No French Dans la vie, on fait ce qu’on peut. À table, on se force.
In life, we do what we can. At the table, whoa, we eat everything
Anonymous Lyonnais saying, translated (loosely) by the author
On a bright, chilly, autumnal afternoon in 2007, I met Michel Richard, a chef and the man who would radically change my life—and
the lives of my wife, Jessica Green, and our two-year-old twins—without my quite knowing who he was, and in the confidence that, whoever he might be, he was someone I would never see again.
My wife and I had just celebrated our five-year wedding anniversary, and were at the head of a line in Washington, D.C.’s Union Station, waiting to board a train back to New York. At the last minute, the man I didn’t yet know to be Michel Richard appeared off to the side. He was out of breath and sizable, not tall but round, and impossible to miss. He had a modest white beard, a voluminous black shirt, tails untucked, and baggy black trousers. (Baggy chef
pants, I realize now.) I studied him, wondering: I don’t know him, do I?
Of course I knew him! By what algorithm of memory and intelligence could I not
have recognized him? He had written a book, Happy in the Kitchen,
that, by a fluke of gift-giving friends, I owned two
copies of, and, six months before, had won the “double” at the James Beard Foundation Awards in New York City, for Outstanding Wine Service and
for being the Outstanding Chef of the United States—and
I had been in the audience. In fact, at that moment, I had French chefs on my mind (for reasons that I was about to spell out to my wife), and here was one of them, regarded by many as the most delightfully inventive cooking mind in the Northern Hemisphere. He was, to be fair, looking neither delightful nor inventive and was smelling unmistakably of red wine, and of sweat, too, and I suspected that the black show-no-stains shirt, if you got close to it, would have yielded up an impressively compressed bacterial history. And so, for these and other reasons, I concluded that, no, this man couldn’t be the person I couldn’t remember and that, whoever he might be, he was definitively a queue jumper, who, casting about for a point of entry, had fixed on a spot in front of my wife. Any moment the gate would open. I waited, wondering if I should be offended. The longer I waited, the more offended I could feel myself becoming, until, finally, the gate did open and I did a mean thing.
As the man made his dash, I stepped into his path and, smack,
we collided. We collided so powerfully that I lost my balance and flopped awkwardly across his stomach, which somehow kept me from falling, when, without knowing how, I was in his arms. We stared at each other. We were close enough to kiss. His eyes darted between my nose and my lips. Then he laughed. It was an easy, uninhibited laugh. It was more giggle than laugh. It could have been the sound a boy makes on being tickled. I would learn to recognize that laugh—high-pitched and some- times beyond controlling—and love it. The line surged. He was gone. I spotted him in the distance, padding down a platform.
We proceeded slowly, my wife and I, and I was, for my part, a little stunned. In the last car, we found facing seats, with a table between. I put our suitcases up on the rack and paused. The window, the light, the October slant of it. I had been here before, on this very same day of the calendar.
Five years ago, having celebrated our just-marriedness with an impromptu two-night honeymoon in Little Washington, a village in the Virginia countryside, we were making our way back to New York and boarded this very train. At the time, I was about to suggest to my wife of forty- eight hours that we celebrate our marriage by quitting our jobs. We were both magazine editors. I was at The New Yorker
. She was at Harper’s Bazaar
. I’d prepared a speech about moving to Italy, the first step in the direction of the rest of our lives. I wanted to be taught by Italians how to make their food and write about it. Couldn’t we go together? It wasn’t really a question. Jessica lived for the next chance to pack her bag, and had a mimic’s gift for languages which included, conveniently, the one they speak in Italy, which, as it happens, I couldn’t speak at all.
We never went back to being editors.
