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Pressure cooker

Michelle Huneven is a former restaurant critic and author of the novels "Jamesland" and "Round Rock."

WHEN he was in his late 40s, Bill Buford, founding editor of Granta magazine, author of “Among the Thugs” (a book about soccer hooliganism) and former fiction editor of the New Yorker (where he is now a staff writer), went to Italy to apprentice himself to Tuscany’s most famous butcher, Dario Cecchini. Buford arrived in the remote hill town of Panzano on a Sunday afternoon and found the butcher shop full of customers drinking and eating free samples of pig fat. His mentor-to-be spotted him in the crowd and immediately began intoning Dante: “Midway through the road of life, I found myself in a dark wood, on a lost road.”

This butcher knew a midlife crisis when he saw one.

“Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany” is the literary outcome of Buford’s vertical plunge into the world of professional cooking and food writing. Exuberant, hilarious, glorying in its rich and arcane subject matter, “Heat” is Plimpton-esque immersion journalism -- an amateur bumbling among the adepts -- but it also has much in common with spiritual autobiography, especially that genre in which the student’s epiphanies are generously interspersed with drudgery, abasement and humiliation at the hands of mercurial, possibly crazy gurus.

Buford’s Virgil on his journey is Mario Batali, a.k.a. Molto Mario of Food Network fame, the red-haired cooking genius of superhuman appetites. Five or six years ago -- the book’s chronology is annoyingly murky -- Buford, an amateur but enthusiastic home cook, had invited Batali to his home for dinner and concluded “that he was an insane, eccentric wild man ... that is, a perfect subject for a New Yorker profile.”

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Unable to find a writer for the profile -- one somehow doubts he tried all that hard -- Buford took on the task. “I ... suspected, correctly, that I might be able to use the assignment to get into Mario’s kitchen.” Indeed, he worked in the kitchen at Babbo, Batali’s flagship Italian restaurant in Manhattan, for six months. The two-part Batali profile appeared in August 2002; two months later, haunted by the fact that he’d been on the verge of discovering something “about food, about myself,” Buford left his desk job and returned to the Babbo kitchen -- thus going from “a day spent sitting down to one spent standing up,” to learn “a knowledge not found in books.”

“Heat” incorporates and expands upon the New Yorker profile of Batali and its inside peek into the kitchen culture at Babbo. Buford also makes frequent jaunts to Europe, where he befriends Batali’s first mentor, the brilliant British restaurateur Marco Pierre White (“the most foul-tempered, most mercurial, and most bullying” of chefs), and eventually apprentices himself to Batali’s own pasta mentor in Italy, Betta Valdiserri, and then to Cecchini, the Tuscan butcher under whom Batali’s father trained during his midlife crisis. (A former chemical engineer at Boeing, Armandino Batali now operates his own small artisanal salumi plant and shop in Seattle.)

As he embarks on his culinary quest, Buford asks Mario Batali what he might learn. “The difference between the home cook and the professional,” Batali responds. “You’ll learn the reality of the restaurant kitchen.... Consistency under pressure. And that’s the reality: a lot of pressure.... You’ll also develop an expanded kitchen awareness. You’ll discover how to use your senses. You’ll find you no longer rely on what your watch says. You’ll hear when something is cooked. You’ll smell degrees of doneness.”

To acquire such skills, Buford discovers, “you keep having to be a slave -- to not one master but several, one after another, until you arrive at a proficiency (whatever that might be) or your own style (however long it takes) or else conclude that, finally, you just know a lot more than anyone else.” Restaurant kitchens offer “the miraculous pedagogy of relentless repetition.” After some months, Buford can chop carrots into an acceptable fine dice; after cooking, peeling, trimming and slicing 150 lamb tongues, he declares himself an expert.

