Ratatouille, three-cheese soufflé, potato tuiles, and stuffed crab are just a few of the dishes Bill Buford learned to cook at Citronelle, the most fashionable restaurant in Washington before it closed in 2012. The apprentice cook spent eight months alongside French chef Michel Richard, traveling back and forth from New York until he finally became the head of the fish station in the kitchen team. But he wanted more.
Driven by an admiration of American chefs who had cut their teeth in Paris, such as Dan Barber, voted Outstanding Chef in the United States in 2009, Buford decided to continue his culinary education in France. “This method has been perfected for more than 300 years and enables you to cook every single ingredient in the French repertoire,” he says. (Our phone call interrupted him as he was reducing a veal stock to accompany a lamb dish.) “It means learning the one hundred different ways to cook a potato; it means discovering a new language, discipline, and rigor.”
This was not the first time Buford had developed a passion for a foreign culture. While working as a journalist, he followed gangs of hooligans for six years (and was beaten by the police) for his book Among the Thugs. Several years later, he left his job at the New Yorker to join the team headed up by Italian-American chef Mario Batali in Manhattan. A first experience in the kitchens that led him to write his book Heat.
Boudin Noir and Côtes-du-Rhône
French chef Daniel Boulud, who owns seven restaurants in New York, advised Buford to move with his wife and children to Lyon, the “world capital of gastronomy.” He even helped the family with their visas. But the early days in France were difficult… Restaurants were wary of hiring an American with no training. Determined to carry on, the journalist befriended a baker, who taught him about local customs and the alchemy of bread making. He attended une tuaille, a pig slaughtering event, and between glasses of Côtes-du-Rhone red wine, learned how to make boudin noir from fresh pig’s blood.
Before he could join the chefs’ inner circle, however, Buford had to attend a cooking school. As he was based in Lyon, he was naturally drawn to the Paul Bocuse Institute. While there, he learned how to break an egg (on a flat surface; never on the edge of a pan), to listen to “the butter’s song,” and to present a dish according to three main principles: color, volume, and texture. The apprentice graduated and was finally hired at La Mère Brazier, a traditional bouchon lyonnais restaurant founded in 1921 and the proud holder of two Michelin stars. In short, a local institution!
Initially appointed to the pantry and put in charge of appetizers, meats, and charcuterie, Buford ended up as a line cook – a senior position. After returning to New York, he wrote a series of essays for Daniel Boulud’s compendium, Daniel: My French Cuisine, and helped the chef recreate 20 vintage dishes such as turbot soufflé, hay-baked ham, and pressed duck. He has also recently begun writing the culinary column “Kitchen Notes” for the New Yorker, which he adapted into a video series with the help of his two sons. The journalist has become a gourmet, and the amateur chef has come into his own. “Before I went to France, I thought French cooking was unknowable and threatening,” he says. “Today, it is a liberating source of excitement.”