We lived in Tuscany for a year, and, somehow, I went reasonably native and, to my continuing astonishment, when I opened my mouth and uttered a thought, it came out (more or less) in Italian. In the after- math, I wanted to “do” France. It wasn’t next on the list (as in “Then we’ll ‘do’ Japan!”). It was secretly where I had wanted to find myself for most of my adult life: in a French kitchen, somehow holding my own, having been actually “French-trained” (the enduring magic of that phrase). But I could never imagine how that might happen. Our time in Italy showed me that it didn’t take much imagining—just get your- self there, and you’ll figure it out. Besides, Jessica’s gifts for languages included, conveniently, the one they speak in France, which, by another coincidence, I also couldn’t speak.
Jessica, no longer in an office job, had also owned up to a lifelong longing involving wine, its history as ancient as food, and she seemed to have a skill, comparable to knowing a foreign language, of being able to translate what she found in her glass. I bought her a gift, a blind tasting session hosted by Jean-Luc Le Dû, a celebrated New York sommelier and wine merchant, which consisted of twelve great wines from his personal cellar, attended by fifteen people, including Jean-Luc’s own man- ager, who had won international awards at blind-tasting competitions. Jessica was the only one who identified all twelve wines. Jean-Luc was baffled, and they were his
wines. (“Where do you work?” he asked her.) She started a tasting club at home, ten women picked by her, educated New York City professionals who all said that they “love wine but don’t know anything about it.” She signed up for a course run by the British Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the so-called WSET, with several levels of advancement culminating in a famously challenging “Diploma.” By her second class, she discovered that she was pregnant.
It was a wonderful moment. We promised ourselves that our lives would not change.
We will be gypsies, she said. We imagined a worldly infant suspended in a sling contraption.
Four weeks later, she discovered that she was pregnant with twins, boys, the future George and Frederick. This, too, was a wonderful moment, doubly so, but we gave up on the idea of our lives’ not changing. In fact, we panicked (a little).
The train pulled out. Baltimore, the first stop, was half an hour away. What we’d planned to discuss, what Jessica
wanted to discuss, was why, after three years, my French plan hadn’t been realized.
It wasn’t a mystery, was it? Weren’t their names George and Frederick?
It also wasn’t so complicated—I needed a kitchen—and I hadn’t found one yet. Once in a kitchen, I would pick up the skills.
I had met Dorothy Hamilton at another James Beard event, a char- ity gala and auction. Hamilton ran what was then called the French Culinary Institute. She was blonde, slim, a youthful sixtyish, indefatigably positive, the corporate executive whom American chefs trusted. When the James Beard Foundation ran into an embarrassing account- ing issue (i.e., when its chief executive was systemically skimming the scholarships awarded to young cooks and went to jail), she stepped in to re-establish the institution’s integrity. She wasn’t paid for it. She implemented the fix in her spare time.
I ran my idea by her: the learning-on-the-job shtick, etc.
“France is not Italy,” she said. “You may,” she added diplomatically, “want to attend a cooking school.” She was so diplomatic that she didn’t make the obvious proposal—namely, her
cooking school, even though it was both the only one in the United States dedicated to la cuisine française
and walking distance from our home.
I described what I’d done in Italy: i.e., arriving and figuring it out. Then, for intellectual emphasis, I added: “Cooking schools are a mod- ern confection, don’t you think? Historically, chefs have always learned on the job.”
My approach, I explained to the chief executive of the French Culinary Institute, was to find a venue, make mistakes, be laughed at and debased, and then either surmount or fail. My plan, I elaborated, was to start out in a good French kitchen here in the United States (“But which one?” I mused), and follow that with three months in Paris.
“Three months?” she asked.
She said nothing, as if pretending to reflect on my plan. She asked, “Do you know Daniel Boulud?”
“Yes.” Boulud is America’s most successful serious French chef. He runs fourteen restaurants, most of them called Daniel, or Boulud, or a variation involving his initials.
“He grew up near Lyon,” Hamilton said.
“Yes, I’d heard that.” I had been to Lyon once, to get a bus at six in the morning. I had no sense of it except that it seemed far away.
