Learning to Cook Like Famed Chef Paul Bocuse
Read this excerpt from best-selling author Bill Buford’s new book “Dirt” about his experiences going to famed cooking school L’Institut Bocuse in Lyon, France.
Saisons was a Michelin-listed restaurant, popular among in-the-know Lyonnais gastronomes and regarded by them as their dining secret. There was nothing about the food that seemed “student-made” in the least. Chef Le Cossec protected the restaurant’s reputation and oversaw every plate served. He was in his fifties, tall, thin, with a boyish smile and an equally boyish gap between his two front teeth. He had straight gray hair, cut pageboy-style with a forehead fringe. He looked like a monk and had a manner that was more butterfly than barking dog. He was also so peculiarly light on his feet that you rarely heard him when he entered a room. The effect, since he was in charge and entering rooms with liberty, was that he seemed fleetingly omnipresent. He was almost always amused, which was a peculiar quality in a head-honcho type. Chef Le Cossec was responsible for what might be called “culinary grace.” He was very easy to like. Or maybe he was just the “good cop.”
His colleague, Chef Thomas Lemaire, oversaw the students and was responsible for lessons in kitchen rigor. He was a very mature-looking 31—square face, glasses, unsmiling, with dour, thin lips—and had the classroom charisma of a resentful tax inspector. His first words to me pertained to a button.
“Your top one. It is undone.”
He stared at my crotch. “Your torchon” (the French word for “kitchen towel”). “Where is it?”
The regulation uniform, I was informed, includes an apron held in place by a cotton belt, your towel tucked under it, falling on your right hip. It is always on your right hip, so that you know where to find it.
You don’t, I would learn, ever use the towel for its normal towel-like characteristics, which, when I finally bought myself a stash, I couldn’t help doing, since it was a towel, and my fingers would, in the course of preparing food, become wet and greasy, and when I thought no one was looking, I did, I admit, reach down and give them a little wipe. (In the event, there was someone looking: Lemaire, who had been waiting for the moment, having identified me as a likely nefarious kitchen-towel abuser, whereupon I was roundly rebuked.) Instead, the towel is to be used for its oven-mitten qualities, even though a towel is not a mitten and has none of its qualities and is only a rectangle of very absorbent cotton (and there is only one kind of torchon, the regulation torchon, which has two light-red stripes down its length and is so thin that, after repeated washing, it tends toward transparency).
In fact, on any given day, there will be a situation when your towel will be inadequate, since it continues not to be a mitten, and you will count on adding someone else’s towel, urgently—as in “Hot, quick, you, your torchon—please!”
Once, I tucked two towels under my belt, both draped across my right hip, an obvious no-brainer, I thought. Why, when you are hunched down before an oven door, should you call out to the kitchen at large behind you, hoping that someone will appear and miraculously produce an extra towel before you get burned?
Lemaire spotted my two-towel transgression. He pointed and sneered. No words, just a high-pitched hoot of contempt. I felt that I’d been caught out trying to open a car wash.
On another occasion, I was spotted dipping my salsify fries into an eggy batter with my hands. I had no idea this was such a flagrant crime. In Italy, you get your hands dirty and are proud of it—it’s a way of being in touch with the soul of the food. (Or something. What do I know? Maybe there was a towel shortage.) In France, you use two spoons. It was, I had to admit, more hygienic, and, afterward, you don’t have to go searching for a container of water to wash your hands in. (And, duh, you then don’t have to use your towel.)
I had a cooking partner, a nineteen-year-old woman named Marjorie who was the second-most soft-spoken student in the entire institut.(The most soft-spoken was her best friend, Hortense: In the three months there, I never once heard her voice.) One morning, Marjorie, making conversation, asked me (in her barely audible fashion) why I was here. I began by saying that I had once worked in Chianti. My intention was to say that, having learned northern-Italian cooking, I now wanted to learn the cooking of Lyon.
She had never heard of Chianti.
I said “Toscane.” I said it loudly (maybe too loudly), to compensate for the softness of her voice. She had never heard of Toscane. I tried “Toscano.” I tried “Tuscany.” I scored with “Florence.” I conveyed that I had once worked in Florence, which I hadn’t, but it didn’t matter; besides, I still hadn’t answered her question.
Lemaire knew where Toscane was. He knew the word “Chianti.” I wondered if, in his eyes, I had put myself forward as an Italian expert. The know-it-all writer-guy Italian expert.
Later, Lemaire asked Marjorie and me to help him with his “cannelloni,” which were meant to be rolled around braised beef cheeks. The trouble was the pasta sheets. They kept sticking. Lemaire had poured olive oil into the boiling pasta water to keep them apart. We were given tweezers. The sheets were overcooked along the edges, cakey in the middle, and everywhere olive-oil slimy, and you couldn’t separate them without tearing.
“You can assume that I know how to cook pasta,” Lemaire said to me. Why did he want me to know he could cook pasta?
“Of course,” I said.
“The Italians,” he added, “are not the only people who make pasta, you know.”
