Reporting live from my balcony, yet again, for another literary event coverage. This time it’s chef and author Bill Buford’s appearance in the “At Home with Literati” series, presenting his latest book “Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking.” Today I’m not drinking Roiboos tea but matcha! This was my first time trying it, and it will most probably be the last. Apologies for any grass-tasting milk lovers, but I will stick to my former choice of drink.
Before tuning in on this April 5 evening to Literati’s Zoom webinar, I did a fair bit of research on the author in question. Before I realized it, I had spent almost an hour watching his cooking videos on The New Yorker’s YouTube channel, such as this one, where he cooks a delicious apple pie with the help of his twin sons in his home kitchen.
The event began with a brief introduction by John Ganiard, the event director for Literati, who gave the audience a bit of background into how Buford’s “Dirt” came to be and the unanticipated abandonment of the chef’s life in New York City for a five-year adventure in Lyon, “the gastronomical capital of the world.” Then it was Buford’s turn to elaborate on the marvel of that voyage, and how a filthy bakery run by a man named Bob, as well as his apprenticeship in a storied Michelin-starred restaurant, broadened his culinary skills (and his archive of great anecdotes).
Buford’s book, which serves as a sequel to “Heat” (2006), a memoir of how he left his position as editor of The New Yorker to dive into Italian restaurant kitchens, was described by Ganiard as more “conversational storytelling” than the actual heavy reflection normally associated with memoirs. Buford read the opening pages, and I could instantly tell what he had meant by that — it was written in a humorous conversational manner. I felt like I was at a dinner table and he was telling me an anecdote about his life — a vivid narrative situated in the heat and stress of a Michelin-starred kitchen, with smells and sounds accompanying his interactive way of depicting the scene.
The anecdote was about artichokes — and I love artichokes — so I instantly drew my ear closer: Buford had botched the preparation of the green buds so badly that he had the whole staff in the kitchen buckle in laughter. All but the head chef, who was serious in the way French chefs are: “Arms crossed and frowning, because nobody smiles in kitchens.”
Buford explained his experience in two very different workspaces, a Michelin-starred restaurant and an eccentric bakery, both of which taught him a great deal about French cuisine and the important role it plays in the country’s culture. He emphasized his admiration for the farm-to-table custom that has proliferated in France and the emphasis on fresh, local and unprocessed food. The title of the book stems from this notion that it is the soil in which the food is growing — ingredients that haven’t been ruined by modern life — that makes it so special. Buford puts it beautifully: the marvel of the hundreds of different kinds of cheeses and the “poetry in every kind being tied to a place and not another.”
The webinar turned into a Q&A and I posed two questions, although I could have asked him many more. I wanted to know what dish, out of the ones he had learned in Lyon, had been his favorite. “Chicken,” he laughed. He also mentioned mastering (and loving) making sauces.
My second question, and the one which concluded the event, posed whether he ever thought of opening up his own restaurant and where he would locate it. Buford said he had a fantasy of going back to France and then opening up a restaurant with fellow chef Michel Richard upon his return to New York. Or maybe a pop-up restaurant in Lyon.
A potential location he mentioned was Piedmont, the region bordering France and Italy, as a place where he could put his “love for the way in which the French and Italians conversed” into work — a place where his genius and his apprenticeship could come together. Additionally, he did say he loved Spanish cuisine as another potential future project — a completion of his Mediterranean trio. As a Spaniard, I would love to see that.
My stomach rumbles at the thought of Bob’s bread, of my grandma’s artichokes (which I like to believe are well-cooked) and of Buford’s pastas. Now I log off for the day, happy to have hopped, once again, into an Ann Arbor-run literary event and extending the list of book recommendations that I will read when I have more time in my hands. Hopefully alongside some delicious apple pie and Rooibos tea (not matcha).
Daily Arts Writer Cecilia Duran can be reached at email@example.com.