The subtitle of this book tells it all: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. Bill Buford quit his job as a writer/editor for The New Yorker to learn to be a chef in the small kitchen of Mario Batali's restaurant Babbo.
In the fascinating story of how Buford goes from a carrot-chopping prep cook to a reliable line cook, we learn the inner workings of a restaurant and the tale of how Mario became . . . well, Mario. And we follow Buford to Italy, where he becomes a pasta intern and then a student of a famous butcher.
Although Babbo, Mario, and the internal politics of restaurant life are woven throughout the narrative, Buford is really writing about the difference between being a good home cook and being a chef. One of the primary goals of a restaurant chef is to cook a limited range of dishes that are exactly the same every single time they are served. A home cook has the freedom to serve whatever he or she wants, and guests do not expect any one dish to be prepared and presented with precise consistency. Restaurant eaters have different expectations.
Chefs listen, smell, and touch food to determine doneness and the state of a dish. They rely less on sight and taste than does the home cook. Buford learned to develop what is called "kitchen awareness"--an almost instinctive sense of what needs to be done, based on just a particular sound coming from the pan, for example.
Buford also examines ingredients, among them wine, flour, eggs, and meat. The conclusion, especially for animal products, is that "the breeding, not the breed" is key. In other words, store-bought eggs do not behave the same as farm-fresh eggs, and feed-lot beef does not have the same properties as grass-fed beef.
This is wonderfully written with laugh-out-loud moments while Buford relates his failures and triumphs as a cook and introduces us to the eccentric group of people who become his mentors. I recommend this book to anyone interested in food, Mario, Italian cooking, or restaurants. Don't miss out on Buford's story.
Michael Kramer did a terrific job narrating the unabridged audio edition.
This book was part of Historia's Books about Food Challenge. For a summary of this post and to see what food books others have read and reviewed, click here.
Published by Random House, 2007
Challenges: Books about Food, 25 Books