- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006


By Bill Buford

Knopf, $25.95, 318 pages


Warning: Don’t read this book on an empty stomach. It’s as good as the food it describes, and the food it describes is very good. So are the adventures.

According to his own account, Bill Buford spent 23 years editing other people’s writing. If one checks, however, it turns out that his “day jobs,” as he calls them, were a bit grander than that. From 1979 to 1995 he was a founding editor of the British literary magazine Granta, and then the publisher of Granta Books. And from 1995 to 2003 Mr. Buford was fiction editor of the New Yorker, which means he edited many of the top writers of the day. Today he is a staff writer for the magazine.

In 1983, while living and working in England, Mr. Buford became fascinated by the raucous hooliganism of certain types of British soccer fans, and over the next eight years followed where that, and they, led him. The result was “Among the Thugs,” a nonfiction account of that weird world.

Some critics felt the book contained too much personal observation and not enough analysis; but well over 60,000 readers bought and apparently enjoyed it, and the writer Martin Amis proclaimed it “compelling, intelligent and fully engaged.”

This time around, Mr. Buford is even more “fully engaged,” if that’s possible, and the result is a thoroughly readable and interesting book, especially if you are “into” food.

Having met the famous New York chef Mario Batali (“Multo Mario” of Food Channel fame and co-owner of the three-star NYC restaurant Babbo), Mr. Buford has the incredible chutzpah to invite him to a dinner that he, the author, will be cooking at home. When Mr. Batali accepts, Mr. Buford begins to realize what he has done.

“I was what might generously be described as an enthusiastic cook, more confident than competent (that is, keen but fundamentally clueless) and to this day I am astonished that I had the nerve to ask over someone of Batali’s reputation … but when, wonder of wonders, he then accepted and I told my wife Jessica, she was apoplectic with wonder: ‘What in the world were you thinking of, inviting a famous chef to our apartment for dinner?’” Indeed.

Thanks principally to Mr. Batali’s good nature — apparently not that often seen in his own kitchen — the evening goes well, and Mr. Buford astonishes himself (and his wife) once again by asking the famous chef if he can learn to cook by working in Mr. Batali’s kitchen at Babbo, and once again Mr. Batali says yes.

And so begins a “delicious” tale that has the reader following the author from New York to Italy and back over the course of what appears to be two years, Mr. Buford being as casual with exact time as Chef is with exact measurements.

Folded into the learning experiences are chapters and sections of chapters that describe how and where Batali became Batali, and these are stand-alone interesting, but the most interesting are the accounts of what the author has to endure to learn to become proficient at the various tasks described in the subtitle — line cook, pasta maker and apprentice butcher in Tuscany.

Bill Buford, who is a most entertaining and proficient writer (and one who seems to have outgrown the tendency toward tendentiousness mentioned by several reviewers of his first book), comes close to providing cooking information overload, but, at least for me (who is not, and never will nor aspire to be a fine cook), manages not to do so.

There are two other reasons for buying and reading this book. One is the roguish gallery of memorable characters the author profiles so well, beginning with Mr. Batali and ending with the Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini: “In one hand the butcher held a shiny serrated knife, more military saber than butcher’s tool. He was tall, over six feet. At the time I thought he must be six and a half feet, but that was the effect of the platform, which made him seem comic-book tall, like a cartoon caveman …

“His hands were gigantic. They might have been the largest hands I’d seen in my life. They were way out of proportion with the rest of his body. They looked as if they might be half the length of his arms. The fingers were comparably long, like limbs. He was wearing pink clogs and socks, a pink bandana round his throat, and a pink cotton shirt — taut, almost ill-fitting over the shoulders, which were large and overdeveloped, giving him a hunchbacked appearance.”

The second additional reason for reading this book is that Mr. Buford does equally well when he describes his physical surroundings, be they kitchen interiors or the towns and fields of Tuscany. (I suspect this book will sell a lot of tickets to Italy.)

Finally, there’s the food talk. It’s everywhere, on almost every page, and it’s both intriguing and informative. He says, simply, “I went to Italy, where, during my first lunch, I ate a homemade pasta, and my life, in a small but enduring way, was never the same.”

At the beginning of his apprenticeship, Mr. Buford asks Chef what he can expect to learn in his kitchen: “‘The difference between the home cook and the professional’ … He thought for a moment. ‘You 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.’”

If you love food and cooking, either or both, but are put off by the excessive egos on display in television shows like “The Restaurant” or the smart-guy tone of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential,” not to worry. For the most part, Bill Buford comes across as an eager but properly respectful student of the culinary arts. And one heck of a storyteller. But that’s enough book review. I have to get something to eat.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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