Bill Buford published Heat, his first book about food, in 2006. Heat chronicled Bill’s time working at Babbo, Mario Batali’s high-end Italian restaurant in New York City, as well as his stint working for a butcher in Italy.
But Heat didn’t quite scratch Bill’s itch to cook fancy food, so he decided to go to France and write his most recent book, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking. Bill planned to be in France for six months; instead, he stayed for five years.
In Lyon, Bill fell in love with how the French “obsess over their food or drink, worry it, and strive for an expression of purity that would not be just baffling, but incomprehensible to their agricultural counterparts just about everywhere else in the world.” But along with that obsession, he noted, came a strict observance of the rules in and outside of the kitchen. A sea bass must be prepared exactly like this. A potato must be peeled like that. There is no room for error, and mistakes will not be forgiven.
Bill loved the rules, but he also saw the dark side of the kitchen: a “toxic aggression” perpetrated by other cooks, and a system that was especially hostile to women and people of color.
On this week’s episode, Dan and Bill talk about the beauty of French food, but also some of the distressing anecdotes from Bill’s time as a cook. Bill grapples with his role as a journalist and a chef in those incidents. He also revisits some of his moments in Mario Batali’s restaurant, in light of the #MeToo allegations and charges against Batali in recent years.
Check out the cooking videos that Bill and his sons have been making for The New Yorker. And also consider buying a Sporkful mug between now and September 2020; in partnership with Stitcher, all net proceeds will go to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and National Association of Black Journalists.
This episode contains explicit language and mature subject matter.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Brute Force" by Lance Conrad
- "Birthday Party" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Simple Song" by Chris Bierden
- "Rooftop Instrumental" by Erick Anderson
- "Nice Kitty" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Shake and Bake" by Hayley Briasco
- "Want It Need It" by Max Greenhalgh
Photo courtesy of Jean-Yves Lemoigne.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language and mature subject matter.
Dan Pashman: I mean you say that there's a right way to whisk.
Bill Buford: Yes.
Dan Pashman: What's the right way? Have I been whisking it wrong all my life? How do I whisk?
Bill Buford: With a loose wrist and making a fast figure eight.
Dan Pashman: Why figure eight?
Bill Buford: It's just it's hitting the ingredient that you're whisking from four different angles rather than two angles banging against the side. And it's just faster and more efficient.
Dan Pashman: This is writer Bill Buford. In his new book he tells the story of moving to France as a middle-aged dad and trying to make it as a chef in a high-end French restaurant. Now, The idea that there’s a right way to whisk may sound funny. But as Bill found out, in the rigorous world of French kitchens, they don’t joke around.
Bill Buford: It can be astonishingly brutal.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Hey. Hi, I hope you're doing okay out there, I know these are upsetting and scary times for all of us and especially if you’re a black American. Here on The Sporkful, we're going to continue to do what we've been doing since March -- really, since long before that. Some weeks we'll attempt to provide a distraction. Other weeks we're gonna have difficult conversations about what's happening in the world. Because, by the way, food has always been political.
Dan Pashman: I posted some things on social media recently about race and racism in America and a couple of you have said, "But I come to your show for an escape!" Hey, in stressful times, I think we all crave an escape. But I can see from the profile pics, those comments are coming from white listeners. So look, if you only want to listen to the escapist episodes, that's up to you. But those of us who are white should remember that escapism is, itself, a luxury. Black people don't have the option of not thinking about racism for a few days. So if you're one of the folks who made that comment, or thought it, I hope you'll listen to last week's episode after you listen to this one.
Dan Pashman: One more quick note, I’m happy to announce that in partnership with Stitcher, who produce this podcast. Right now we’re donating 100% of the proceeds from our merch sales to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Association of Black Journalists. Our merch consists of Sporkful coffee mugs, which are very nice, so get one now when you go to Sporkful.com and click on STORE. And if there’s other merch you’d like us to offer, let us know what it is! Ok, let's get into it...
