WHEN he was in his late 40s, Bill Buford, founding editor of Granta magazine, author of "Among the Thugs" (a book about soccer hooliganism) and former fiction editor of the New Yorker (where he is now a staff writer), went to Italy to apprentice himself to Tuscany's most famous butcher, Dario Cecchini. Buford arrived in the remote hill town of Panzano on a Sunday afternoon and found the butcher shop full of customers drinking and eating free samples of pig fat. His mentor-to-be spotted him in the crowd and immediately began intoning Dante: "Midway through the road of life, I found myself in a dark wood, on a lost road."
This butcher knew a midlife crisis when he saw one.
"Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany" is the literary outcome of Buford's vertical plunge into the world of professional cooking and food writing. Exuberant, hilarious, glorying in its rich and arcane subject matter, "Heat" is Plimpton-esque immersion journalism -- an amateur bumbling among the adepts -- but it also has much in common with spiritual autobiography, especially that genre in which the student's epiphanies are generously interspersed with drudgery, abasement and humiliation at the hands of mercurial, possibly crazy gurus.
Buford's Virgil on his journey is Mario Batali, a.k.a. Molto Mario of Food Network fame, the red-haired cooking genius of superhuman appetites. Five or six years ago -- the book's chronology is annoyingly murky -- Buford, an amateur but enthusiastic home cook, had invited Batali to his home for dinner and concluded "that he was an insane, eccentric wild man ... that is, a perfect subject for a New Yorker profile."
Unable to find a writer for the profile -- one somehow doubts he tried all that hard -- Buford took on the task. "I ... suspected, correctly, that I might be able to use the assignment to get into Mario's kitchen." Indeed, he worked in the kitchen at Babbo, Batali's flagship Italian restaurant in Manhattan, for six months. The two-part Batali profile appeared in August 2002; two months later, haunted by the fact that he'd been on the verge of discovering something "about food, about myself," Buford left his desk job and returned to the Babbo kitchen -- thus going from "a day spent sitting down to one spent standing up," to learn "a knowledge not found in books."
"Heat" incorporates and expands upon the New Yorker profile of Batali and its inside peek into the kitchen culture at Babbo. Buford also makes frequent jaunts to Europe, where he befriends Batali's first mentor, the brilliant British restaurateur Marco Pierre White ("the most foul-tempered, most mercurial, and most bullying" of chefs), and eventually apprentices himself to Batali's own pasta mentor in Italy, Betta Valdiserri, and then to Cecchini, the Tuscan butcher under whom Batali's father trained during his midlife crisis. (A former chemical engineer at Boeing, Armandino Batali now operates his own small artisanal salumi plant and shop in Seattle.)
As he embarks on his culinary quest, Buford asks Mario Batali what he might learn. "The difference between the home cook and the professional," Batali responds. "You'll learn the reality of the restaurant kitchen.... Consistency under pressure. And that's the reality: a lot of pressure.... You'll also develop an expanded kitchen awareness. You'll discover how to use your senses. You'll find you no longer rely on what your watch says. You'll hear when something is cooked. You'll smell degrees of doneness."
To acquire such skills, Buford discovers, "you keep having to be a slave -- to not one master but several, one after 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." Restaurant kitchens offer "the miraculous pedagogy of relentless repetition." After some months, Buford can chop carrots into an acceptable fine dice; after cooking, peeling, trimming and slicing 150 lamb tongues, he declares himself an expert.