October 13, 2006


by Bill Buford

New Yorker editor Bill Buford spent a year in a celebrity chef's kitchen, and then studied butchery in an Tuscan hill town. This is a book reminiscent of Ruhlman's Making of a Chef and Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. It should have worked. It doesn't.

In his review, Alwin Hawkins observes that the underlying premise is tinged with an awkward arrogance.

Think of the hubris of an amateur, untrained chef stepping into the harsh, hot, unblinking world of the commercial kitchen of one of the great restaurants in New York.

This is one of the differences between Buford's book and its predecessors, and it's telling. Ruhlman begins by surreptitiously changing into the uniform of a student and reports to Introductory Skills Kitchen, and when he gets there he immediately finds that he's late, he's violating the dress code, and he doesn't hold his knife properly. Bourdain is quietly proud of his cooking -- those frites at Les Halles! -- but he's proud, too, to tell you about all the dives he's worked on the way up, and all the ways his kitchen falls short. Buford's always tight with Mario, and if he sometimes cuts himself and sometimes gets into trouble at the pasta station, he's still comfortable.

Bourdain, in the end, is about the contrast between the refined, polished, and expensive front of the house and the rough-and-tumble kitchen. Ruhlman is about how very hard it is to cook well and professionally, since professionals need to be absurdly fast and numbingly consistent. But Heat is caught between them. Buford gets close to the celebrity chef, then veers into kitchen labor problems but never gets to their resolution. He touches on business issues but averts his gaze whenever money gets in the way of romance.

It's a fun book, with a nice sense of connection to history and to vanished kitchens. Even then, there's too much of the Medici and too little of the rustic common sense that lies at the core of the history of cooking. People used to wonder about the invention of bread, but bread is what happens if you leave the porridge too long because little Billy has wandered away or that cute little brown bear has wandered too close. Bread-thickened stews and pasta are just two ends of a continuum: we have some cereal product here and some sauce there and there's nothing else to eat. What do you suggest?