Dan Pashman: Bill Buford is a writer and an editor. He specializes in throwing himself into high-pressure environments that he is not equipped to handle. For instance, he convinced British soccer hooligans to let him embed with them in their brutish, violent world. That was his first book. For his second one, Heat, he turned to food. Cooking was long a passion of his, but he had no experience doing it professionally. Still, he was able to convince Mario Batali to let him cook at Babbo, Batali’s high-end New York City restaurant. This was before #MeToo and Batali’s downfall. Most recently, Bill convinced some of the most rigid French chefs that he, an American with few skills, should cook in their Michelin-starred restaurants. He turned that last experience into his latest book, Dirt.
Dan Pashman: When Dirt starts, it’s 2008. Bill is working as an editor at The New Yorker after finishing the Batali book. But he’s realizing the book hasn’t fully scratched his cooking itch. So Bill weasels his way into a French kitchen in D.C., working there a few months, commuting back and forth to his family in New York on the weekends. Pretty good set up right? But that’s not enough for Bill. The chefs he meets keep telling him, you want to cook French food? You have to go to France. You need proper French training. Dan Barber, a famous New York chef, tells Bill that chefs without French training...well, their food is, "compromised." As Bill told me, Barber went on to say...
Bill Buford: You can tell by the way, they stand at their cutting board whether they've been French trained or not. There is a discipline that you learn. You put down your cutting board and you regard your cutting board as the last stage where food rests before it goes on its route into the diner's plate and into the diner's mouth. So there's a hygiene about the cutting board. You never put anything else on it except what you're confident can be fed to someone. You don't ever do an onion or a garlic or anything that's come from the earth. For those, you have to cut them someplace else. And there is an order to how you cut. There's an order to how you arrange your ingredients. And there's just a discipline of knowing what stage your food is at. And that comes from French training.
Dan Pashman: So Bill decides to go to France.
Dan Pashman: At first, he figures Paris would be the place to go. But his co-workers in the D.C. restaurant tell him no, you’ve got to go to Lyon.
Bill Buford: Lyon was kind of it was the heart of French cooking. It was the least messed with. It was the least cosmopolitan. It was truer to French traditions. Many people believe that it's the origins of French cooking itself can be traced back to Lyon in fundamental ways.
Dan Pashman: So Bill, his wife, and their three-year-old twins pick up and move to Lyon. The city is kinda neither here nor there, 300 miles south of Paris. 200 miles north of the Riviera. Initially, they plan to be there for six months. In the end, they would stay five years.
Bill Buford: And what I came to realize when I went there is that it's the only city in France, a major city in France, that doesn't have a port. It's surrounded by farms. And it's surrounded by the mountains and rivers and lakes. And you get some of the best fresh fish that you can get in France and you've got some of the best wines in all of France. In the north, you got Burgundy and you got Beaujolais in the south and it's a kind of cooking that it's dictated by all its French surrounds. And it's also a very uncharismatic city. It's dark, sullen and really doesn't like foreigners or tourists. And that makes it a little hard to arrive as both a foreigner and effectively a tourist. But it means that there's a surprising integrity to the food and the food making.
Dan Pashman: Some of the iconic Lyonnais dishes are salade lyonnaise, which has frisee lettuce, pancetta, a runny egg, and croutons, a simple vinaigrette. Or poulet avec une sauce suprême, chicken breast with creamy white sauce. The food is simple and rustic, but Bill says it requires a lot of finesse to do it just right. The emphasis is on high-quality ingredients, from the juicy cherries that grow in the countryside to the chickens from Bresse. Now, you probably already have some idea that people across France are intense about their food. But Bill really sees firsthand that intensity, that obsession. Like with a cheese called Beaufort D’Alpage, which has very strict and specific standards for how it’s made.
Bill Buford: This is a cheese which is made in the high Alps of France with only very specific cows that can tolerate the altitude. They have short legs and gigantic lungs. They're not very big. They have to eat only grass. The wild grass that appears once the ice melts for the summertime, and you have this very elementary kind of chateau where you live so that you can milk the cow and then quickly get in over there and make the cheese really, really quickly. And then you have to age it there as well.
