Dirt by Bill Buford reviewed

Dirt Book Cover Dirt
Bill Buford
Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
October 1, 2020

In Dirt, Bill Buford--author of the best-selling, now-classic, Heat--moves his attention from Italian cuisine to the food of France. Baffled by the language, determined that he can master the art of French cooking--or at least get to the bottom of why it is so revered--Buford begins what will become a five-year odyssey by shadowing the revered French chef Michel Richard in Washington, D.C. He soon realizes, however, that a stage in France is necessary, and so he goes--this time with his wife and three-year-old twin sons in tow--to Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France. Studying at l'Institut Bocuse, cooking at the storied, Michelin-starred Mere Brazier, Buford becomes a man obsessed--to prove that French cooking actually derives from the Italian, to prove himself on the line, to prove that he is worthy of these gastronomic secrets. With his signature humor, sense of adventure, and masterful ability to immerse himself in his surroundings, Bill Buford has written what is sure to be the food-lover's book of the year.

Dirt by Bill Buford

While not able to speak French, Bill Buford decides he wants to learn the art of French cooking in France and preferably at what may be seen as the centre of it – Lyon. The book is the story of his journey. Initially he manages to convince a French chef working in New York to give him an opportunity. Fairly quickly it becomes apparently that this will not satisfy Bill. However, as someone who is primarily an author and journalist, can he really convince professional chefs in France to give him a chance? He moves with his wife and two young children to France.

The start of Dirt is really very foodie indeed. Indeed one of my first comments is that he is not quite as inexperienced as I had originally thought. He has already spent time in Italy learning to cook. I found the personal aspects of this part of the book quite interesting. However there was a fair amount of name dropping of famous chefs – I began to feel I might not be the target audience for this book.

After his arrival with his family in France however it improved for me. If anything it became even more about Michelin starred chefs but despite that I became more interested. I also started to learn things. I for one didn’t know the variations of the word for “chicken” that exist in French for example. He watches boudin noir being made at a local farm in the traditional way. This will not be to everyone tastes – veggies particularly be wary – interesting nonetheless in the sense of culture and tradition. He persuades his local baker to allow him to work there. I really enjoyed his time with Bob the baker. It illustrates very well just how deeply embedded bread is in the minds of the people of France.

After that he manages to get a leading culinary school to allow him into the classes. This brings in discipline and simply doing things properly. There is perfection with omelets and fish. Parts of this book should definitely not be read when you are hungry!!

From here he gets a leading Lyon restaurant to employ him. I found this in parts fascinating and in parts terrible. I am sure many of us are aware of the way people behave in restaurant kitchens however there are graphic illustrations of bad behaviour here. The author himself is guilty of something that I find very annoying – persistent lateness. He continues to turn up late letting down his colleagues – infuriating. I think his wife deserves a medal (& maybe more credit for her part in this story allowing him to work 80 hours a week while she looked after the children). On balance I find the author rather unappealing.

Indeed my comments so far illustrate how I felt during this book. I was interested, infuriated, fascinated and amazed by the silly behaviours. On the plus side there were some wonderful vignettes on life in France, its culture and cuisine. I loved the fascination with bread and flour. I found some of the author’s diversions into the history of French cuisine somewhat boring and ended up skipping parts. His throwaway line about the quality of French coffee is simply silly – I have had some excellent coffees in France and I have had some bad ones. To dismiss French coffee in the way he does does him a disservice.

I am still unsure how to actually rate Dirt at the time of writing this. In part I have no idea who it is actually aimed at. True chefs are unlikely to find it that interesting; us mere mortals will almost certainly be disinterested by parts of it. I don’t regret reading it – Bob alone makes it almost worthwhile – however I’m not sure I can recommend it.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review