Heat by Bill Buford

  1. Bill Buford recounts his time with Mario Batali and in Italy as he learns to cook a variety of meals and styles
Key Takeaways
  1. Batali started in the kitchen of a pub learning from Marco Pierre White – as his “slave.” Marco was known for his violent temper
  2. One only learns by doing, by experimenting. Not simply by reading
  3. A dish is a success when the love is obvious. “Food has always had erotic associations, and I suspect that cooking with love is an inversion of a different principle: cooking to be loved. The premise of a romantic meal is that by stimulating and satisfying one appetite another will be analogously stimulated as well
  4. Time in Italy focused Mario, gave him his culture, settled him down
  5. “But how to go forward? There was no place for me [Buford]. these people were at a higher level of labor. They didn’t think. Their skills were so deeply inculcated they were available to them as instincts. I didn’t have skills of that kind and couldn’t imagine how you’d learn them. I was aware of being poised on the verge of something: a long, arduous, confidence-bashing, profoundly humiliating experience.
  6. Only time Mario gets upset is when VIPs are neglected – these customers mean everything to a restaurant
  7. Has a salesman’s gift for recognizing physiological discomfort in others
  8. Consistency under tremendous pressure – that’s the name of the game
  9. Once become a true cook, one works by the senses rather than by time or temperature
  10. When the grill gets busy, you need the obvious – cheats, checklists, systems to fall back on
  11. It’s easier to remain in the kitchen – the contradictions between cook and guest never surface
  12. “But it was the coincidence that I found so compelling, and once I’d discovered it I couldn’t stop myself from musing on just how bad life in the pub’s dinky kitchen must have been: that no pay would have been more attractive – that anything would have been more attractive – than these two outsized, alpha males’ being cooped up in that hellhole together [Pierre White and Batali]. The coincidence was also instructive. This, it told me, is what you have to do to learn this craft: you keep having to be a slave – not to one master but several, one after the another, until you arrive at a proficiency (whatever that might be) or your own style (however long it takes) or else conclude that, finally, you just know a lot more than anyone else.”
  13. “Like most dyslexics, Marco can spend an hour reading a page of The Times and remember nothing. In a dyslexic, the brain’s abnormalities at processing visual information often develop into unlikely strengths. Marco has an exceptional sense of proportion. “Those disco balls – no one believed they’d come through the door and they started to take down the frames, but I knew there was a millimeter to spare.” He also has a knack for numbers and an uncanny visual sense. White has a photographic memory for dishes and an ability to recall every plate served to him in the last twenty years…When Marco talks like this, I thought, You’re a freak. You’re not seeing the same world I see. He’s like the tall guy in school, who, because of his height, can play basketball better than anyone else. Marco has, in effect, an exaggerated facility to survive in a kitchen. At some point, Marco learned he had this gift but kept it to himself. “Early on, I realized I had a photographic memory for food but wouldn’t tell the chef. I’d be at a new job, working on starters, say, but was always watching and memorizing the other stations so that when I was moved to one I knew exactly what to do. They all thought I was a genius.” Marco’s genius might be nothing more than an exaggerated variation of Mario’s “kitchen awareness,” but it made me realize how this visual facility was not one I had developed, probably because I’m a word guy – most of us are – and for most of my life the learning I’ve done has been through language.”
  14. “You got in trouble and fell behind if you switched your pan from your left hand to your right (took too much time); you got in trouble if you had to ask or wonder or remember, so you aspired to have everything memorized on such a deep level – like language or the alphabet or numbers – that you never found yourself thinking.”
  15. “Good smells and good eating. Very straightforward, very English. Nothing fancy, except that it’s very hard to get the simple things right…Nature is the artist. In normal life, “simplicity” is synonymous with “easy to do,” but when a chef uses the word it means “Take a lifetime to learn.” I made a practice, therefore, of asking Marco about really simple things. I once asked him how he cooks an egg. “Whoa,” he said, “an egg is very important. Give a chef an egg, and you’ll know what kind of cook he is. It takes a lot to cook an egg. You have to understand the egg in order to cook an egg, especially if it’s one you want to eat.” For two days we talked about eggs. How does he fry one, for instance…”
  16. Never challenge the person in charge, especially when he’s wrong
  17. “Once again the same challenge. Was I ready? Yes and Yes. I set up the station. I saw what was missing. I cooked and browned my fennel. I cut my rosemary – fast: bam  bam, bam. I sorted out the thyme. I prepared six sauté pans of rabbit. And the more I did, the looser I got, like an athlete warming up. The thickness in my head melted away. My movements became more fluid. I completed a task and knew what I had to do next and what I needed to do after that one was done. The service started. I was ready. I fell into a rhythm. I was seeing the kitchen in a way I’d never seen it. I seemed to be seeing everything. Was this adrenaline? Was it a clarity that comes from exhaustion? I couldn’t explain why I was feeling so good, especially after feeling so bad. I knew where everyone was at every point in their preparations. I understood all the tickets and all the items on them. I was working with Frankie, but again somehow, I don’t know how, I knew what he was going to do before he did it, when he wanted something before he asked for it. “Bill, I need the -” but whatever it was, now I already had it. I was cooking: fast, hard, effectively. It was the most satisfying evening of labor I’d ever experienced.”
  18. The abuse was good because it taught me who I didn’t want to be
  19. Note the seeking in another and for “culinary secrets” and other mythological seeming things which seems a bit sad, great passion, but sad
  20. Can’t do traditional work at a modern pace. Traditional work has traditional rhythms. You need calm. You can be busy, but you must remain calm.
  21. Tuscan soul made up of beef, wine from sangiovese grapes and bread
  22. Sometimes have to be in a place a long time before you see it
  23. Spent time with Dario, Tuscan butcher, rather, an artist
  24. Most important type of knowledge is understanding what you can’t do.
What I got out of it
  1. Fun read with a really good insight into the world of high level cooking