Dan Pashman: Bill wrote about this cheese in his book, and I asked him to read an excerpt.
Bill Buford: "It is extreme, this Alpage cheese, which is why I came. I found myself wondering, how can you not love the French? Really. No irony. How can you not love a people who, isolated in a field or a stable or a vineyard, far from normal society, no one looking, left to their own devices obsess over their food or drink worry it and strive for an expression of purity that would not would be would not be just baffling but incomprehensible to their agricultural counterparts just about everywhere else in the world?
Dan Pashman: After Bill reads the passage, he still can’t stop raving about this cheese.
Bill Buford: I mean, it's true. It's just like, wow! Because what — what they're getting is a taste of a particular square of earth. And if you eat that cheese, if you can get the real high summer D’Alpage Beaufort, it's long and flavor and it's milky and it's complex and it's fruity. And it sort of makes my toes tingle. It's a beautiful thing.
Dan Pashman: As I say to Bill, it seems to me that the French are not just obsessed with how food is made, but also with tradition itself. It’s like they think that if one grain of wheat isn’t grown properly, if one carrot isn’t cubed correctly, the whole cuisine’s gonna go to hell tomorrow.
Bill Buford: There's a sense of Frenchness that came out of a culture that was a long time finding a definition of itself, that was a long time defining its borders and who was French and who wasn't French, that it almost seems to be born out of an insecurity of not having had a culture, that now they have a culture. Now they know what it is to be French and they are French and French is this. And French is that and French is this. And what I guess I saw by being there so long is that, especially in relation to food, there is just extraordinary love for the full expression of a good ingredient.
Dan Pashman: In Bill’s first months in Lyon, he has trouble getting into high-end kitchens. I mean, he’s untrained and he’s American. Not exactly what these Michelin-starred chefs are looking for. Bill apprentices with a bread baker for a while, until he successfully begs the head of Lyon’s famed culinary school to let him do a little training there. That experience is Bill’s introduction to the French kitchen and he finds it very hard. The physicality of it, the technique, and as the teachers kept calling it, la rigueur. The rigor.
Dan Pashman: You tell a story about prepping a bunch of sea bass that the chef deemed unacceptable because you accidentally trimmed off a tiny part that you weren't supposed to remove. The chef threw all those in the garbage and reprimanded you. And you have this quote in the book. You write, “The French kitchen was about rules. There was always one way and only one way. And I liked the rules and how they were never questioned. Correction. I loved the rules.” What do you love about the rules?
Bill Buford: There was just a clarity. I mean it might just be, you know, my whole life I’ve been in vaguely creative, self-initiated, my sloppy endeavors of a writer editor type and here is in a place where you didn't have to think. You just to learn the rules. You did the rules and there was a kind of liberation and the clarity.
Dan Pashman: After Bill’s time in culinary school, he convinces a restaurant called La Mere Brazier [LAH MAIR bra-zee-AY] to let him work there on a 17-day contract. He’ll work for free, mostly doing prep work. He won’t actually cook “on the line.”
Bill Buford: That cooking school I went to, which at one point I felt really tough, turned out to be quite coddling. And when you actually get out into a real restaurant, there were more rules than I realized. And there was utter intolerance, if you didn't follow them. It can be astonishingly brutal.
Dan Pashman: One minor example of this: A chef at the restaurant chastises Bill for his potato peeling technique. Without Bill realizing, this chef had counted the number of strokes it took Bill to peel a potato with a peeler -- 25. Then this chef demonstrates how to do it with a knife, in only 7 strokes. Now, that may sound nitpicky, but this is Lyon, a city where they have an annual competition for potato peeling. A competition that was once won by the very chef who schooled Bill. In the book Bill calls him Ansel the Asshole.
Bill Buford: He's arrogant. He's in your face. He's pushing everybody. He's telling everybody, "You're too slow. You're too slow. You're too slow. You're too slow. You're too slow." He is what one young colleague at the kitchen there called a Michelin type Michelin type meaning their ambition is to one day have their own Michelin starred restaurant. So they're all self-consciously grooming themselves to be grand chefs.
