Non-Fiction Book Review


There is a moment in every foodie’s life where s/he wonders if s/he could make it as a real chef – trade the part-time apron for a full-time position in a kitchen. For Bill Buford that dream became reality he chronicled in his excellent book Heat.

Heat is really three books in one. First is the story of his year and a half at Mario Batali’s kitchen. When I say he started at the bottom of the pecking order I mean the basement. This reader was astounded at his utter lack of cooking prowess and knife skills and wondered if his true skills were hidden to make his metamorphosis into true cook all the more dramatic.

 

Either way, his account of his rise through the ranks (and through the cooking stations) is recounted with sensitivity, perceptivity and humour. We are allowed to understand Buford’s frustration and his triumphs, and we get a behind the scenes look at kitchen culture and the various chefs personalities.

Heat is also a great primer about the boisterous life of the legendary Mario Batali (Babbo) recounted so honestly and vividly that my liver hurt as I read about his hard-living lifestyle.The truly amazing and touching parts of the book do not recount Buford’s time with Batali.  Rather, Buford’s time in Italy learning to make pasta and his time at Dario’s world famous butcher shop. 

Buford’s explanation of the art of making pasta is masterful.  After getting through this second of Heat’s triptych my view of pasta making went from black and white to Technicolor. In fact, the week after I read the book I went out and bough a pasta maker – a good half-way house to the real pasta making deal. Buford gives us a thumbnail sketch of the complexity and subtleties of making pasta and impresses the idea that to give it its famous “cat’s tongue” texture.

The part of the book that is surely to be a hit with those looking for sentimentality. Buford’s time at Dario’s butcher shop in Tuscany – touted to be the best butcher shop in the world – is nothing short of amazing. One can almost smell the aging meet and taste the meats from the animals Buford is taught to prepare. No longer will I associate butcher with mindless cutting – it is an art of the highest order.

Heat is an necessary addition to any foodie’s library and a fascinating read that will certainly engender feelings of jealousy. I yearned to have the opportunity (and luck!) that Buford had to live out his dream and rise up to the challenge of being a professional cook. When I put this book down I felt saddened that it ended…and started reading it again from page 1.

“Before embarking on this project, it was important to set the ground rules.  I told my ghost-writer, James Steen, that I wanted this book to be interesting, insightful and inspirational…” states the introduction to White Slave, English chef Marco Pierre White’s “autobiography”.  A tall order to fill, however anyone writing about this enfant terrible of the cooking world would have no problem making the book interesting.  Indeed, so engrossing were this book’s 300 pages that this reader ached for it to go on for another 300.

For those who are new to the world of cuisine and the cult of chefs that populate it, Marco Pierre White was arguably the first rock star celebrity chef and the youngest chef to be given three stars from the Guide Michelin. White has also trained and produced some of England’s great chefs, most notably the infamous Gordon Ramsay.  White’s book begins with his Dickensian upbringing in
Leeds, England and quickly moves to the devastating death of his mother when he was six years old – an event from which White has yet to recover.  One might expect White’s childhood to be eclipsed by his boisterous life

as a chef.  In fact, his youth is thoroughly entertaining and young Marco the outdoorsman-hustler seems to be the perfect springboard for Marco the chef-legend.

As the book and White’s career gains momentum the reader is taken along for the ride.  Anyone reading this book was certainly struck by White’s astounding luck and the role fate had played in his career.  He seemed to float from one quality establishment to another, learning from the best and developing his skills before somehow finding himself at another top restaurant almost by chance.  In one episode, he was looking for a place to stay in London after missing a train and found himself in front of Le Gavroche, a top restaurant that he had failed to apply to because its application form was in French.  Dishevelled and exhausted, White simply asks for a job and gets it!  Mind you, his success was based in part on his work at another respected establishment, but his success is nonetheless a remarkable achievement.  Another chapter recounts how White ended up in a pub working with none other than Mario Batali!

 

Scandal and celebrity gossip are also the order of the day.  Some more memorable stories include a crying Gordon Ramsay, a paternal Michael Caine (“MyCool Caine”), and a confused Prince Charles.  The (apocryphal?) episode in which White fails to recognize one of his ex-wives is also a classic.

 

White Slave is also a good sketch of what it takes to be a chef – the bollockings, the long hours, the stress, and the constant doubt.  Furthermore, it gives newbies (like myself) a behind the scenes look at the ups and downs of the restaurant industry in
London.  It also follows White’s personal ups and downs, painting a portrait of a shy man with an unending drive and who seemed to put loyalty above all else.

 

Despite the rather flat writing, White Slave is a must read for anyone with a taste for gossip and food.  Marco Pierre White can rest easy that his book is both interesting and insightful, and though the prose is certainly not inspirational, White’s life certainly is.