'Dirt' Author Bill Buford Takes Stock of Lockdown and Gets Back to Basics
Fourteen years after Bill Buford's Heat set the culinary world aflame, he's digging deeply into Dirt—a much-anticipated exploration of French cuisine and family life.
In 2006 I was a greenhorn line cook in a New York City restaurant with a vague notion that I’d turn my experience and dozens of rectangular spiral-bound reporter’s notebooks full of details from the kitchen into a book. Then a real New Yorker writer and editor Bill Buford wrote a real book called Heat. I’d read and loved Buford’s Among the Thugs about British soccer hooligans during my newspaper days, and Heat nearly scorched my eyebrows off with his tales of working in Mario Batali’s kitchen at Babbo and sojourn to Tuscany where Buford learned at the cutting board of Dario Cecchini, introducing the charismatic butcher to the world.
Much has changed in the 14 years since. I became a magazine guy. Batali is in food world exile after #MeToo. Buford moved to Lyon with his wife and twin boys to take up a five-year residence in France and work in kitchens like La Mère Brazier. French food in New York City fell out of favor before it came roaring back through the downtown filter of restaurants like Frenchette and Le Coucou. And now Buford has the long-anticipated follow-up, Dirt, to show for his efforts, a book that goes several layers deeper than Heat to explore the heart of French cuisine and the travails of raising a young family in a foreign land.
“I think part of why Dirt is so extreme was because it couldn't be [Heat] reheated,” Buford told me.“The experience changed my life, changed my wife's life, changed my children's lives”
He’s putting that immersive education to good use during lockdown, simmering gallons of chicken stock (and making a lot of béarnaise sauce) in the kitchen of his Flatiron neighborhood apartment he shares with his wife Jessica Green, a wine educator, and twin 14-year-old boys, doing dishes, drinking “staggeringly ridiculous quantities of wine,” listening to news radio, and thinking about future projects with Daniel Boulud and maybe, just maybe, a book about Spain.
Here’s a slightly edited version of our conversation.
How are you and your family holding up right now?
We're doing remarkably well, I'd have to say. I regret that we didn't flee. We're on a street that is normally very busy. It's normally packed, and there have been, until recently, more moving vans than ambulances. Now all the moving vans are done and during the seven o'clock clap time, we're just a few isolated people, congratulating ourselves for being here.
What does lockdown cuisine taste like in the Buford home right now?
[In Lyon] we established a tradition of having dinner together. The result was that it's a very important time for us. People will save up their stories, they'll tell jokes, if they have problems, you hear about them. And I used to make the food, but the food was always late, because I always did a little something too much. So, on school nights it's become my wife's job. She's taken on the challenge to make food punctually. Then on the weekends, I usually cook.
They like when I cook. One of the things I learned early on is that if you live in France, you always have a sauce, and the boys loved their sauce. I went through a béarnaise riff the last couple of weeks, where I was making béarnaise every other night, and putting it on just about everything.
Lately, I've been doing a lot of chickens. And I've also done something, which I haven't been able to do before, which is keep a quantity of chicken stock going for weeks, without having to freeze it. So that you go through the chicken stock during the week, for soups that my wife makes, or lately, I've been poaching chickens very gently. And then, you kind of refortify [the stock], build it up.
I've got sauces going. I've got duck stock, and dark bone stock, and my chicken stock, which I reduce. It sounds a little extreme, but it's not actually that extreme. Our main duty is to get healthy food on the table for a family of four.
The astonishing thing about this, in Lyon, families most often made lunch, and they would also make dinner. If they're going out to a restaurant, it was a very special occasion, because this kind of cooking involves a lot of work. It's a lot of cleaning up, as you're probably discovering as well. The reality is that, if you're going to home cook like the fantasies implied in the books that I might write, or the magazines you might edit, it's a lot of work. A lot of that work is just shopping and dirty plates.
With Memorial Day coming, are you thinking ribs and potato salad, or is there something French-inspired on the menu?