Dan Pashman: I take it that that does not only mean cooking food a certain way. It also means acting out the part that you perceive a grand chef is supposed to act out to behave and treat others in a way that you think is the way that a grand chef treats others.
Bill Buford: In fact, a grand chef doesn't have any of those qualities usually. And what you're really seeing are insecure people working out their anxieties. And have probably been beaten up as apprentices beforehand, and they are now beating up the others just as they had been beaten up themselves. And they've acquired like some kind of disease, the toxic aggression of the kitchen.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, we talk about some of that toxic aggression and how Bill reacts when he comes face to face with it. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. At the start of the show I mentioned last week’s episode, which I hope you’ll check out… It’s about racial coding in restaurants. A code is like the decor, the menu, the prices, tablecloths, the staff. Anything that sends a signal that tells you what kind of a place it is, and whether it’s for you.
CLIP (ANDY SHALLAL): White will go and discover the coolest place in the back of a trailer park. They're comfortable anywhere. It could be very uncomfortable for a black person to walk into an all white place. It could even be dangerous. In order for a black person to walk into a space, there has to be signals that says, "You're welcome."
Dan Pashman: So what happens when the signals a restaurant sends brings certain people in and keep others out? In this episode we visit three restaurants in DC that are coded in very different ways to ask, "Can a restaurant be for everyone?" The show is up now, check it out. Now, back to Bill Buford, author of the new book, Dirt. During Bill’s 17-day contract at La Mere Brazier, he does everything that’s expected of a prep cook. But the other cooks still mostly treat him like the journalist he is. He’s not one of them. Then Bill asks the owner if he can stay on. The owner says yes, he can stay as long as he wants. Still without pay, though. That’s when he starts to experience what the kitchen is like for the real cooks.
Bill Buford: If you don't get there on time, then you don't get a cutting board because there's not enough cutting boards for the people working there. And somehow that's deliberate so that if you don't get there early, then you're going to be punished. And that, you know, they would swear at you all day long or they’d kick you. But that was just affection. When I then asked to work on the line, and at that point, I had a nice relationship with the patron, Mathieu Viannay. And I asked him, could I, you know, cook? And I could hear his breath go “Uh!” I was thinking, "Oh, shit, that's not gonna happen." I've come all this way. I've done all this stuff. And then I asked work on the line and he goes, "Ohh." And then his proposal was both wonderful and kind of scary because he said, "You know, you're a good cook." And I said, “Thank you. Thank you.” But you're slow. Late, is actually what he said, not even slow. Late and to what he wanted me to do was cook, what they call le personnel, which is the staff meal.
Dan Pashman: What they call in the U.S. "family meal."
Bill Buford: Family meal, exactly right. It was just scary. But wow. Okay. Well, this is why I'm here. I'm going to cook French food for the French kitchen and I'm going to deliver it on time at 11:00.
Dan Pashman: Bill cooks the staff meal for several weeks, often not delivering it on time. Sometimes, to meet his deadline, he tries to get away with cooking meat, with no sauce. He quickly learns that in French cuisine, the sauce makes the meal. One time, he makes American-style burgers, which ends up being the biggest hit of any staff meal he makes. Finally, they start letting him cook on the line. Bill is in.
Bill Buford: And then, at that point it got rough because at that point I was really among the cooks. And, oh, it got rough in all kinds of unexpected ways. I had a little 19-year-old turn on me and started making fun of me. And at one point, I was doing the starters in the back of the kitchen in the evening. And he suddenly thought I was making him too stressful. And we had an argument in which he insisted that I stand in the corner and not do anything during the meal and this was just humiliating and ridiculous. And then it got worse.
Dan Pashman: It got worse for Bill but he also saw things get worse for others. Especially, people who didn’t fit the mold of the “typical” French chef. There was an Indonesian chef named Chern. The other chefs in the kitchen called him “Jackie Chan.” It took Bill a while to realize that Jackie Chan wasn’t his real name, it was racist shorthand. Ansel the Asshole was especially hard on Chern. And then, there was Hortense, the only woman chef working at La Mere Brazier.
