"This book may well be an even greater pleasure than its predecessor. Moving himself, his wife and their two young boys to Lyon, Buford sets out, with characteristically self-deprecating humor, not merely to learn the techniques of French cuisine, but to understand its essence . . . Most enjoyable are the apprenticeships in which he sets out to master the five mother sauces, bake the perfect baguette and construct the same misleadingly named ''duck pie'' . . . Delightful, highly idiosyncratic."
—Lisa Abend, The New York Times Book Review
"I heartily recommend Bill Buford''s
Dirt . . . blazingly entertaining . . . Buford again proves himself to be a relentless reporter and a self-deprecating guide . . . As his title suggests, it''s not just the fanatical dedication and meticulously exacting prep. This deliciously salty chronicle, loamy with culinary history and profiles of the great chefs, is worth digging into."
—Heller McAlpin, NPR
"A welcome reminder of simpler times . . . Buford''s writing is filled with humor and heart . . . He unveils the importance of understanding a city in order to better prepare its dishes . . .[and] underlines a deeply resonant tenet of life: the value of community."
"As with good cookery, no shortcuts are taken in
Dirt. When Buford picks up a subject — be it bread or language or culinary history or Italian versus French food or the nature of Lyon — that subject is simmered until every tendon has softened. This is a big book that, like an army, moves entire divisions independent of one another. Watching Buford choose a topic for scrutiny is like watching an enormous bodybuilder single out one muscle, on the mountain range of his or her arms, for a laser-focused burn . . . He has a smart, literate, sly voice on the page . . . There is an excellent history of cooking in Lyon, with Fernand Point and Paul Bocuse at its molten center . . . I admire this book enormously; it’s a profound and intuitive work of immersive journalism."
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"You can almost taste the food in Bill Buford’s
Dirt, an engrossing, beautifully written memoir about his life as a cook in France . . . Buford brings a novelistic approach to his story; he is both observer and participant. He’s an entertaining, often comical, raconteur . . . His descriptions of his new city are vivid and evocative . . . humorously self-deprecating . . . Buford 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."
—Moira Hodgson, The Wall Street Journal
"At a moment when the thought of food is always percolating, [
Dirt] actually presents an opportunity to examine what it means, exactly, to be an eater . . . There are the usual comic abasements. They spring from Lyon itself, a rough-and-tumble town where fights and vandalism and drunken delinquency appear to be common . . . The juxtaposition between this nasty, brutish world and the civilizational peak that cuisine represents is part of a broader tension—between the rough and the refined, the rustic and the haute—that lies at the heart of cooking, and particularly French cooking. Buford shows us both . . . [He] has extended the old adage,
You are what you eat, to something broader, encompassing history, culture, the world:
We are what we eat. That notion has never rung truer."
—Ryu Spaeth, The New Republic
"[Buford] delves into the controversial origins of French cuisine and restaurants, drawing unflinching portraits of past and present luminaries like culinary school founder Paul Bocuse himself. He pursues origins of dishes, sauces, and their ingredients, even participating in the stark grittiness of butchering a pig and learning that in France the best, most coveted flavors come from the earthiest animal organs. An inside look into haute cuisine."
—Mark Knoblauch, Booklist (Starred)
“Pure pleasure. Masterfully written. If you care at all about food, about writing, about obsessive people with a sense of adventure, you have to read this book. It is, in a word, wonderful.” —
Ruth Reichl, former editor of Gourmet and author of Save Me the Plums
"If you gobbled up Buford’s 2006 book
Heat like a bowl of fabulous pasta, you’ll lap up this new volume like a vat of vichyssoise."
—Bethanne Patrick, The Washington Post
“Buford delivers a vivid and often laugh-out-loud account of the tribulations, humblings, and triumphs he and his family endured in the five years they lived in France . . . . [He] is a delightful narrator, and his stories of attending a pig slaughter, befriending the owner of a local bakery, and becoming gradually accepted by the locals are by turns funny, intimate, insightful, and occasionally heartbreaking. It’s a remarkable book, and even readers who don’t know a sabayon from a Sabatier will find it endlessly rewarding.”
—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"An ebullient, entertaining memoir of life in Lyon . . . [Buford] describes in mouthwatering detail the many dishes he cooked and ate and the charming restaurants the family visited. A lively, passionate homage to fine food."
