
of the masters in the home of Batali’s cuisine. By the time the book finishes,
a sequel, set in France, would seem to be in the works.
Comparisons will be made to Kitchen
Confidential, of course (which also started as a piece in the New Yorker),
but this book is much funnier, and actually more practical as well. While it
doesn’t have formal recipes, you definitely finish it wanting to head to the
kitchen to make some of the dishes Buford talks about. Meanwhile, the set-pieces
– some featuring Batali and others featuring his former boss (!) Marco
Pierre White are priceless. The flavour of the book is encapsulated in a great
quote just a few pages in:
"I will never forget him," White said, when I met him in London.
"He has fucking big calves, doesn’t he? He should donate them to the
kitchen when he dies. They’ll make great osso buco."
Buford is a great humourist, and much of the humour is directed at himself,
but he also is well aware of how much he learned while researching and writing
this book. At one point he starts bossing around a bunch of "highly accomplished
chefs who (it was perfectly obvious) hadn’t come to do the plating, although
happily prepared to help out" at a huge benefit dinner in Nashville. Of
course, they end up doing the plating. Buford starts screaming at them: "Wrong!
This is a mess. Redo!" – and we realise he’s become a proper cook
in his own right, not just a writer-interloper. Later, after some time at the
Tuscan butchery, he brings an entire pig home to his West Village apartment,
and cooks the whole thing: "By my reckoning my green-market pig generated
four hundred and fifty servings of food and worked out to less than fifty cents
The one area of the book where Buford is not entirely, brutally honest about
himself is when it comes to how he was able to write it in the first place.
I knew I had to get back to Italy for a length of time, whatever it might
be, or else I’d end up regretting that I hadn’t gont there for the rest of
my life. I was in a state. I’d experienced this kind of haunting the year
before when I had quit my job and taken up a spot on the line in the Babbo
kitchen. Now, feeling it again, I found myself trying to persuade my wife,
Jessica, that what she really wanted to do was quit her job as well (she was
a highly paid Manhattan magazine editor) and accompany me to an Italian hill
town where we would know nobody and where I’d work really long hours for no
But of course this is all in the book. The book he was writing when he took
up his spot on the line in the Babbo kitchen; the book for which his agent,
Andrew Wylie, undoubtedly got him a hefty advance. Never mind Buford quitting
his job and working for no money; never mind his wife quitting her job too.
There was money – quite a lot of money, I would guess – from Buford’s
deal with Knopf, and there will undoubtedly be more when Heat starts selling
like, well, hot cakes, and the royalties start pouring in.
And, of course, it’s not like the New Yorker isn’t paying Buford anything any
more. He’s back this week, in fact, with a six-page article on Long Island oysters
under the heading "Notes of a Gastronome". One assume there will be
further notes to come, and that Buford is essentially joining Trillin on the
New Yorker food beat. I can’t wait for more: already I tried some of the Widow’s
Hole oysters that Buford writes about in the piece at the Grand Central Terminal
Oyster Bar this afternoon. He’s right: they’re amazing, some of the best oysters
I’ve ever had, and they’re cheaper than the inferior Oregon Kumamotos to boot.
At least they’re easy to find. After reading the original Batali profile, I
walked into Di Paolo’s in Little Italy and asked if they had any lardo. (I’d
had it in France by the name veritable du lard, and had been looking
for it in NYC until reading the piece.) The guy behind the counter looked at
me, looked at the big guy behind me, smiled, and addressed him, not me: "Bill,
this guy’s asking for lardo". Bill Buford (for it was he) told me that
I had to go to Batali’s restaurants for that.