Bill Buford: So Hortense is someone actually I met when I went to cooking school and she was the shyest, quietest person in the whole school. But she got a stage. When you get an apprenticeship in a kitchen, it's called a stage. And you’re called a stagier. She got a stage at La Mere Brazier. And she continued to be shy and retiring. And then there was a rearrangement and one of very serious chefs was demoted and he had only one person to work with, which was Hortense and her life just became hell. And that chef's name was Sylvan.
Dan Pashman: And I’d love it if you could please read the excerpt on page 230.
Bill Buford: "One morning early, just after 8:00, Hortense rushed into the front kitchen. Sylvan marched in right after her in long, purposeful strides. He was wild with anger. It seemed that Hortense had fetched the wrong pot for Sylvan. There must have been more to it than a simple pot, but the pot in its wrongness became the proverbial trigger. Hortense, frightened, took cover behind a cooking island, a flat-top stacked high with, as it happens, many pots. Sylvan strode up to it, pulled his arm back, and swept all the pots onto the floor. They made a cascading crashing sound, tops, a satay pan, casseroles. Everything, stainless steel, very loud and very bright. The metal under the kitchen lights and all the tumbling thunderously around Hortense. Hortense hugged herself. She seemed to be trying to be small. She looked, her face, the flat-out terror in it, as though she was about to be killed.
Dan Pashman: I mean, it's a very powerful passage. Sylvan then picks up the pots and pans and starts throwing them at Hortense. And he doesn't hit her with them. You say, you think, he was just trying to scare her. But as you point out, that doesn't make a whole lot of difference from her perspective. And then I would like to ask you to read later on in the book. You kind of reflect on that moment.
Bill Buford: “I am by training a journalist and journalists report stories, not change them. But by then, my journalist credentials had come to seem irrelevant. At La Mere Brazier I became a member of a kitchen staff. I had crossed over. But in the crossing, I appear to have left my conscience behind. In real life, I would have intervened. At the very least I would have said stop, arrete. I didn't step in. I didn't say arrete. I looked around, found whoever was in, charged and looked into their faces for an instruction and found nothing. Was I tried to learn the way? Understand the code? Or maybe I was just afraid.
Dan Pashman: You've now had more time to ponder those questions in that passage. I'm curious what your thoughts on the choices you made in that moment are today?
Bill Buford: I would say that I was generally confused about who I was. I think I felt that I was a journalist who didn't intervene. But in fact, I was wrong not to intervene. And I feel bad that I didn't intervene. And that might have been—it's possible that Hortense would never end up a cook. It's possible that she would. Chern is now, you know who got bullied by Ansel the Asshole—he's now a great chef. He has his own restaurant. Hortense is out of the business.
Dan Pashman: You have this quote in the book. "In the beginning, no one ever takes you aside and says, 'Hey, let me tell you how this place works.' Instead, built into the culture of the kitchen, is a pathological intolerance of the novice and a perverse bully's pleasure in watching. A novice has failed efforts to figure out how a kitchen that everyone else there already knew. For them, it must be very funny." And I note the word funny there. I know that you're not using it like in a haha, yucky yuck kind of way. It's sort of a dark knowing funny. To me the word that comes to mind to describe that is more than that for that kind of person. It's more thrilling. It's a question of power and of the kind of person who gets off on having power over others and exercising it.
Bill Buford: I definitely saw that at work. Florian, the one who got in my face, seemed like there was almost a direct formula. He got beaten up, he got humiliated, he got some power. He wanted to exercise power. Or there was like a young kid, who started the previous from the lycee. He should never have been there. Named Mathieu, who almost had his face just completely destroyed when Sylvan held him up against a wall and pulled back his fist. Just wanting so much to hit him in the face. He became a bully. He started as a little kid. Then he became a bully. And as you could see, it was almost like a poison. You get the poison and then you have to enact the poison. And I do feel it's the feature of male-dominated kitchens.
