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Dave Wood's Book Report, Aug. 2, 2006

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I read portions of "Heat," by Bill Buford when it appeared serially in the New Yorker. Now Knopf is out with it in book form, at $29.95.

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I'm a foodie who for more hours I want to admit is glued to the food channel. One of my favorite TV chefs is Mario Batali ("Molto Mario") and so when I saw that Buford wanted to work in his restaurants, where my wife and I have eaten, I dove in.

The new book is a highly intelligent and humorous take on what fancy restaurants are like these days. My parents owned a restaurant -- and a good one -- in Whitehall, Wis., for many years, but they would be dazed with what goes on in the modern upscale restaurant these days. Gone are the Sunday chicken dinners, family style, and the hot beef sandwiches and mashed potatoes and gravy ("Commercials" we called them because so many traveling salesmen ate them). Buford tells the story of how an upscale restaurant operates these days.

And how restauranteurs operate. Specifically, how Mario Batali operates. He's a strange dude, that Mario. Not only in terms of dress, with his long pony tail, his omnipresent shorts and orange clogs. His appetites, according to Buford, are huge and range from cocaine to cured pork fat.

One of the most interesting passages involves Batali's preparation for the arrival of New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, whose review could make or break his new restaurant, Babbo:

"Until her review was published, the restaurant's second floor was closed; the bar accepted no more than six people; the maximum seating was restricted to 11 tables; and by the end of the night, there were no more than 50 covers. (Today Babbo does as many as 350.) When there, Reichl had the most experienced waiter, plus a backup waiter, a floor manager and two runners."

So much for an authentic review!

If you think the press recently has given you all you need to know about the Guthrie Theater on the occasion of its new home, you ain't heard nothing yet.

Nodin Press is out with a beautiful coffee table book on the old Guthrie in "The Guthrie Theater: Images, History, and Inside Stories," by Peg Guilfoyle. At $37.95, the book is a steal. When it crossed my desk, my wife, a longtime Guthrie patron, said "Sell this book when you've reviewed it and you'll be in big trouble with me."

So it now reposes on our overcrowded shelves. It's a beauty, chock full of photos portraying figures from Sir Tyrone Guthrie, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in the opening year to artistic director Joe Dowling today. Author Guilfoyle, who worked on the Guthrie staff for many years, lards her tale with all manner of inside stories from actors and directors.

Speaking of actors, It's fun to have one's memory jogged about all the famous film and TV stars who at one time or another trod the boards at the Guthrie: Among them: F. Murray Abraham ("Amadeus"), Theodore Bikel, Blair Brown, Zoe Caldwell, Len Cariou, Morgan Freeman, Kelsey Grammer, Tovah Feldschuh and on and on. There's even two kids from my home county in western Wisconsin on the list: Jon Hegge and John Paul Gamoke.

Guilfoyle and publisher Norton Stillman have done a wonderful job portraying the diversity of a great regional theater in both words and pictures.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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