"A funny, irreverent and obsessive account of his five-year odyssey to discover everything about French food . . . This book doesn’t offer any recipes, per se, but if perused closely, readers can find instructions for assembling perhaps the grandest concoction of them all: a life well and fully lived, seasoned with curiosity, perseverance and humor—and a dash of adventure."
—Alison Hood, BookPage
"There’s plenty for food lovers here, but the book is also a satisfying and envy-inspiring travelogue."
—Joumana Khatib, The New York Times ("11 Books to Watch For in May")
"An antidote to confining apartment walls and the daily tedium of my own pedestrian meals . . . [Buford] is knowledgeable, quick and funny—and
Dirt is a work of cultural, historical and gastronomical depth that reads like an action memoir . . . He truly took me to the heart of French cuisine."
—Eleanor Beardsley, NPR
"Delightful escapism . . . Culinary adventures ensue."
—Mackenzie Dawson, The New York Post ("The Best Books of the Week")
"Arriving right on time to offer us a delicious fantasy trip."
—Colette Bancroft, The Tampa Bay Times
Dirt has the unsurprising effect of making you hungry."
—Drew Hart, The Arts Fuse
"A hilarious and humbling journey into the intimidating world of haute French cuisine . . . Reveals the ugly truth about the vituperative culture of apprenticeship in the French kitchen, complete with pervasive bullying, humiliation and acts of physical and emotional abuse . . . Frequently funny and always candid."
—Frank Brasile, Shelf Awareness for Readers
“Bill’s ability to fully immerse himself in a foreign place, seemingly at the drop of a dime, is always a sight to behold. With
Dirt, Bill dives deep into the unforgiving kitchen culture of Lyon and expresses what it’s truly like to be a cook in this legendary food city.”
“As a young cook, I dreamed of one day working in the formidable French kitchens depicted in
Dirt, but I never got the chance. Now, after reading this unprecedented inside account from one of the greatest writers of his generation, I''m convinced I actually did. Bill’s latest is required reading for anyone with a love of history, good eating, and masterful storytelling.”
—David Chang, restauranteur, broadcaster, and author
"There’s plenty for food lovers here, but the book is also a satisfying and envy-inspiring travelogue."
—Joumana Khatib, The New York Times
“Bill Buford is an enthusiast of the highest order. His deep dive into Lyonnais cuisine is a detective story, a love story, and an act of bare-knuckled reverence. It’s earthy, brainy and delicious.” —
Pamela Druckerman, author of
Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting
“This well and vividly written paean to Lyonnaise cuisine is insightful, incisive, and informative. From the amazing creativity of Michel Richard to the strict discipline of the Institut Bocuse, from the brutal hierarchy of La Mére Brazier to the making of bread in Lyon and Savoy, Bill Buford weaves a tale as smooth as a pike quenelle and as rich as a Bresse chicken in cream sauce. Alternatively buoyant, humorous and thoughtful,
Dirt is a very enjoyable feast."
—Jacques Pépin, chef, author, teacher, and co-host of “Julia and Jacques at Home”
“A thrilling tale of adventure, family, and great cooking inside some of the world’s most influential and iconic kitchens, from the Institut Paul Bocuse to La Mère Brazier.”
—Eric Ripert, Chef & Co-owner Le Bernardin , and author of 32 Yolks
Dirt—his memoir of an apprenticeship in the unforgiving temples of French cuisine in Lyon—is a chomping, romping, savoury tour de force: by turns hilarious (often at his own expense); and seriously thought provoking about our relationship with cooking and appetite. Rabelais would have loved it. You finish it stuffed and groggy with happy illumination but as with every great feast, wanting even more!”
—Simon Schama, historian and author of nineteen books, including Rough Crossings
Dirt, Bill Buford talks his way into the cooking schools, bakeries, and chefs’ kitchens of Lyon—in French, yet—while staying (mostly) in his family’s good graces. The result is a book to drool for.
—Mary Norris, author of Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen and Greek to Me
"Buford spent five years cooking his way through the famed kitchens of Lyon, France, in an attempt to answer the question: why is French food so damn good? The answer, perhaps, lies in the book’s title (spoiler alert), but the journey to get there is a delicious and eye-opening one."
—Plate Magazine ("Spring’s Best Food Books")
Dirt is a memoir about French cuisine, but it''s also about family, work, obsession, perfectionism, and what happens when you actually do that crazy thing you''ve always wanted to do."