Dan Pashman: You know, I know that your first book, in your first book, you embedded yourself among soccer hooligans. And certainly in your first food book, Heat, there's no shortage of bad behavior by men. And so it seems like you have a history of kind of immersing yourself in these kind of hypermasculine worlds, where there are a lot of men who are wild, at times even violent. What interests you about these types of men and their worlds?
Bill Buford: I don't think I deliberately—I mean, with football hooligans, I deliberately sought them out. And I remember thinking, I want to meet the ugliest, crudest, most disgusting specimen in the human race and find out why he wants to be violent. The kitchen I wasn't expecting this. I knew it was going to be hard.
Dan Pashman: But you ended up there nonetheless.
Bill Buford: I ended up there nonetheless. And probably fascinated by it. I am at a much safer spot than a woman would be making this kind of investigation. But I have found the dynamics of male behavior, especially young men, defining their identities driven by things they probably don't understand fascinating in their cruelty and their just utter irrationality.
Dan Pashman: I sense though that also you, in addition—clearly, I think you see these people in this world with wide open eyes and both your books about food have plenty of accounts of abusive behavior. But it seems like at the same time that you see all this, you also kind of want the approval of these people.
Bill Buford: I want the approval of people who are running the kitchen and in whose eyes my expertise is sort of acknowledged, or granted. That's true. I think I would want the approval of them even if they weren't dickheads. The real dickheads in the kitchen, their approval is much less important than like Christophe the chef or Mathieu Viannay, the patron, the one who owns the restaurant. I go into a situation not at a young age determined to learn skills. And if I have their approbation and their approval, then I've learned my skills and I am becoming part of a team. But it's not a prison that I want to become part of. It's really the team of cooks and chefs. And I did see some pretty ugly stuff in La Mere Brazier kitchen. But I also saw a confederation of people committed to making good food that I was very proud to be, if not a full member of, then at least an acknowledged and recognized rookie.
Dan Pashman: Bill’s time at La Mere Brazier came before #MeToo. Of course, so did his time cooking at Mario Batali’s restaurant, which Bill chronicles in his 2006 book, Heat. In 2017, Batali stepped away from his restaurant group after allegations that he had touched women inappropriately in and out of his restaurants. He was later charged with indecent assault and battery for an incident that happened in 2017 in Boston; he pled not guilty. And earlier this year, the New York attorney general also announced that she was looking into Batali, even after the New York Police Department closed their investigation of him in 2018. These allegations first surfaced about a decade after Bill had written about some of Batali’s grotesque behavior.
Dan Pashman: But when Bill’s book came out it only seemed to raise Batali’s profile. There wasn’t much backlash. Then at the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017, people started reading the book differently. New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells tweeted, “I remember being grossed out by that part of Heat, but I moved on and kept reading. It changed my image of Batali, but didn’t change it enough to make me think of him as a guy who abuses women at work. And why is that? That is a question anybody who read the book should be asking now.” Bill had said he regretted not speaking up when Hortense was threatened with pots and pans. I asked him if he had similar regrets about that moment with Batali and the server.
Bill Buford: It never occurred to me that—I mean, I was embarrassed for her and I thought it was wrong. You know, in that slightly duplicitous role as a journalist. So, as a journalist, my subject is making jokes that are inappropriate and I felt awkwardness. But I did speak up because I wrote it down. It could be said that with Hortense I did a similar thing. I didn't speak up, but I wrote it up. But the difference is that Hortense was in physical danger and she felt frightened. It's not a question of an indignity. It's a question of danger and that's why I felt bad. The quote that Pete identifies—like Pete, I was there and I was horrified by him. I mean, this woman had served Mario at a restaurant Mario owned. She was already nervous because she was serving Mario. And then she was both nervous and humiliated. And she was in an impossible bind because she'd just been insulted. And yet he's her boss. And it's there for a lot of the reasons that some of the other jokes about Mario are there in which he—Mario had this kind of politically incorrect, witty talk that he did, that was always couched in irony. He sexualizes food. He talks about pastas that give him wood. And and, you know, to the customer who’s complained about a piece of food, you know, go out there and pistol whip ‘em with your penis. The culture that tolerated this kind of politically incorrect wittiness doesn't obtain anymore. And we've learned that there's stuff going on in the kitchen that isn't ironical and isn't funny and isn't witty. And the inequality in the kitchen, it is just it rashly, just irrational and utterly unjustified. I don't think you'd see that now. I don't think you'd see that now.
