MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Today we continue with our summer reading series You Must Read This. We're hearing about books that people are passionate about and urge their friends and colleagues to read. Oscar Villalon is the book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle and he's a huge fan of a certain former literary editor at the New Yorker Magazine. Perhaps that's why his choice of a must read book is no surprise.
OSCAR VILLALON reporting:
More than 15 years ago, Bill Buford's first book, Among the Thugs, was published. It was an engrossing piece of reporting 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 to Turin for a match and the rampaging that ensues becomes a vivid set piece.
It's interesting to see then that Buford's new book, Heat, returns him to the boozy fold of pasty, beefy and slightly deranged young men. And Italy once again figures as a staging ground. 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, The New Yorker's former fiction editor, persuaded celebrity chef Mario Batali of Molto Mario 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 sautés 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 maimings and near-roastings, Buford breaks down how a three-star kitchen works. Amid the military-like professionalism, there can be a surly, even bullying, atmosphere, this despite Batali's distaste for screaming macho chefs. He writes about Batali's picaresque career and a food deminimonde as fevered 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. If this were the sum of Heat, it would be an entertaining foray into a subculture that Americans can't get enough of.
But it's not, which is why Heat is so enthralling. It's also a memoir about Buford falling in love with a life affirming existence. 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 travels 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 page. If Bill Buford gave us a tour of hell in Among the Thugs, here he opens the door to something like paradise.
NORRIS: The book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, Oscar Villalon, recommends Bill Buford's testosterone-laced Heat. You Must Read This continues at NPR.org.