I got excited by the fact that a fish distributor had a good quantity of fresh halibut. We're going to be barbecuing some halibut on the weekend. I might actually make a béarnaise to go with it. It would be great with French fries, but I don't think I'm going to cook French fries at home. I'll probably do some whipped potatoes and steam them with salt and butter.
I'm also going to cook linguine alla vongole, which is not French at all, but it's one of the great standbys of Italy. As a way of celebrating the idea of summer and good weather, and the beach and eating shellfish by the beach. I'm going to make a Spanish tortilla—again potatoes. I find myself thinking of foods that remind me of warm weather, the sea. Spanish tortilla reminds me of time well spent in Spain. Linguine alla vongole gives me the expression of Italy.
Tell me about your lockdown bar. What’s in your highball glass?
We drink staggeringly ridiculous quantities of wine. We don't have a cocktail bar. We drink way too much wine to consider a cocktail. My wife is a wine educator. She's smart on wine. We did go through a phase, it didn't last long, where we just gave up on the idea of opening a bottle of wine, and we started opening magnums. This is just unacceptable. Last night, my wife made dinner with pasta, porcini mushrooms, and we opened a Brunello.
What about impulse buys? Are there any condiments or other things that you've found that you've been buying more than one of since all this madness started?
I couldn't find any dried chickpeas that were less than a year old. So, I did buy a five-kilo bag, and it looks so scrumptious that I can't wait to start cooking with them.
I want to start doing some experiments in mayonnaise, and the different things you could do with mayonnaise. And one is a sauce tartare, with mayonnaise, which is where you mix mayonnaise and you take equal parts cornichon, capers, and shallots, and mix them in.
I couldn't get any cornichon so, I bought several big quantities of French cornichon. I bought grapeseed oil in some reasonable quantities for making mayonnaise. We're pretty lucky because we're eight blocks from Union Square Greenmarket. And finally, even if reluctantly, and obviously under great protest, spring is arriving. I haven't gone to the market today yet, but I'm hoping that maybe I'll see a green pea.
In Lyon you learned how foundational local ingredients are to the cuisine there. How did your time there change the way that you shop and provision for ingredients now?
I have a lexicon for ingredients. I value seasonality above all else and will buy imported foods, even if they're from another part of the United States, really reluctantly, sometimes out of desperation. The summer's easy because you have so many ingredients that you can cook with and there's so much fun that can be had with them. The autumn is probably the most where you have to be creative. The winter and early spring are the most challenging.
At the moment, I'm cooking with Jerusalem artichokes. They're the end of winter, early spring root vegetable that makes for a great soup. I'm looking forward already to what I can do with peas.
If an ingredient is good, you should be able to do lots of things with it. So there are a hundred things you can do with an egg. In France, there are a hundred things you can do with a potato. That approach is what I've come to enjoy. I don't want to exaggerate my knowledge or my expertise, but there's no question that being in the city, going to basically [cooking] school, working in restaurant kitchens, that you learn really essential skills for cooking.
In Dirt, Daniel Boulud recommended the Lyonnaise restaurant Nadron run by the chef Pierre Orsi, and Boulud said something like, “Two star restaurants belong to the town, it's where the locals go. Three stars belong to the rest of the world.” So for New York City, as a local, what are the places you miss right now?
We fell in love with the revived and reopened Pastis which has the conviviality of a bistro. We are known there, so we were treated as privileged people. One of the things I've realized by going to a restaurant is what we've lost in New York—there are so many restaurants and there are so many eateries that are available. You don't really have to cook or most people don't cook. You could eat well in restaurants, as long as you can afford it. You can take out at any moment.
What we've lost is the privilege of going out to eat and somebody's doing the shopping, the clean up, preparing handmade food and serving it to you.
It is just flat out one of the greatest privileges that you could have in modern civilized life. That privilege is what I think we've lost and what I'm looking forward to when restaurants can figure out how to reopen. I know there's going to be a lot of businesses that are going to go under because the margins are so tight and the rent's too high. There's no way that they can continue, unless they've got access to serious resources. But it's going to be reinvented in its way. New cooks, new chefs are going to step up. It'll probably be different, more savvy, wary of risk, but it's the privilege that I'm looking forward to everybody finally recognizing again. That it's a great thing to be able to go out to a meal and have the food prepared for you and given to you. Without any reservation, people should just celebrate that experience and always, always have dessert.