"A warm and funny and very delicious story about a man late in life falling in love with cooking . . . Buford [is] an energetic, exquisite writer . . . Once he arrives in Lyon for the serious instruction
Dirt has really hit its stride, tasty and Dickensian in its characterizations and also ridiculous."
—John Freeman, Lit Hub ("Lit Hub''s Most Anticipated Books of 2020")
"Buford illustrates just how difficult rising through the ranks of restaurant kitchens can be, even for classically trained young chefs—especially when those chefs are women or non-white . . . Much of the humor here comes from anecdotes about Buford’s surprisingly resilient young family . . . One wonders if Buford will again upend his family’s life to embark on another international culinary adventure. If so, readers will be eager to pack up and follow along."
—Norah Piehl, Bookreporter
Bill Buford is the author of
Among the Thugs. He has received a Marshall Scholarship, a James Beard Award, and the Comune di Roma’s Premio Sandro Onofri for narrative reportage. For eighteen years, Buford lived in England, and was the founding editor of the literary magazine
Granta and the founding publisher of Granta Books. He moved to the United States in 1995 to join
The New Yorker, where he has been the fiction editor, a staff writer, and a regular contributor. In 2008, he moved with his family to Lyon, France, and lived there for five years. He was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, educated at University of California, Berkeley, and King’s College, Cambridge, and now lives in New York City with his wife, the wine educator and writer Jessica Green, and their twin sons.
Dans la vie, on fait ce qu’on peut. À table, on se force.
In life, we do what we can. At the table, whoa, we eat
Anonymous Lyonnais saying, translated (loosely) by the author
On a bright, chilly, autumnal afternoon in 2007, I met Michel Richard, a chef and the man who would radically change my life—
and the lives of my wife, Jessica Green, and our two-year-old twins—without my quite knowing who he was, and in the confidence that, whoever he might be, he was someone I would never see again.
My wife and I had just celebrated our five-year wedding anniversary, and were at the head of a line in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, waiting to board a train back to New York. At the last minute, the man I didn’t yet know to be Michel Richard appeared off to the side. He was out of breath and sizable, not tall but round, and impossible to miss. He had a modest white beard, a voluminous black shirt, tails untucked, and baggy black trousers. (Baggy
chef pants, I realize now.) I studied him, wondering: I don’t know him, do I?
Of course I knew him! By what algorithm of memory and intelligence could I
not have recognized him? He had written a book,
Happy in the Kitchen, that, by a fluke of gift-giving friends, I owned
two copies of, and, six months before, had won the “double” at the James Beard Foundation Awards in New York City, for Outstanding Wine Service
and for being the Outstanding Chef of the United States—
and I had been in the audience. In fact, at that moment, I had French chefs on my mind (for reasons that I was about to spell out to my wife), and here was one of them, regarded by many as the most delightfully inventive cooking mind in the Northern Hemisphere. He was, to be fair, looking neither delightful nor inventive and was smelling unmistakably of red wine, and of sweat, too, and I suspected that the black show-no-stains shirt, if you got close to it, would have yielded up an impressively compressed bacterial history. And so, for these and other reasons, I concluded that, no, this man couldn’t be the person I couldn’t remember and that, whoever he might be, he was definitively a queue jumper, who, casting about for a point of entry, had fixed on a spot in front of my wife. Any moment the gate would open. I waited, wondering if I should be offended. The longer I waited, the more offended I could feel myself becoming, until, finally, the gate did open and I did a mean thing.
As the man made his dash, I stepped into his path and,
smack, we collided. We collided so powerfully that I lost my balance and flopped awkwardly across his stomach, which somehow kept me from falling, when, without knowing how, I was in his arms. We stared at each other. We were close enough to kiss. His eyes darted between my nose and my lips. Then he laughed. It was an easy, uninhibited laugh. It was more giggle than laugh. It could have been the sound a boy makes on being tickled. I would learn to recognize that laugh—high-pitched and some- times beyond controlling—and love it. The line surged. He was gone. I spotted him in the distance, padding down a platform.
We proceeded slowly, my wife and I, and I was, for my part, a little stunned. In the last car, we found facing seats, with a table between. I put our suitcases up on the rack and paused. The window, the light, the October slant of it. I had been here before, on this very same day of the calendar.
