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The Rigor And Aggression Of The French Kitchen

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May 18, 2020

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.

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