When I moved to New York in 2004, I was thinking about going to culinary school or working in New York City kitchens. An old GQ writer told me not to cook professionally. He said, "Why would you join the army to write about it?" I decided to join the army; joining the army was good for my career. You've joined the army three times to write three very different books. What is the impulse? Is it an appetite for pain?
I don't actually consciously go out strictly to be punished and suffer and feel pain. There are a kind of skills that a professional could have, that if you're interested in food, I think you want to have that—the skill set of established training. Dan Barber said, "If you want to cook, you need to be French trained."
I wasn't entirely sure what that meant, and it was what I wanted to have. This book, in many ways, was the excuse to do something that I'd always wanted to do and hoped that it put me in a place and give me enough copy to justify writing a book. In the end, I think the experience changed my life, changed my wife's life, changed my children's lives. They are now fluent French speakers, and it became a much bigger thing than I ever imagined it was going to be.
Michel Richard demonstrated that you learn the protocol, you learn the regime, you learn the way it's done, and that is a lot to learn. It's thousands and thousands of food preparations that you're learning and skills and very exacting technical approaches. Then, once you have that, it actually makes creativity possible.
The way you're taught to do breadcrumbs in France is you shake it through a sieve, so you have this powder and then you toss out the crunchy irregular crumbs that are in your sieve. Michel thinks, "Oh, well, actually this is the more interesting thing." Once you know how to make, say, a puff pastry, then it's just the relationship of starch and fat and allowing that fat to blister the layers of your starch. And it doesn't have to be butter. Richard sometimes made puff pastry with foie gras, which just strikes me as just so eccentric and weird, but kind of wonderful.
I still want that depth of knowledge, and it was why I did this. At several points, I thought about opening a restaurant, even just for the experience of opening a restaurant. That's probably where I would come to agree with your point, which is, that place what you're getting to, that really is joining the army. And I thought, if I open a restaurant, I can't write. And, at the end of the day, that's really what I want to be doing.
Do you go in blindly optimistic? Do you go in scared as hell? What is that feeling, when you're entering a kitchen for the first time with your knives, and you don't know anybody, you don't know the chef well?
The first time I went into La Mére Brazier it was exciting. I was so pumped to get in there. I'd tried so hard to get in there. It's a radical thing to break all your habits and put yourself in a new spot. When I was in New York City, I'd been an editor at the New Yorker. It was very comfortable. I had an identity. When I went to Lyon, no one knew who I was, and they didn't care. They really don't like outsiders. It was like my whole identity got scrubbed to zero. That was really like creating an identity again for the first time. When we finally came back to New York, five years later, I realized, wow, not only had I walked away from whatever I was, I lost a little bit.
Did you ever feel like you had lost your identity?
A couple of times. The immersion aspect, part of that is journalistic, and part of it is I really wanted to learn to be a cook. And it was journalistic to the extent that I've always believed, like kind of old-fashioned travel writers, that the best kind of narrative writing is informed by a quest to see something, to experience something that you can bring back to the readers that they don't know. I was a friend of the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński, and I saw him in Warsaw before the wall came down and everything changed. I saw him two, three months before, a month before it, but he was talking about his early days when, in a backward communist country, he was the only foreign reporter, so he went everywhere. He went to China, Africa and India, and he came back with stories and lions and tigers and bears. Because he could tell the stories of what he was seeing, and they hadn't seen these things.
This is kind of the heart of all writing, is that you want to come back with something that's original, something that people didn't know. And then the challenge for me, in this case, was I came back with something quite complex. It wasn't just cooking, but it was also Lyon, and it was also the experience of our family there. And then that became the hard work of writing.
The immersion was actually because I did want to learn these skills. With that kind of immersion, you get an understanding and knowledge that you just can't get from the outside. You go deep. You get to a place where you know you have something really raw and original, and then it's almost a responsibility to be able to convey that rawness and that originality.