Dan Pashman: Do you really think that that's true, that you wouldn't see that now that that's not happening now?
Bill Buford: Yes, I do believe that's true. And I think there is a real awareness of gender equality. So I do think that especially in the United states that you wouldn't see that kind of humor anymore. Or if you saw it, it would be offered up really nervously. And the proponent of it could be easily shut down.
Dan Pashman: How much is there a real recognition that this is a problem and someone needs to change because it's wrong? And how much do you think that there's just sort of people who are afraid they'll get busted?
Bill Buford: It's much more the case that people think they'll get busted. Not unlike the way there was say, when I was a child, a tolerance of racial jokes, which in the course of my life became completely unacceptable. I don't think those people who are racist then are not racist now just because they don't make racist jokes. But there's no question they got busted. And in the course of things, if there's a context where you'll get busted for inappropriate behavior, it's a kind of crude social conditioning but I think there is a benefit to it. I think it changes society. The fact you haven't changed the minds of these people is not necessarily a disaster because you're probably never gonna change the minds of these people. But you're changing basically a context of positive and negative reinforcements. And I think that is for the good.
Dan Pashman: At the start when we talked about the rigidity of the French mindset around their food culture, how protective they are about it.There seems to be a real fear among the French that like if we let anything slide, there will be a loss, a piece of our culture will be lost. Would anything be lost if kitchens operated differently? If this abuse was not tolerated.
Bill Buford: I don't think anything would be lost at all. And I think there's no justification for the abuse whatsoever. I think it's completely correct if I made only one good fish out of twelve that the eleven get thrown out. There's no abuse in that. That's just, these don't meet the standard. Do it again. And the humiliation you're suffering is the humiliation of embarrassment. You know, I just worked on this fish, took me a long time to do it. And these fish have lived only to be thrown out. And you go through that and, you know, I'm never gonna accidentally cut off the gills of a fish or that little bit there by that the skinny bones ever again in my life. That's not brutality, that's just high standards. And I think that's great. And I don't think any kitchen, at any level, would want anything less.
Dan Pashman: In the end, Bill spent six months cooking at La Mere Brazier, and five years total in Lyon. In that time, he made a couple of films about his time in the restaurant. He traveled the region in search of the roots of French cooking, learning that the French may owe more to Italian cuisine than they like to admit. And then in 2013, realizing that their children spoke better French than English, Bill and his wife decided to move back to New York.
Dan Pashman: How has this experience training in French kitchens affect the way you cook at home today?
Bill Buford: I can cut a mean onion.
Dan Pashman: Your whisking game is really on point!
Bill Buford: My whisking is out of control. I still can't quite do it as fast as they do it, but I have skills.
Dan Pashman: And Bill’s twin sons have skills too. They’re 14 now.
Bill Buford: One is actually quite an ambitious cook. And we started making videos recently. We just did one last week on making a bearnaise. And Frederick at one point said, "No no no. Let me do the eggs because you separated the yolk."
Dan Pashman: I was going to ask you whether you stand over your kids and have to resist the temptation to tell them that they're peeling the potatoes incorrectly or whisking and properly. But it sounds like it’s the opposite.
Bill Buford: That's correct. That's correct. In fact, Frederick was doing his eggs incorrectly, but the result was much more beautiful and he had much confidence in doing it. So I wasn't gonna say a word.
Dan Pashman: That’s Bill Buford, his new book is Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking. It’s out now. He’s also doing videos for The New Yorker website in which he demonstrates some of the basics of French cooking, we’ll link to those at Sporkful.com. Check out last week’s show about racial coding in restaurants. It’s called, “Can A Restaurant Be For Everyone?”
Dan Pashman: Remember to buy a Sporkful coffee mug, all proceeds right now are going to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Association of Black Journalists. Go to Sporkful.com and click STORE.