Bill Buford (author of Heat) again chooses a single-word title for his new book, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking, a funny, irreverent and obsessive account of his five-year odyssey to discover everything about French food—from learning how to cook it to exploring the medieval origins of the much-revered cuisine. France, he writes, “was secretly where I had wanted to find myself for most of my adult life. . . . But I could never imagine how that might happen.”
Through a connection at New York’s French Culinary Institute, Buford comes to know many influential French chefs, among them Michel Richard, Daniel Boulud and the legendary Paul Bocuse. What follows is a familial move to Lyon, the terrors (or, shall we say, “terroir”) of parenting twin toddlers in a gritty French city, sadistic “stagiaires”—essentially apprentice chefs—in famed Lyonnaise restaurants (pot-throwing, anyone?) and food-sleuthing expeditions to remote areas in France, where Buford comes to appreciate the soil that grows the unique wheat responsible for the country’s finest bread. Dirt sometimes ventures into the weeds in its excavation of culinary history and lore, but this may be forgiven in light of Buford’s honest hunger for knowledge and personal evolution: “I wanted to re-examine my assumptions about the kitchen, to restart my education, to get as elemental and as primary as possible. Heat. Water. Labor. Place. And its dirt.”
This book doesn’t offer any recipes, per se, but if perused closely, readers can find instructions for assembling perhaps the grandest concoction of them all: a life well and fully lived, seasoned with curiosity, perseverance and humor—and a dash of adventure.