Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. All Things Considered talks with writers about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.
More than 15 years ago, Bill Buford's first book, Among the Thugs was published. It was an engrossing piece of reportage in which Buford, an American expat living in England, trailed a group of pasty, beefy and somewhat deranged soccer hooligans. These British thugs eventually head off to Turin for a match, and the rampaging that ensues becomes the book's vivid centerpiece.
It's interesting to see, then, that Buford's new book, Heat, returns him to the sweaty, boozy fold of pasty, beefy and slightly deranged young men. And Italy, once again, figures as the staging ground of momentous events. But where the first book was a case study of people seemingly dead to the joys of life, Heat is a chronicle of artisans consumed by passion.
The book's conceit is that it's a behind-the-scenes account of the kitchen of a big-city restaurant. Buford, at the time The New Yorker's fiction editor, persuaded celebrity chef Mario Batali to take him on as free help — a kitchen slave. Batali, a pony-tailed tornado of a man who merits the adjective "Falstafian," agrees. He ushers Buford into the controlled chaos that boils, grills, braises and sautes the critically acclaimed Italian food of Babbo, the crown jewel in Batali's clutch of restaurants. And then the chef pretty much abandons him there, forcing Buford, a rank amateur, to find his place in the often brutal pecking order of the kitchen.
Besides detailing his many mini-maimings and near-roastings, Buford breaks down how a three-star kitchen actually works. Amid the military-like professionalism, there can be a surly even bullying atmosphere, this despite Batali's distaste for screaming, macho chefs. Buford notes how the kitchen's Latinos, ubiquitous to every restaurant, seem faceless to their co-workers, and he reports acts against hygiene not seen in print since George Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris. Along the way, he writes about Batali's picaresque career and a food demimonde as fevered and thrilling as New York's literary scene in the '20s. Batali represents his clique well. His gluttony for late nights of drinking and feasting is matched only by his lust for cooking mastery and financial success. As Batali is quoted saying more than once, what he does for a living is first and foremost a business.
If this were the sum of Heat, it would be an entertaining foray into a subculture Americans can't get enough. But it's not, which is why Heat is so enthralling.
It's also a memoir about Buford falling in love with an existence that affirms his humanity. What should have been a straightforward assignment becomes a reckoning for him. He leaves for Italy once his long gig at Babbo is up. Like Batali, and so many others from Babbo's kitchen, he wants to learn Italian cooking in Italy. He wants the pure experience. He heads with his wife to Tuscany, where he apprentices to a master butcher. He discovers food, acquires skills and imbibes scenery available nowhere else. It's bliss, and its glow warms the entire book.
If Bill Buford gave us a tour of hell in Among the Thugs, here he opens the door to something like paradise.
NPR's Ellen Silva produced this series.