Five years ago, having celebrated our just-marriedness with an impromptu two-night honeymoon in Little Washington, a village in the Virginia countryside, we were making our way back to New York and boarded this very train. At the time, I was about to suggest to my wife of forty- eight hours that we celebrate our marriage by quitting our jobs. We were both magazine editors. I was at
The New Yorker. She was at
Harper’s Bazaar. I’d prepared a speech about moving to Italy, the first step in the direction of the rest of our lives. I wanted to be taught by Italians how to make their food and write about it. Couldn’t we go together? It wasn’t really a question. Jessica lived for the next chance to pack her bag, and had a mimic’s gift for languages which included, conveniently, the one they speak in Italy, which, as it happens, I couldn’t speak at all.
We never went back to being editors.
We lived in Tuscany for a year, and, somehow, I went reasonably native and, to my continuing astonishment, when I opened my mouth and uttered a thought, it came out (more or less) in Italian. In the after- math, I wanted to “do” France. It wasn’t next on the list (as in “Then we’ll ‘do’ Japan!”). It was secretly where I had wanted to find myself for most of my adult life: in a French kitchen, somehow holding my own, having been actually “French-trained” (the enduring magic of that phrase). But I could never imagine how that might happen. Our time in Italy showed me that it didn’t take much imagining—just get your- self there, and you’ll figure it out. Besides, Jessica’s gifts for languages included, conveniently, the one they speak in France, which, by another coincidence, I also couldn’t speak.
Jessica, no longer in an office job, had also owned up to a lifelong longing involving wine, its history as ancient as food, and she seemed to have a skill, comparable to knowing a foreign language, of being able to translate what she found in her glass. I bought her a gift, a blind tasting session hosted by Jean-Luc Le Dû, a celebrated New York sommelier and wine merchant, which consisted of twelve great wines from his personal cellar, attended by fifteen people, including Jean-Luc’s own man- ager, who had won international awards at blind-tasting competitions. Jessica was the only one who identified all twelve wines. Jean-Luc was baffled, and they were
his wines. (“Where do you work?” he asked her.) She started a tasting club at home, ten women picked by her, educated New York City professionals who all said that they “love wine but don’t know anything about it.” She signed up for a course run by the British Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the so-called WSET, with several levels of advancement culminating in a famously challenging “Diploma.” By her second class, she discovered that she was pregnant.
It was a wonderful moment. We promised ourselves that our lives would not change.
We will be gypsies, she said. We imagined a worldly infant suspended in a sling contraption.
Four weeks later, she discovered that she was pregnant with twins, boys, the future George and Frederick. This, too, was a wonderful moment, doubly so, but we gave up on the idea of our lives’ not changing. In fact, we panicked (a little).
The train pulled out. Baltimore, the first stop, was half an hour away. What we’d planned to discuss, what
Jessica wanted to discuss, was why, after three years, my French plan hadn’t been realized.
It wasn’t a mystery, was it? Weren’t their names George and Frederick?
It also wasn’t so complicated—I needed a kitchen—and I hadn’t found one yet. Once in a kitchen, I would pick up the skills.
I had met Dorothy Hamilton at another James Beard event, a char- ity gala and auction. Hamilton ran what was then called the French Culinary Institute. She was blonde, slim, a youthful sixtyish, indefatigably positive, the corporate executive whom American chefs trusted. When the James Beard Foundation ran into an embarrassing account- ing issue (i.e., when its chief executive was systemically skimming the scholarships awarded to young cooks and went to jail), she stepped in to re-establish the institution’s integrity. She wasn’t paid for it. She implemented the fix in her spare time.
I ran my idea by her: the learning-on-the-job shtick, etc.
“France is not Italy,” she said. “You may,” she added diplomatically, “want to attend a cooking school.” She was so diplomatic that she didn’t make the obvious proposal—namely,
her cooking school, even though it was both the only one in the United States dedicated to
la cuisine française and walking distance from our home.
I described what I’d done in Italy: i.e., arriving and figuring it out. Then, for intellectual emphasis, I added: “Cooking schools are a mod- ern confection, don’t you think? Historically, chefs have always learned on the job.”
My approach, I explained to the chief executive of the French Culinary Institute, was to find a venue, make mistakes, be laughed at and debased, and then either surmount or fail. My plan, I elaborated, was to start out in a good French kitchen here in the United States (“But which one?” I mused), and follow that with three months in Paris.