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Humiliation is another popular and effective pedagogy. “Not a night went by when I did not humiliate myself,” says Buford -- and he exploits his own inexperience and ineptitude to great comic effect. On his first day in the Babbo kitchen, he doesn’t have any of his own knives and cuts himself with a borrowed one. Later, browning short ribs for the first time, he splashes hot oil onto his knuckles -- blisters -- and promptly does it again -- blisters on blisters -- before another cook hands him tongs: “Why didn’t this process have a name -- this self-education by self-abasement, or what, in my case, always ended up being lessons got by making an ass out of myself?” On the first night he’s to work alone on the grill, he’s slicing Jerusalem artichokes -- small tubers, big slicing machine -- and takes off the tip of his index finger, the very finger he will later press against grilling steaks to determine their degree of doneness: “The wound spread and opened ... I felt the salt (burning) and the fat (another kind of burning). Well, that was the drill.”

Buford progresses from prepping during the day (culinary boot camp) to cooking at night. And while he eventually finds a consistent, satisfying, simple pleasure in line cooking, getting there is no cakewalk. The kitchen is tiny, cramped and unimaginably hot. Add to this a jostling quasi-military hierarchy, chronic moodiness, tremendous pressure, a lot of “testosterone-bravura,” and you have a “crude, unapologetic reality” that’s not for the timid, or the politically correct. Buford is bumped into by others (40 times in one night); he is intentionally spattered with hot oil. When he grows cocky with his newfound skills and messes up two orders, Batali takes him off the grill, then weirdly jams a pizza into his mouth. The next day, when Buford apologizes for his bad cooking, Batali responds with the humiliator’s classic rationale: “You’ll never do it again.”

Batali is only one of the several alpha males Buford renders with relish. In one of the book’s most hilarious scenes, White, Batali’s old master, works himself into a bulging-eyed frenzy deconstructing a plate of grouse in bread sauce. In another laugh-out-loud episode, butcher Cecchini takes down a local restaurant owner in stages, first throwing his (too diverse) wine list on the floor, then yelling about goose on the menu (the dish is Friulian, not Tuscan) and finally emptying a bottle of balsamic vinegar (from Emilia-Romagna) onto the ground.

“Heat” is also shot through with small essays addressing such questions as “What is a short rib?” “How much should polenta be stirred?” “When did the egg make its first appearance in pasta?” Although some answers are purely practical (polenta does not require constant stirring), Buford’s investigations unearth fascinating arcane facts. Who knew that Italy endured a two-century epidemic of pellagra, a disfiguring niacin deficiency caused by polenta gluttony? And though not even the secretary of the National Museum of Pasta Foods in Rome knows or seems to care when the egg became an ingredient in some pasta recipes, the mystery lures Buford through the body of Italian food writing from the 15th century on. (Eggs, he finds, were introduced into pasta recipes in the 17th century.) Through his reading, he realizes that his pasta mentors, Miriam Leonardi and Betta Valdiserri, are living masters of centuries-old techniques. They have the physical knowledge the old texts describe, the specific skills that have been transmitted hand to hand, generation to generation; they are tradition incarnate.

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Even as Buford acquires them himself, he sees that such traditional skills may be nearing the end of their run. Leonardi admits to Buford that she cannot find a woman to roll out her pasta dough and thus uses a machine. Cecchini, the butcher and self-appointed policeman of all things Tuscan, cannot find decent local beef. Industrialization, the end of small farms and town life, supermarkets and a general cultural amnesia have eroded traditions. “Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity,” Buford concludes. “Find it; eat it; it will go. It has been around for millennia. Now it is evanescent, like a season.”

By the end of this full-to-bursting, hugely entertaining and moving book, Buford has progressed from interloper to insider, from amateur to passable professional. He has become an incarnation of treasured culinary arts, thus more physically fulfilled and more fully human. In certain areas of expertise -- the art of butchering, at least -- he has surpassed his first teacher, Mario Batali. But don’t look to Buford to open his own butcher shop or restaurant. At the end of “Heat,” it seems he’ll be heading off to France; in recent interviews he has indicated that pastry making is next on his docket. Buford has framed his swerve into the world of food as a midlife crisis. But that is mostly a conceit. With “Heat,” we have a writer lighting on the subject of a lifetime.


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