The Gift of Good Soil

From The Wall Street Journal:

More than anything else during this lockdown, I’ve missed restaurants. What wouldn’t I give right now to be sitting with friends in a cheerful bistro, nursing a glass of wine and looking over the day’s menu? Instead, tucked under the bedcovers, I’m reading about dishes I might have ordered had I been so lucky. You can almost taste the food in Bill Buford’s “Dirt,” an engrossing, beautifully written memoir about his life as a cook in France.

“Dirt” refers to the soil that gives food its taste, the goût du terroir to which the French famously attribute the complexities inherent in wine. The book is a sequel to “Heat” (2006), Mr. Buford’s account of how he quit his job as an editor for the New Yorker to work in Italian restaurant kitchens. He was a man obsessed, determined to prove his worth among professionals, earning the requisite badges of honor: knife cuts, singed hair, burns and blisters. Former editor of the literary magazine Granta and author of “Among the Thugs” (1990), a hair-raising account of British soccer hooliganism, Mr. Buford seeks out extreme experiences. He finds plenty when he gets to Lyon.

The city, about 250 miles south of Paris, is the capital of French gastronomy and has been home to the finest chefs, including Daniel Boulud, who is from there, and the great Paul Bocuse. Mr. Buford intends to stay for three months, but he ends up living in the town for five years.

. . . .

During that time he works for a baker, attends a top cooking school and, finally, toils on the line in one of Lyon’s most famous restaurants.

Mr. Buford brings a novelistic approach to his story; he is both observer and participant. He’s an entertaining, often comical, raconteur. “The women were beautiful, as you would expect—it was France,” he observes upon arrival in Lyon. “It was the men who were unexpected. Their look was almost uniform: blunt, short-cropped hair, unshaven, sometimes a cheek scar, thuggish—ugly: forthrightly so. These were not New York faces. They were not Parisian. They were more English than French, an aging-lad look. I thought: I know these people. They are not fancy or fussy, and they unexpectedly put me at ease.”

. . . .

In his neighborhood bistro, a diner complains to Mr. Buford’s wife: “Do you really need to smile so much?” A taxi driver hits his 3-year-old boy for putting his legs on the seat. “I searched for words, while securing my children on the sidewalk, and put my head back into the car to tell the driver, in my best possible French, that he must never (jamais!), ever touch (toucher) my child (mon fils) or I would rip the eyeballs out of his fat sockets and eat them. Actually I have no idea what I said.” Mr. Buford had yet to master the French language.

. . . .

His descriptions of his new city are vivid and evocative. “In Lyon, the rivers make everything built near them—bridges, quais, pastel-painted sixteenth-century homes, random Roman ruins—into performances of light and darkness and reflection. But Lyon is also a throwback city—wiseguys, corrupt cops, unbathed operators working a chance, the women, mainly Eastern European, working their trade. Friday nights are rough: The after-hours clubs across the Saône from our home open at 11:00 p.m. and close whenever . . . Saturday nights, remarkably, are rougher than Fridays. You wake on Sunday and there is a drunk guy leaning against your door. A vehicle that had been parked in front of the apartment has been torched. Farmers arrive early at the market to hose away vomit.”

But early in the morning the enticing smell of bread wafts across the street from a bakery opposite his apartment. He befriends the owner, Bob, a large, jowly man, permanently bedecked with flour. After a month unable to find work in a restaurant, Mr. Buford becomes his apprentice.

The job is a stopgap. He leaves Bob when he is accepted at the prestigious culinary institute named for Paul Bocuse. The course is hard and, as in “Heat,” Mr. Buford is humorously self-deprecating. “My life had been a happy one, not quite knowing what a fricassee was.” At the school he learns, among other things, the three principles of a French plate: colorvolume and texture. Then, at last, he finds a restaurant willing to take him on.

The kitchen in Mathieu Viannay’s Michelin-starred La Mère Brazier was run the old-fashioned French way. It was hierarchical and tense, with 15-hour days. 

. . . .

“The French kitchen was about rules: that there was always one way and only one way (like trimming the gnarly ends off your beans—with your fingertips, never a knife).” There was even a rule about popping peas. Split the pod, drop the peas quickly into boiling water, drain and ice; the pea’s membrane will slide off with a gentle squeeze. He imagines the belly-wobbling laughs this idea would provoke in his Italian colleagues. “In the long history of Italian cuisine, you will not discover a single popped pea.”

But he has another goal besides training in a French kitchen: to investigate the history and origins of that country’s cooking and its links to Italian cuisine. Food historians have debunked the long-held myth that Catherine de’ Medici taught the French how to cook.

. . . .

This attitude towards food prevails even at the local school where Mr. Buford’s twins are enrolled. For lunch, the children are served three-course meals, no menu ever repeated during the year, ending with cheese, fruit, dessert or yogurt.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)