Bill Buford has been a favorite writer of mine since I absently picked up a copy of Among the Thugs at a used bookstore many years ago. Buford had the fortitude to not just report on, but travel with a band of English soccer hooligans and try to figure out what made them tick.
In his book Heat, newly out in paperback, Buford takes on Mario Batali and an obsession with authentic Italian cuisine. Buford not only gives us insights into the character of Food Network giant Mario Batali (who comes off as a much cruder, funnier, ruder, and yes, more sexist version of his TV persona), but also gives us insight into the workings of a truly top-notch restaurant kitchen.
Buford submits himself to the process of working as a kitchen slave at Babbo, eventually working his way up to prep and then the grill (and getting kicked off the grill, abruptly and rudely one night). Buford's take on Babbo's kitchen is as a rough but exhilarating place with plenty of drama involving illegal Latino immigrants (one of whom commits suicide ), sociopath kitchen managers, challenges issued and risen to, neurotic chefs, family dinners that unite the staff, and conflicts that divide them.
But Buford isn't content merely to experience Babbo as a way to understand Mario Batali. Buford meets Marco White, a British superstar chef with whom Batali worked and clashed before rising to his own success in New York. Much of Batali's approach, including his more even temper with staff, and his disdain for "French" dishes (those that are too fussy), comes as a negative reaction to White and Mario's time with him.
Eventually, the Batali approach leads Buford to take a trip to Italy to experience authentic Italian food the way Mario Batali experienced it when he was learning. He spends time with the woman who taught Mario pasta, and as the book continues, he spends time going beyond Batali's experience and interning with a crazed Tuscan butcher who recites long drunken stanzas of Dante at him and teaches him the value of slow food done in a way that is disappearing from the world.
Buford's writing is clear, evocative, and compelling, just as it was in Among the Thugs. I loved every page of this book and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in restaurants, Mario Batali, Italian food, or just good non-fiction writing.