“The French also make ravioli.”
“Yes,” I said.
“Ravioles. They invented them.”
“But it’s such an Italian word,” I couldn’t stop myself from saying. He corrected me. “No, the French invented ravioles.”
I then wondered if this might have been a test (and another of Lemaire’s lessons in rigor), never to disagree with a chef.
“Of course,” I said.
I was reminded of the spat between our next-door neighbors. Why did the idea of Italy put the French on the defensive?
During the break between lunch and dinner, I took a bus back into town. I had been told there was only one place to buy the two-red-striped regulation torchons: Bragard, on the other side of Lyon. Bragard was also the place to update my kitchen wardrobe, which, evidently, was in need of attention. I picked up the boys en route.
A chef was already in mid-acquisition when we arrived, slowly refitting his entire staff. We waited. Within seconds, the boys were bored. Within a minute, they were lying listlessly on the floor.
When it was my turn, I asked for a dozen torchons. I mentioned, in passing, that I was at L’Institut Bocuse, but not that I was a student. The manager’s manner changed. She insisted that I try on the institut’s official chef jacket (“the one Paul Bocuse wears”). It was a flap-over with snaps instead of the blocky straight-up-and-down with buttons. It was smooth—the thread count was like that of an expensive bedsheet—and only a little stiff, and surprisingly comfortable. Chef jackets, especially the double-breasted kind promoted in the early nineteenth century by the legendary cooking impresario Antonin Carême (he is often seen as the father of the French kitchen look), are wonderfully contradictory: heavy and fire-resistant, but aggressively pristine white (like purity itself), on an assumption that they actually will never be soiled. This one, I touched it and vowed: I promise, dear coat, that I will never dribble on you.
I tied a silky white apron around my waist—the luxury model, the kind that circles the legs and comes down to the floor—slipped a pressed towel over the belt, and snugged it tight. The manager, who, I now concluded, must have thought that I was a distinguished chef visiting from America (my gray beard, my shiny pate, my conspicuous lack of youthfulness), climbed onto a footstool and put a toque on my head. She added a white kitchen neck-scarf and tied it from the front. (“I give you the scarf for free and insist you wear it. You are too elegant.”) I crossed my arms. I was a giant in white.
The effect on the three-year-olds was immediate. They stood up and wowed. I admit: I had hoped for their wows. It was why I had picked them up, to share the theatre of my dressing up in chef whites.
I called for a taxi—by now outright tardy—dropped off the boys, and drove on to the institute. When I reached the kitchen, Lemaire was already so distressingly deep into the evening’s batch of “cannelloni” (and possibly so embarrassed about being found there), that he didn’t rebuke me. He must have known that he had added way too much olive oil this time, but nevertheless had the forethought, just in case, to cook way too many noodles. In the effort to unstick them, most were ruined. The small number that survived were just enough to wrap the braised beef cheeks.
The trick, by the way, is not oil. It’s a wooden spoon. To keep your pasta from sticking? You stir it.
A staff member appeared and addressed me: “Chef Le Cossec wants to see you.”
I had been invited to dinner. At a table, the two of us—alone in a dining room, attended by two servers—ate a meal that arrived in three courses. A sommelier poured wine from a decanter. Red Burgundy. The plat principal was duck with a red-cherry sauce. It felt as though I had been invited to the private chambers of a ship’s captain. I pictured the meal that my wife was having with our children at our wobbly kitchen table: a plate of nuggets de poulet heated in a microwave. I then recalled a friend who, on learning that I had come to Lyon to learn French cooking, had written me—“imagining you getting your butt kicked by all those French bastards.” In the locker room, earlier, I had listened to a message left by Daniel Boulud’s assistant—“The chef wants you to know that no one in America is doing what you’re doing—it is so hard-core.”
My glass was refilled.
Le Cossec was curious. What did I want?
“To learn the skills of a chef. I have no illusions about my becoming a grand chef.”
I had learned the distinction. Grand translates as “great,” in the way that you might say a “great baseball player.” But grand combined with chef is its own designation. It was invented (again) by Carême. He was also among the first to describe cooking as an art. (The cooking classes at L’Institut Bocuse are described as instruction in “les arts culinaires.”) Grand chef is, in effect, a title akin to nothing else in any other country, because no other country accords such a lofty status to the person making your dinner. We don’t have the same thing in English. If you are mad enough to tell people that your aspiration is to be a great chef—as in “I am a student at L’Institut Paul Bocuse so that I will become un grand chef”—you will be dismissed as silly and deluded. But for many of the students at l’institut, that was exactly their ambition. They wanted to be Marc Veyrat. They wanted to be Paul Bocuse. Why? I don’t know why. A time-honored, highly inculcated reverence for dinner? It is, whatever the reason, at the very heart of Frenchness.
But for the rest of us, there was French cooking, which we wanted to learn how to do, and that was plenty.
Excerpted from DIRT: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking by Bill Buford. Copyright © 2020 by Bill Buford. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.