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Getting schooled in fine cuisine -- in the harshest of kitchens

Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, By Bill Buford, Knopf, 318 pp., $25.95

In his funny, passionate, and beautifully written ``Heat," Bill Buford learns that Italians take their cuisine very seriously. During Buford's first morning apprenticing for famed Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini, he watches Cecchini refuse to sell steaks to three customers because ``in Dario's eyes, the customers hadn't been worthy." Later, Cecchini invites Buford to a nearby restaurant, where the butcher explodes into an expletive-laden tirade upon discovering that the proprietor dares to serve goose raised outside of Tuscany. ``What are you? Disneyland?" an incredulous Cecchini sneers at the proprietor.

Buford's narrative is a delightful meal of savory flavors: part travelogue, part biography of superstar chef Mario Batali and his mentors, part memoir of Buford's culinary education, part history of Italian cooking, and part behind-the-scenes look at one of America's finest Italian restaurants.

``Heat" opens with Buford, then fiction editor and now a staff writer at The New Yorker, inviting Batali to a dinner party. At 3 a.m., Buford watches in awe as a rotund, inebriated Batali plays air guitar to Neil Young and then salsa dances with a drunken woman and her boyfriend. Sniffing a great story with a gripping protagonist, Buford asks Batali if he can become his ``kitchen slave."

Buford starts at the bottom at Batali's renowned Manhattan eatery, Babbo. Problems ensue. He slices his hand preparing duck, the first of many kitchen mishaps. He's the target of constant abuse from the Babbo staff. When Buford chops celery and tosses the florets in the trash, Batali screams: ``What have you done? . . . You're throwing away the best part." Another chef, after inspecting Buford's badly cooked fennel, hurls it into his face.

But Buford does learn. On his first night working the hellishly hot grill, he notices that ``the hair on my arms had disappeared, except for one straggly patch by my elbow, which had melted into black goo." He quickly realizes how sensual cooking is, how he needs to use his eyes, his taste, his fingers, and his nose to ``feel" when food is ready.

While Buford learns about life in the kitchen, he researches Batali's career, visiting London, California, and Italy to meet Batali's mentors. They become Buford's mentors too. The author masters the mysteries of handmade pasta at the cutting table of an old Italian woman who had taught Batali. From these eccentric mentors, Buford uncovers the richness, history, and small-scale charm of Italian cooking.

Again and again, Buford's mentors exhibit a disgust with the ``business side" of cooking, even mocking Batali for his financial success. When Buford meekly asks Cecchini about his business, the indignant butcher unleashes a diatribe about how he is not a businessman but an artist, comparing himself with Michelangelo. Buford's pasta mentor, Betta, swears him to secrecy before revealing her centuries-old secret to making tortellini. Over time, Buford appreciates the wonders of handmade pasta, preferring food made slowly and with love to food prepared quickly and for profit.

Buford may be a culinary apprentice, but he's a master prose stylist. His descriptions of preparing food, from braised spare ribs to polenta to pasta, are marvelous in their clarity and vivid, sensuous detail. Buford clearly loves food, and the people who help him understand it, and this love suffuses every page. ``Heat" is more than just a tasty treat; it's a memorable meal made with passion and served with brio.

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