It has taken Bill Buford a long time to give us Dirt. His last book, Heat, which detailed his macho adventures in the Italian kitchen, came out in 2006. But then, as he admits, timing is hardly his thing. If (eventually) he can learn how to rustle up moules à la poulette, a tricky dish involving a sauce made from the jus of sautéed mussels and an egg yolk that a split second either way may ruin, this has no effect whatsoever on other clock-related activities. In Lyon, where he bags himself a gig at La Mère Brazier, one of the city’s most celebrated restaurants, he is always tardy: late for work, late to change into his kitchen clothes, and, sin of sins, late when it’s his turn to make the all-important staff lunch.
The things that I like about this book are also the things that make it flawed
And, yes, if you haven’t fathomed this already, the new book is about French cooking – so it’s out with the pasta and a blase wedge of lemon, and in with the butter, the cream and the kind of pernickety rules you might expect to drive Buford completely mad, but whose strictness, at moments, he seems to find quite the turn-on. (The reader has the impression that if chef had wanted to spank l’Americain on the bottom with une cuillère en bois, he would happily have bent over.) What kind of pernickety am I talking about? Well, most people, for instance, steam asparagus as it comes; those who peel it before cooking (I’m one) are considered to be fusspots. At La Mère Brazier, however, the pointy bits on its stems are flicked off one by one using a paring knife. And imagine this: peas, having been podded, are also slipped out of their individual translucent membranes – so translucent, in fact, that I didn’t previously know of their existence.
But I’m running away with myself, the water boiling when it should only be simmering. When Dirt begins, Buford, formerly an editor at the New Yorker, is commuting from Manhattan to Washington DC, where he is working at Citronelle, a restaurant whose patron is a French chef called Michel Richard. It’s a long week, one that keeps him away from his small twins, and from their mother, Jessica (once a journalist at Harper’s Bazaar, she is now in training to become a wine “educator”). The hours, though, are hardly the point. As we learned in Heat, Buford is in love: not only with cooking, but with the theatre, mythology and passion of the restaurant kitchen. He can no more keep away from Richard’s realm than Apollo could give up Daphne – though the analogy is a poor one, given how bawdy professional chefs can be. (Putain! Buford’s new colleagues shout, all day long.)
Working with Richard, and talking to another famous expat chef, Daniel Boulud, convinces Buford he must go to France. Specifically, it convinces him that he must go to Lyon, the home of the bouchon and the great Paul Bocuse, of quenelles de brochet (those gorgeous pillows of pike) and of andouillettes (a stinky sausage made with, among other bits and pieces, chitterlings and tripe). And go he does, lock, stock and barrel. The family will end up living in Lyon for several years, during which time Buford learns about bread from a baker called Bob, studies at L’Institut Bocuse, possibly the world’s most elite cookery school, and first survives, and then thrives, in the kitchen at the two Michelin-starred La Mère Brazier. All of which is really not bad considering that, on arrival, he could neither speak French nor make a decent vinaigrette.
The things that I like about this book – sometimes, I love them almost as much as I love a fat, chewy slice of saucisson sec – are also the things that make it flawed. I adore Buford’s enthusiasm, which is unstinting, endlessly curious and absolutist in the best sense (no, he will not hang out with other expats; yes, he will try to enjoy the piggiest treats, even when all he can taste is the sty). But could he not, sometimes, rein himself in just a little? There is an awful lot of Dirt (it’s named, incidentally, not after the muddiness of the pike, nor after the state of anyone’s fingernails or filthy mind, but after the land that is the ultimate source of the ingredients of Lyonnaise cooking).
At Granta, which he edited for many years, Buford was famously ruthless; a friend of mine recalls having been reduced to tears by his butchery. Here, though, his verbosity is matched only by his determination. Everything must be described, up to and including the laborious process of getting a French visa. If it were a dish, it would be something rich that can only be eaten in small amounts. Readers should use a teaspoon and remember that any leftovers will taste even better tomorrow.
• Dirt: Adventures in French Cooking by Bill Buford is published by Jonathan Cape (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15