There is a fascination with what makes a restaurant tick. It is probably prompted by the surfeit of TV cookery programmes and the contrived frenzy of getting perfectly formed dishes finished with seconds to spare. They appeal to all ages and classes – one friend of mine at a Buckingham Palace lunch was told by the Queen that when Prince Philip had any spare time, what he really liked doing all afternoon was watching cookery programmes.
There is also the mock tension about whether or not something will go wrong on screen – a few grams too much salt or an overcooked fillet of sea bass and you are left with something unsalvageable. We can all relate to kitchen disasters, even if our own experience is nothing more than burnt toast or uber-hard-boiled eggs. There must also be menu envy too, where impossibly complex dishes verging on food porn prompt some people to fantasize about the dish.
Despite this, for me the terrestrial TV programmes are so formulaic and contrived that I can’t be bothered to watch them. Besides, the dishes created by contestants are more than twenty years out of date – no serious chef these days piles half a dozen or more diverse ingredients on a plate, but this seems to be the norm in television kitchens. I would really like to see a programme where contestants could choose just three ingredients and then have to create three completely different dishes – rather like a culinary version of the Goldberg Variations, but I’m not holding my breath. (When it comes to food programmes, the honourable exception is Chef’s Table on Netflix, which treats food – and the chefs – with a degree of understanding and respect.)
So, where does someone go who is curious to know how a serious restaurant kitchen really functions? There aren’t many options – in Britain, too often food writing is seen as the comic slot, with the task being to make the punters laugh at over-elaborate metaphors. Or finding some dysfunctional place and declaring it to be the worst meal of your life.
For details of the inner working of restaurants, you really have to turn to books. There’s Michael Ruhlman, with his elaborate accounts in The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef and then there’s Bill Buford. His first food book was Heat, an hilarious saga of working for Mario Batali, the New York Italian celebrity chef before ending up in Tuscany under the tutelage of Dario Cecchini, Italy’s most famous chef/butcher. Dario quotes Dante while carving his gigantic Bistecca Fiorentina and declaring in his limited English vocabulary: “To beef, or not to beef”. Now, with his latest book Dirt, Buford is applying the same approach to get under the skin of French rather than Italian cuisine.
It is an altogether trickier quest, which may explain why Buford completed his fieldwork for Heat in less than a year, whereas France occupied him and his family for five years. Buford sets his sights on becoming part of the brigade at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. It is an already slightly fanciful notion that a fifty-something well-proportioned New Yorker could survive the heat of a high-powered kitchen. He manages to get a number of impeccable introductions, not surprising when you are a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, but despite this, nothing eventuates. I can’t say I am surprised, given that there are hardly any chefs of Buford’s age still working in kitchens, let alone novices who barely understand French. Success only comes after he moves to Lyon, the gastronomical heart of France and spends several months at L’Institut Paul Bocuse, France’s leading cookery school.
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Having previously been rejected he is now taken on in the lowliest of positions at La Mère Brazier, which in the Thirties was the first Three Star Michelin restaurant run by women and has now been revived, ultimately ending up with two Michelin stars. Even then, he is subject to various tragi-comic humiliations by the all-male kitchen, even from a teenage colleague.
Hortense, a young woman who is training with Buford at L’Institut turns up, but soon leaves with a broken foot and there are incidents of male chefs miming mounting her when she passes. On another occasion, she has to dodge pots and pans hurled at her for some minor infraction. Kitchen life can be brutal and perhaps this is a reinterpretation of Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty, namely that merely by observing an experiment you alter the outcome. In this case, the malign behaviour of the French staff seems to be the pre ordained response to an outsider being in their space. As Buford, learns, “built into the culture of the kitchen is a pathological intolerance of the novice and a perverse bully’s pleasure in watching a novice’s failed efforts to figure out a kitchen that everyone else there already knew”. The ethos of the kitchen was la rigeur – there was never an excuse good enough to justify being late – one young chef was sacked for failing to turn up after being injured in a car crash.
This is only one strand of Buford’s book – apart from an ongoing debate about how influential Renaissance Italy was in the origins of French cuisine, the most interesting subplot is his apprenticeship with Bob, considered the master baker of Lyon. It was a one-man band, with Bob even delivering his baguettes in an ancient Citroen. The secret of his product was the flour, especially from small farms in the Auvergne.
There is a lot more detail about French cuisine and the time he spends making the perfect omelette or Béarnaise Sauce. Paul Bocuse, the most famous chef in France, makes numerous appearances as does Daniel Boulud, originally from Lyon and now the most successful French chef in the US. There are also amusing bitchy asides, like his side swipe at MFK Fisher (“the languidly lazy, self-consciously I-am-literary prose of MFK Fisher”), who is shown not to have a clue about how to make a ratatouille…
The casual brutality inside the kitchens of La Mère Brazier is from another era – also, 15 years on, a French kitchen without female members would be the exception to the rule. Perhaps this change is reflected by the title of his last chapter: “Just About Everybody Dies” – I won’t spoil the fun by revealing who he is talking about.
Dirt by Bill Buford (Knopf) £22.73