On Buford’s Heat

In the LRB, Steven Shapin reviews Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford.

ristotle specifically looked down his nose at cooks. Knowing how to cook was the sort of instrumental knowledge suitable for a slave. If you were going to live the life of virtue, you needed the right number and sort of slaves, but the idea that you would learn to be a cook yourself was absurd. From the Middle Ages onwards, Continental – more rarely, English – noblemen might, and occasionally did, value their skilled household cooks very highly. They might even make a display of how much they themselves knew about the culinary arts, but the number of gentlemen who sought to acquire cooking skills was small. The Princess Palatine, married to the younger brother of Louis XIV, expressed a certain surprise about the exotic ways of her crapulous son, the regent: ‘My son knows how to cook; it is something he learned in Spain.’ However well regarded your cook was, he was still your servant: why on earth would you want to do that sort of thing yourself?

But a ‘kitchen slave’ is precisely what Buford wanted to be. He chucked his full-time job at the magazine, and for more than two years indentured himself to the celebrity chef Mario Batali at Babbo, then the flagship of Batali’s New York Italianate restaurant empire; for shorter periods, he studied how to make pasta fresca at a restaurant in Emilia-Romagna where Batali himself served an apprenticeship, and how to be a butcher and sausage-maker at the most traditional macelleria in Chianti. And it’s a sign of our times that the general reaction – certainly mine – to Buford’s adventure is more envy than wonderment. Buford paid a heavy price for the skills he acquired. At Babbo, he went through the degradation rituals of the prep and line-cook that have become familiar from the ‘kitchen nightmare’ literary and TV genre. Working for free, he was bumped, burned, bloodied and subjected to verbal abuse.