What’s The USP? A food memoir by esteemed American writer and editor Bill Buford about his five-year odyssey to master the art of French cooking. The book contains detailed descriptions of the preperation of some dishes but there are no recipes and it is not a cookbook.
Who’s the author? Bill Buford has been a writer and editor for the New Yorker since 1995. Before that he was the editor of Granta magazine for sixteen years and, in 1989, became the publisher of Granta Books. He is also the author of Among the Thugs and Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany. He was also a contributor to Daniel: My French Cuisine by Daniel Boulud.
What’s the story morning glory? There are several main threads to the book: Buford’s experiences working in various Lyonnaise kitchens; his wider food related experiences in Lyon and the surrounding region; his academic exploration into the the Italian influence on French cooking, and how the relocation from New York to Lyon affected Buford’s home life with his wife and young twin sons. Along the way, we also meet Buford’s mentors, the late Washington-based chef Michel Richard and Michelin-starred, Lyon-born and New York-based chef Daniel Boulud.
Why do I want to read 400 pages about an old American white bloke indulging his personal obsession for French food? Admittedly, you could hardly call Dirt a zeitgeist read. Its publication in 2020, more than 10 years after many of the events of the book (Buford’s two part BBC documentary Fat Man in a White Hat, which shares much of the same material as the book was released back in 2010. You can watch the whole thing here) and when the conversation around food writing has shifted firmly towards diversity, isn’t great timing. That aside, Buford is a great writer, a master storyteller and attacks his subject with enormous vigour and infectious enthusiasm. You will learn a great deal about the history and techniques of French cuisine and be hugely entertained along the way.
What won’t I love about the book? There is an awful lot going on. By the end of the book, Buford has spent time in Michel Richard’s kitchen, relocated his entire family from New York to Lyon, trained at Institut Paul Bocuse, worked at Merer Brazier restaurant and Philippe Richard Artisan Boulangerie, helped slaughter a pig, visited an artisan bakery and mill, gone river fishing, made Beaufort cheese, attended the Bocuse D’or and Meilleur Ouvrier de France cooking competitions, as well as several gastronomic conferences, made an academic study of the Italian influence on French cuisine and introduced his readers to dozens and dozens of characters including many of Lyon’s major culinary players, even the late-great Paul Bocuse himself.
By the time Buford is hiking up the Grande Montagne de Virieu, Belley to visit the abbey of Saint Sulpice in order to follow in the footsteps of food writer Brillat-Savarin for some bloody reason, I felt exhausted. I’d spent too much time inside the head of someone whose obsession I shared but couldn’t keep pace with.
One of Buford’s greatest assets as a writer is his ability to totally immerse himself in a subject. In his first book, Among The Thugs he got so close to 1980s English soccer hooligan culture that he almost became a hooligan himself. It constitutes one of the most extreme examples of what the New York Times has described as ‘participatory journalism’ and is a must-read. But that Zelig-like quality can also be a liability; Buford becomes so much a part of his subject that he can at times lose objectivity. The various strands that make up Dirt are obviously equally important and interesting to Buford, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true for the reader. There are some clunky gear changes between personal memoir, reportage, description of cooking techniques and dishes and academic historical study. It feels like four books in one, but maybe that just means it’s good value.
Should I buy the book? If you’ve read and enjoyed Buford’s previous books, Dirt will not disappoint. If you’re unfamilar with French cuisine, this is an excellent introduction to the subject and even if you’re a Francophile, you will almost certainly learn something new. Buford may be guilty of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the book (actually, there are kitchen sinks) but it is nevertheless an extremely readable book, albeit one that will probably appeal most to the food and restaurant nerds among us.
Cook Book Review rating: Four stars
Buy this book
Dirt: Adventures in French Cooking
£16.99, Johnathan Cape