I think part of why Dirt is so extreme was because it couldn't be [Heat] reheated. My editor, Sonny Mehta, who was very dear to me—he died this year—one of his concerns at the beginning was [repeating Heat]. I had to do something different. While this book has been compared to Heat, I think it's so different, so deeper.
From Heat I got the experience of working on the line and understanding the kitchen.
I earned some real cooking expertise. After Heat I know, okay, I'm good at Italian preparations. I'm good with my pasta. I'm very comfortable making pasta dough, I'm very comfortable manipulating it, making ragù. I'm pretty good at butchering a pig. I'm not so good at butchering a cow. But the skills I got this time are, they just go in all directions and they established lines of education.
The press materials for Dirt describe Heat as your Italy book. To me it felt more like a New York city book. Obviously, Mario Batali was at the center of it and that's not as palatable now. Is he somebody that reaches out to you anymore?
We're in touch. We recognize each other's birthdays. It's pretty removed, but we are in touch.
Did Hunter S. Thompson ever reach out to you after Among the Thugs was published?
I met him. We talked about Hell’s Angels because we both got beaten up at the end. I didn't read his book until after I'd written mine. I didn't want to read it because I didn't want to read anything that was close to what I was doing. I was a little disappointed by it actually, but I've come to it probably with such high expectations having sort of gone through [similar things] myself. But I thought it was a little too easy. But I'm a fan and it was a privilege to meet him. I met him in the company of George Plimpton, another person with whom I had many, many interviews. George was pretty confident that I was imitating his life. Starting a literary magazine [Granta] abroad, doing an immersion thing in a sport related subject.
I was going to ask you about Paper Lion.
I love Paper Lion. I haven't read it since I was a kid, but I loved it. I love George. We had just come back from Italy, I think, and we just had the radio on and we'd learned that he had died. I published him also with the New Yorker and we were very good friends. He had just a light butterfly way of floating above everything. It was just a delightful human being, and I was very happy to know him.
I was thinking about the scenes in Among the Thugs and the violence among the soccer hooligans and the police and the way that you wrote it, how palpable it was and how visceral. As the book goes along, you begin, as a reader, to know when things were about “to go off”—that surge of violence. There's different moments of violence in Heat and Dirt, and they're presented much differently. Different environments, different people. But I'm thinking about that passage in Dirt where the pots are being hurled at Hortense.
You stopped at some point in the book and it's almost like breaking the third wall— do you intervene? Do you not intervene? That's a very difficult thing to deal with in the moment, but even also in the writing of thinking about how you dealt with it in the past tense.
I was haunted by that moment. It was one of those moments when your job gets pierced by the urgency of the situation. When I think back on that oftentimes, Sylvain was a friend, but he was definitely in a crazy mode, and there's no question. It felt like it was so loud, it felt like the whole kitchen had collapsed somehow. It was really confusing. Then there's this terrified person. I'm bothered that I didn't intervene. That is sort of crossing a certain barrier, but also not because I'm writing about my experiences, but I'm not really a journalist, I'm a person in the kitchen, and I'm just bothered that I didn't intervene. I don't know if she would have gone on to be a cook. That could only have been just pure terrifying hell for her. I have a feeling that her career was crushed at that moment.
You mentioned the re-opening of Pastis, and I’m thinking about Frenchette, Le Crocodile over in Brooklyn, and this whole new French movement. But when I talk to some younger food writers and some younger restaurant critics, there seems to be this undercurrent of anti-French, that there's been enough ink spilled about Italian cuisine and about French cuisine, why aren't we looking further abroad? Of course, you've just published a book about spending five years in Lyon.
When I started this, French cooking was at a charismatic low point, it has never been lower than it was then. La Caravelle was closing. Ducasse’s expensive experiments, they all closed. Even Benoit, in the early days, it wasn't so good. It's good now, but it wasn't so good. Nobody was interested in French, and everybody was interested in Italian, and Italian was charismatic and slapdash, and fast and flavor, and easy and delicious, and you can do it at home, and accessible, just like the Italian personality.