“Three months?” she asked.
She said nothing, as if pretending to reflect on my plan. She asked, “Do you know Daniel Boulud?”
“Yes.” Boulud is America’s most successful serious French chef. He runs fourteen restaurants, most of them called Daniel, or Boulud, or a variation involving his initials.
“He grew up near Lyon,” Hamilton said.
“Yes, I’d heard that.” I had been to Lyon once, to get a bus at six in the morning. I had no sense of it except that it seemed far away.
“Some say that it is the ‘gastronomical capital of the world.’ ”
“Yes, I had heard that, too.” She could have been talking to my toddlers.
“The training, the discipline, the
rigor.” Hamilton drew the word out, slowly, like a nail. “For two years, Daniel cut carrots.”
I nodded. “Carrots,” I said, “are very important.”
Hamilton sighed. “You say you want to work in France for
three months.” She illustrated the number with her fingers. “And what do you think you will learn?”
I wasn’t about to answer.
“I will tell you what you will learn. Nothing.”
The auction opened and bidding commenced. The lots included a massive white truffle (that is, a massive
Italian white truffle), which was only marginally smaller than young Frederick’s extraordinarily large head, and which Hamilton secured with a flamboyant oh-let’s-put-an- end-to-this-nonsense bid of $10,000, whereupon everyone at our table, plus a few friends met en route to the exit, were invited to her apartment on Sunday for lunch.
“I have been thinking about your plan,” Hamilton told me when I showed up, “and I have a gift for you.” She gave me a copy of her school’s textbook,
The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine.
I found a chair in the corner. The book was impressively ponderous, 496 big landscape pages of double columns and how-to pictures. I opened it and landed on “Theory: General Information About Fish
Mousseline.” I flipped. Ten pages were dedicated to making a sauce from an egg. The philosophy of a fricassee got three. My life had been a happy one, not quite knowing what a fricassee was. What person would I have to become to master half of this?
Hamilton sent one of the guests, Dan Barber, over to me. Barber ran two restaurants, both called Blue Hill, one in Manhattan and the other on a farm. I knew him and liked his cooking. It was ferociously local and uncompromisingly flavor-dedicated. I once ate a carrot at a Barber restaurant: by itself, pulled from the earth thirty minutes before, rinsed gently but not skinned, suspended on a carved wood pedestal, and served with several grains of good salt and a drop of perfect Italian olive oil. Barber is thin, with the nervous chest of a long-distance runner, and is wiry, like his hair, and is bookish and articulate. He asked about “my French project,” but before I could answer he interrupted me.
“French training,” he declared. “Nothing more important.”
The statement was unequivocal. It was also refreshing. At the time, the charisma of France was at a low point. People weren’t going there to learn how to cook. They went to extreme outposts of the Iberian peninsula, or isolated valleys in Sweden during the winter.
“Americans think they can do without French training,” Barber said, “but they don’t know what they are missing. I quickly spot cooks who haven’t been to France. Their food is always”—he hesitated, looking for the right word—“well, compromised.” He paused so that I would appreciate the implications.
“You should work for Rostang. Michel Rostang,” he said. The tone was imperious. It was an instruction.
“Rostang?” I knew the name. Paris, one of the fancy guys—linen tablecloths, art on the walls.
“Learn the classics. Rostang.”
I nodded, took out a notebook, and wrote: “
Rostang.” “But why Rostang?”
“Because”—Barber leaned in close—“he is the one I trained with.”
“You worked in Paris!” This came out as a loud blurt. Barber looked over his shoulder, as if embarrassed. I hadn’t meant to blurt. I was just surprised.
“Yes, I worked in Paris. And in Provence. And . . .” The tone was: Duh? “I am French-trained.”
Barber was remarkably tall, which I hadn’t noticed until now, maybe because he is so thin and uses less space than a normal tall person. I also hadn’t noticed that he was wearing a beret.
“You speak French?” I asked. Blue Hill had been the name of Barber’s grandmother’s farm and was important to how he presented himself: Grandma’s kitchen on Saturdays, the down-to-earth Americana of it all. Barber sits on panels in Washington and knew about the chromosome constitution of Hudson Valley garlic root. The Frenchness was confusing. “Do people know this about you?”
He stepped closer. “You can’t get the skills anywhere else.”