‘Dirt’ memoir is a French fantasy for foodies

Bill Buford, author of ‘Heat,’ travels this time to Lyon, where the food is sublime and the kitchens are cutthroat.
Bill Buford is the author of "Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking."
Bill Buford is the author of "Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking." [ Thomas Schauer ]
Published May 15, 2020

If (like me) you love to travel and plan every journey around visiting great restaurants, you’re probably pretty bummed these days. Arriving right on time to offer us a delicious fantasy trip is Bill Buford’s new memoir, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking.

A longtime editor at the New Yorker, Buford published a bestselling memoir in 2006 called Heat. It was an engaging account of his four-year odyssey to learn Italian cooking, first in one of the hottest (in both senses) kitchens in New York City, then in Italy to apprentice with pasta makers and a butcher. Much of that book’s humor grew out of Buford’s depiction of himself — middle-aged and a not-exactly-accomplished amateur cook — throwing himself into the demanding training usually undertaken by people a decade or two younger.

But he was entirely serious about food and cooking, and that’s true in Dirt as well. Its quest begins about a year after Heat was published, when Buford, living back in New York, literally runs into Michel Richard, “chef and patron of Citronelle, Washington, D.C.'s finest restaurant.” Buford will spend eight months in that restaurant’s kitchen, learning to make proper ratatouille (cook every ingredient separately) and souffles that involve three meringues.

He’s bowled over by a visit to the kitchen by Michel Rostang, chef of a Michelin two-star restaurant in France, and his brigade of chefs: “They were so different from the Americans at Citronelle. We seemed pampered, unserious, soft. They seemed like street brawlers. They were — there is no other word — terrifying.”

There really is no other choice but for him to find a restaurant in France to train in. When he moved to Italy, his wife, Jessica, went along. This time, the family includes 2-year-old twin sons, George and Frederick.

Jessica, fortunately, is as adventurous as her husband and much more organized, not to mention a fluent French speaker. (Buford will have to learn French on the fly.) Their application to live in France requires a mountain of paperwork, including separate financial statements for each toddler. But bureaucratic challenges just awaken her warrior spirit. That spirit will also come in handy once they’ve moved: Jessica, a well-credentialed wine expert, will endure mansplaining about wine by strangers in restaurants, as well as one diner who scolds her for smiling too much.

They move not to sophisticated Paris or sun-kissed, lavender-scented Provence, but to Lyon. Buford writes that it is “a city that knew what it was, whether you liked it or not. It had a personality, a strong one. It wasn’t a boutique destination. It wasn’t naturally friendly. It was a little rough. (I would turn out to be wrong: It was actually very rough and entirely unwelcoming.)”

But it is considered the “gastronomic capital” of France, the heartland of French cooking. It’s also the native turf of countless great chefs; for Buford, most important among them is Daniel Boulud, the brilliant chef who orchestrates a number of French restaurants in the United States, and Boulud’s mentor, Paul Bocuse, known as the Pope of Lyon and godfather of nouvelle cuisine. Boulud will become a mentor to Buford and introduce him to Bocuse.

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Lyon, a trading center since ancient times, also fits into a theory that Buford hopes to prove: that French cuisine has its roots in the cooking of Renaissance Italy. He will find that among the French this theory is not popular.

Lyon is as serious about food as Buford could hope. When they enroll the twins in the preschool in their neighborhood, “an underfunded, overcrowded public school,” they discover that not only is the food in its canteen cooked fresh on site (the twins will be scandalized years later when their New York school uses microwaves), but the canteen never serves the same menu twice in the entire school year.

Buford’s first training will be right on their street, in the boulangerie owned by a bread baker called Bob, with whom they will forge a deepening friendship. Buford will take courses at L’Institut Paul Bocuse, a prestigious culinary school, and cook at an iconic Lyonnais restaurant, La Mere Brazier.

He will learn many things. For one, he’ll learn to pop peas. Not shell peas from their pods — that’s for amateurs — but the delicate and time-consuming technique for slipping the thin skin off of each pea, leaving a perfect orb. Squish a pea? Expect a scornful lecture.

He will also work 15-hour days and witness brutal competition among cooks. When a young cook named Florian tries to bully Buford into doing scutwork for him, another cook, Sylvain, says, “You have to go in there and hit him. ... Yes. Please. Hit. Him. Now.” Sylvain is Florian’s godfather. (Buford doesn’t hit him.)

There are ecstatic moments, too, like when Buford climbs high into the Alps to visit a cheesemaker whose cows graze on 60 varieties of wild grasses around his remote chalet; the process of making the “elegantly delicious” cheese begins while the milk is still warm from the udder.

Among the most poignant passages is one in which Buford describes a hand-written recipe book with a cover of cardboard scraps. He has collected several, most written by women. But this one seems to have been written by a French soldier in a POW camp during World War II, a camp in which most of the prisoners starved to death.

The cookbook is carefully detailed, filled with classic recipes like cassoulet and puff pastry, recipes that its author probably knew he would never cook again. Why write them down?

Buford quotes a French officer, Francis Ambrière, who survived a similar camp and wrote a memoir about it. Such a love for French cuisine, Ambrière wrote, “expressed not just hunger but something deeper: defiance, the revolt of reason, a joy in life.”

Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking

By Bill Buford

Knopf, 432 pages, $28.95