When I arrived in Lyon, the world was not interested in France at all. Going up to Lyon, if it was an established fact that French cooking was over, the news hadn't reached anybody there at all. I was liberated by the utter unchallenged, unreflecting confidence in their cuisine and their methodology, and their discipline and their recipes. It was wonderful, and it felt so anachronistic. It felt an utter throwback at all my thoughts of French cooking is finished and it's over and blah blah blah. I thought, “it's immaterial.”
I regret it took me so long to get this book written, because it's like the French cooking has come back in favor, and at Frenchette they were doing all these little fun dishes that people hadn't seen in ages. There's the whole revival of French cooking, and I thought it was exciting. It's rather disturbing to think that I've been working at this so long that now there's another generation coming along going oh, we've got too much French.
Is there any sort of hunger about where to go next, beyond just general travel, or any sort of cuisine that you're thinking about immersing yourself in next?
I’d like to do a big book describing the art of French cooking, and continuing my mastery in this. I'm starting to do a New Yorker column, doing French preparations. I'm liking that. I did one on béarnaise, and I'm going to do one this week on the French way of roasting a chicken, the restaurant way of roasting a chicken, which is actually not roasting it, but really poaching it.
I have been finding myself thinking about Spain. Spain was kind of my first romance. It was the first language I learned. Spanish was the first language I learned. In Galicia, in the Northwest corner just above Portugal, but it turned out to be really kind of brilliant because they just got paved roads. And Franco had died a couple of years before. People still were transporting food on oxcarts. And I stayed in a tiny little village where the fish came in every day at three o'clock, and they dumped it on the pier and you'd pick the fish you wanted.
And I'd cook it, and sometimes I barbecued with a rock. It was, I don't know, the big moment. I used to play Spanish guitar. I used to play classical French guitar, so I'm having a little Spanish romance. I'm not sure what's going to happen with that, but I could see something. I had an idea about wanting to be a fisherman. Might be too late for me to do that, but I'm having a little Spanish passion of styles, or fantasy. It might lead to something.
At the heart of all these things, I need to really, really to care about the subject. And often I really want to learn the subject. I want to understand the subject. The simple violence [in Among the Thugs] was a fascination with male behavior and therefore part of my behavior, but a big part of it was like, this is really, really weird. I want to understand why people do this.
What are you reading right now that gives you hope or inspiration?
I'm going back and reading a book that I quote from partly from my French, which is a classic called La Cuisine Lyonnaise, which I think was published in 1935 by a man named Mathieu Varille. It's just so out there and arrogant and weird and confident. I never read Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. I'm reading, Gerald Brenan, an old English writer from the thirties, a book called The Face of Spain. Salman Rushdie's Quixote. And I'm just about to start Fanny Singer's book, Always Home. I've found a lot of joy in Melissa Clark's Dinner in French. It's very informal. It's nothing like what I did, but I like its spirit. I did order a copy of War and Peace. I'll be honest. Oh, I've started reading Shakespeare's sonnets, which were also written during a plague period. I'm not sure if anyone's picked up on that.
Do you listen to music while you cook?
No, because our apartment is too small. We listen to the news on the radio—NPR every night and find it's our connection to the rest of the world. We watch no television news at all. We watch almost no television except as a device that allows us to stream things. NPR has become our end of the day connection to what is happening, especially in New York City. And for us, it's the news, with an unapologetic liberal tilt, and we listen to it for about an hour and a half during all of our cooking.
We’re really liking the radio. The radio is at this time especially, is a wonderful connection to voices, and what's going on in this amazing moment in our life on this planet. As a plus, we're in a New York apartment with two teenagers, and we're getting back to basics. And basics are really time consuming.
I'm not learning German. I'm not practicing my Spanish guitar. I don't have the time because we're in the business of living, and it's really rather appealing. And the sky is clear, the pollution has dropped, and it's a kind of thrilling prospect.
And our tenancy is precarious. We could die in a moment, and we know people who are dying regularly. It seems to have dissolved a lot of modern so-called civilized high tech illusions of the present tense as eternal, and it's not. There’s some serious recalibration that's going on now. We're going through something which is akin to a war, in which there's a lot of vulnerability.