“Some say that it is the ‘gastronomical capital of the world.’ ”
“Yes, I had heard that, too.” She could have been talking to my toddlers.
“The training, the discipline, the rigor
.” Hamilton drew the word out, slowly, like a nail. “For two years, Daniel cut carrots.”
I nodded. “Carrots,” I said, “are very important.”
Hamilton sighed. “You say you want to work in France for three months
.” She illustrated the number with her fingers. “And what do you think you will learn?”
I wasn’t about to answer.
“I will tell you what you will learn. Nothing.”
The auction opened and bidding commenced. The lots included a massive white truffle (that is, a massive Italian
white truffle), which was only marginally smaller than young Frederick’s extraordinarily large head, and which Hamilton secured with a flamboyant oh-let’s-put-an- end-to-this-nonsense bid of $10,000, whereupon everyone at our table, plus a few friends met en route to the exit, were invited to her apartment on Sunday for lunch.
“I have been thinking about your plan,” Hamilton told me when I showed up, “and I have a gift for you.” She gave me a copy of her school’s textbook, The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Cuisine
I found a chair in the corner. The book was impressively ponderous, 496 big landscape pages of double columns and how-to pictures. I opened it and landed on “Theory: General Information About Fish Mousseline
.” I flipped. Ten pages were dedicated to making a sauce from an egg. The philosophy of a fricassee got three. My life had been a happy one, not quite knowing what a fricassee was. What person would I have to become to master half of this?
Hamilton sent one of the guests, Dan Barber, over to me. Barber ran two restaurants, both called Blue Hill, one in Manhattan and the other on a farm. I knew him and liked his cooking. It was ferociously local and uncompromisingly flavor-dedicated. I once ate a carrot at a Barber restaurant: by itself, pulled from the earth thirty minutes before, rinsed gently but not skinned, suspended on a carved wood pedestal, and served with several grains of good salt and a drop of perfect Italian olive oil. Barber is thin, with the nervous chest of a long-distance runner, and is wiry, like his hair, and is bookish and articulate. He asked about “my French project,” but before I could answer he interrupted me.
“French training,” he declared. “Nothing more important.”
The statement was unequivocal. It was also refreshing. At the time, the charisma of France was at a low point. People weren’t going there to learn how to cook. They went to extreme outposts of the Iberian peninsula, or isolated valleys in Sweden during the winter.
“Americans think they can do without French training,” Barber said, “but they don’t know what they are missing. I quickly spot cooks who haven’t been to France. Their food is always”—he hesitated, looking for the right word—“well, compromised.” He paused so that I would appreciate the implications.
“You should work for Rostang. Michel Rostang,” he said. The tone was imperious. It was an instruction.
“Rostang?” I knew the name. Paris, one of the fancy guys—linen tablecloths, art on the walls.
“Learn the classics. Rostang.”
I nodded, took out a notebook, and wrote: “Rostang.”
“But why Rostang?”
“Because”—Barber leaned in close—“he is the one I trained with.”
“You worked in Paris!” This came out as a loud blurt. Barber looked over his shoulder, as if embarrassed. I hadn’t meant to blurt. I was just surprised.
“Yes, I worked in Paris. And in Provence. And . . .” The tone was: Duh? “I am French-trained.”
Barber was remarkably tall, which I hadn’t noticed until now, maybe because he is so thin and uses less space than a normal tall person. I also hadn’t noticed that he was wearing a beret.
“You speak French?” I asked. Blue Hill had been the name of Barber’s grandmother’s farm and was important to how he presented himself: Grandma’s kitchen on Saturdays, the down-to-earth Americana of it all. Barber sits on panels in Washington and knew about the chromosome constitution of Hudson Valley garlic root. The Frenchness was confusing. “Do people know this about you?”
He stepped closer. “You can’t get the skills anywhere else.”
Copyright © 2020 by Bill Buford. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.