Bill Buford is sorry, but he’s running late. This, perhaps, isn’t surprising. He’s supposed to be at lunch at a Midtown Manhattan bistro to discuss his new book, Dirt (Knopf, May), which is also behind schedule. In it, he chronicles his epic freefall into French cuisine, and his family’s experience living in Lyon for five years. There, Buford worked in a fancy restaurant’s very strict kitchen. And he was late to work. A lot. It was a problem.
When he does arrive, he’s wearing a very New York ensemble of dark on black on black on dark. His gray hair and beard are cropped short, and he’s in a good mood. He’s coming from Knopf’s offices down the street, where he’s been going over second-pass pages.
It’s not Buford’s choice to be doing edits in the PRH office; he made a lot of changes to first-pass pages. And, maybe, upon further reflection, a section he rewrote shouldn’t have been rewritten after all. Basically he’s serving a kind of editorial detention, and whatever the book looks like now, well, as he says, “It’s much edited since you last saw it.”
Buford’s longtime editor was publishing legend Sonny Mehta, who died at the end of December. They’d known each other since the early 1980s, when Mehta was at Picador in London and Buford was running the literary journal Granta.
“His direction was more indirect,” Buford says. “When I finally finished the draft, which I thought was pretty good, he said, ‘It’s a good book.’ And I said, ‘Well Sonny, I’m going to do my revisions to make it a great book.’ He said, ‘It’s not a great book, it’s a good book.’ It delayed my finishing the book by a year. And then last summer he phoned me. He wasn’t well and he’d lost his voice again. He said, ‘I don’t know what you did, but it’s great.’ ”
Buford, 65, has a voice that’s somewhere between gravelly and growly, and he speaks in bursts and pauses, often stopping midsentence, during which time his upper lip will turn inward and he’ll work it slightly before resuming. He looks a bit gruff, like someone who might show up at your door if you are late paying some money you owe to a very bad dude. And yet, here he is having a bowl of bouillabaisse and leaning forward when he talks to make sure his voice is heard on the recorder in a loud room. Or maybe he just hunches. In any event, he’s a nice guy (seriously, check out his Twitter), quick to smile.
Buford was born in Baton Rouge, La. His dad was in the Air Force, and a posting took the family to Southern California when Buford was five. He later went to UC Berkeley and then to Cambridge. At Cambridge, in 1979, he founded Granta. His last issue was in 1995, and during his time at the magazine, it became the kind of publication you’d find in the hands of very discerning readers who were serious about their literature. He left Granta to take over the fiction editor post at an obscure little periodical called the New Yorker.
By then Buford had published his well-received Among the Thugs (1992), a horrifying and very funny study of English football violence in the 1980s. (A nod to Buford’s literary cred: early in Thugs he writes about attending his first English football match with two unnamed friends; he says they were Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa.)
Buford’s second book, Heat (2006), was a bestseller. In it, he documented his life as a “kitchen slave” at Babbo, one of Mario Batali’s Manhattan restaurants, and his adventures learning the art of Tuscan butchery from a flamboyant eighth-generation Italian butcher.
Batali was a huge piece of the book, which at the time was quite an asset. But the world we live in now is not the same as the one in which Heat was written. Then, Batali was a gregarious chef and popular food TV personality; now he is a #MeToo pariah facing charges of sexual harassment and assault. Even so, in Heat, Batali’s boorishness is on full display.
“It’s in the book,” Buford says after a long pause when Batali is brought up. “I’ve avoided talking about it, but let’s just say it’s all there.”
Dirt is big, 400-something pages, and the longest thing Buford has written. It started out as a pretty simple idea: go to Paris, work in a kitchen for a few months, bang out a book. This idea was jangling around in Buford’s head well before Obama was elected, right after he wrapped up Heat. Basically, do Heat in France.
One problem: the French really didn’t care about Buford or his book. If he wanted to go, which at that point meant taking his family (he and his wife, Jessica Green, a magazine editor turned wine expert, had preschool-age twin boys at the time), there would be beaucoup paperwork to fill out for their residency permits. So they did, and with a little fraudulent help from a well-placed friend, the Lyonnaise chef Daniel Boulud, they were in. Which was another problem: then they were there. And in Lyon, not Paris.
What follows is a mix of memoir, culinary anthropology, and immersion journalism, all told in Buford’s hallmark erudite and ruthlessly self-effacing way. Early life in Lyon was a parade of difficulties and humiliations: contending with the French fetish for bureaucracy; finding an apartment; failing to find a kitchen to work in; finally getting work, only to be bullied by a 19-year-old kitchen psychopath; coming to realize that strangers thought Buford was a local in a city where, he writes, the men are all “ugly fuckers.”
“It was a wild thing we did. Really, a wild thing,” Buford says. “Because we get there, and everything’s going wrong and I can’t get into a kitchen, and I think, ‘Well, what the fuck? Now what?’ Then I got into a kitchen where any reasonable person would say, ‘Why didn’t you get out of there?’ But of course, as a writer, that’s what you want.”
The job Buford landed at the Michelin-starred restaurant La Mère Brazier required 15-plus-hour days in a kitchen where the culture resembled that of a pirate ship. The labor was so demanding and physical that he wound up losing weight working in a place where the recipes measured butter in kilos.
“I liked it a lot,” Buford says. “I think I enjoy physical activity, but I’ve got kind of a desk brain. So, the pleasure of the situation—La Mère Brazier was different because it was so intense—is you can have a reflecting brain while you’re doing a physical activity. It helps that I know that I’m going to be writing about it.”
There are intellectual pursuits in the book as well as the demented rigors of the kitchen. Not to give anything away, but a turning point Buford discovers in the controversial history of interplay among Italian and French food (if you want to piss off the French, tell them French cuisine is actually Italian in origin, as Buford did repeatedly) will have people who care about such things looking at their ragù differently.
The Bufords ended up staying in Lyon for five years. They sold their Manhattan apartment. The twins went native. And when the family moved back to New York, the boys had trouble with English. Buford, meanwhile, has long given up his desk at the New Yorker and is now set to embark on something new. He can’t say yet what it is, but know this: it’s gotten a cold reception.
“My agent doesn’t like it. My wife doesn’t like it,” he says. “But I kind of like it.”