Bill Buford’s quest for culinary perfection: A chicken, a recipe and a six-hour Zoom masterclass

Bill Buford in his kitchen in New York, on a previous visit, in 2015. Photograph: Ashley Gilbertson/New York Times
The author spent more than a decade seeking the heart of French cuisine for his new book, Dirt. But, in quarantine, he just wants to make the perfect poultry

Last month the writer Bill Buford attempted to teach me, using Zoom, how to bone, stuff, tie and poach a chicken. It was something like one of those masterclasses that everybody is watching these days, except that those run for 20 minutes, and my lesson lasted more than six hours. It may not have been the longest Zoom call in history, but I suspect it set a record for Zoom calls with a strong focus on boneless poultry.

It came about because for the past few months Buford has been on what he calls “a chicken kick”. He tends to get preoccupied with a recipe or technique or ingredient and keep coming back to it, over and over, until a new obsession takes hold. Recently he went on a mayonnaise kick, whisking grapeseed oil into egg yolks a drop at a time, sometimes adding the zest of a couple of lemons, a trick he learned when he worked for chef Michel Richard.

Several years ago Buford went on a bread kick. He made the dough with flour he brought back from his last trip to France, a flour that he said was “magical in the way that Bob’s flour was magical” – Bob being what everybody called Yves Richard, a baker in Lyon who gave Buford his first apprenticeship after he moved to that city with his family in 2008. He said that as soon as the magical French flour ran out, “I thought, There’s no point in making bread.”

As in his previous two books, Bill Buford’s reportorial method is to embed himself with his subjects so completely that he becomes almost indistinguishable from them

The roots of all three kicks are recounted in Buford’s latest book, Dirt: Adventures in Lyon as a Chef in Training, Father, and Sleuth Looking for the Secret of French Cooking. As in his previous two books, Buford’s reportorial method is to embed himself with his subjects so completely that he becomes almost indistinguishable from them.

In Among the Thugs he got so caught up in the culture of violent English soccer fans that he was beaten up by the police. (“It’s surprisingly painful to be beaten,” he said.) Pursuing his interest in Italian cuisine, the subject of Heat, he spent so much time with the chef Mario Batali that Batali seemed to forget that he was being watched by a very sharp and observant journalist who was taking notes on his crude patter and sexualised behaviour years before multiple women accused him of assault, abuse and harassment.

Dirt is the story of how Buford tried to understand the food of France by learning to cook it. For this he moved to Lyon with his wife, Jessica Green, and their twin sons; took classes at the Institut Paul Bocuse, just outside the city; and eventually persuaded the chef Mathieu Viannay to let him volunteer in the kitchen of La Mère Brazier.

The idea was to stay nine months. In Buford’s world, though, departure dates, deadlines and other end points in time are more or less hypothetical. Not flight times – they turned out to be real, as he learned when he and the boys missed the plane to Lyon that was supposed to begin their new life there, where Green was already waiting. He writes that his call to her from the airport was “the nadir of our married life”. Once they arrived, though, the family did not move back to New York for almost five years.

Bill Buford with Paul Dench-Layton of Violet Hill Farm, who supplied Buford with chickens in New York. Photograph: Brittainy Newman/New York Times
Bill Buford with Paul Dench-Layton of Violet Hill Farm, who supplied Buford with chickens in New York. Photograph: Brittainy Newman/New York Times

In January I asked Buford if we could cook together, making something he had learned in Lyon. At first he was going to have a dinner party. We were still talking in March when dinner parties began to seem unwise and then were banned. We finally settled on a video call.

Whenever we talked or emailed he would suggest different elaborations on the basic theme of poached chicken, and after a while just talking about chicken with Buford seemed at least as interesting as cooking it.

Perhaps he would slide truffle slices under the skin for poulet en demi-deuil, the rarely seen chicken in half-mourning made famous by Eugènie Brazier, the chef who founded La Mère Brazier. I wanted to see that. I was also intrigued by another dish that had become a signature of Paul Bocuse, who had passed through the kitchen of La Mère Brazier in the 1950s: poulet en vessie, a whole bird steamed inside a pig’s bladder.

There would be more discussions about chickens before we got together on Zoom, but finally, one day at 2.30pm, I clicked a link and Buford’s face appeared on my screen.

He was wearing an apron. He had also finished his prep work. I found an apron, tied it on and chopped piles of mushrooms, parsley and breadcrumbs as fast as I could. Buford seemed to be in no hurry.

“We split our duties, and Jessica usually takes over the school nights, because she tends to get food on the table more punctually than I do,” he said. It was a Friday, though, one of the days when he is allowed to cook, and there was an understanding in the house that dinner might be served on the later side.

We began exploring the interior of the chicken leg, which becomes a confusing place once you start taking out the bones. I angled my laptop’s camera so he had a view of my cutting board. What was lying there looked less and less like a bird

Almost an hour had passed before we made our first approach to the chickens. Buford had me nick out the wishbone first. Off went the wing tips, and then he showed me how to slip the point of the knife into the small socket where the wing joins the carcass, running the point of the blade around the hollow place. Without any slicing of meat or sawing of bone, the joint swung free.

Then we began exploring the interior of the chicken leg, which becomes a confusing place once you start taking out the bones. I angled my laptop’s camera so he had a view of my cutting board. What was lying there looked less and less like a bird.

“It helps to reassemble the chicken every so often so you know where you are,” he said.

His patient manner was nothing like the rushed, barking tone he describes inside La Mère Brazier. His book Dirt depicts the sadism and bullying Buford experienced in the kitchen, and the sexism and racism shown to other workers. A Malaysian culinary student is taken on as a stagiaire, or trainee; everybody calls him Jackie Chan. Even Buford did it until he learned the student’s name, Chern Hwei Gan. A female cook, perhaps the first since the days of Eugènie Brazier, was addressed as “Mademoiselle” for two weeks. After that, all pretense of respect was dropped, and the chef de partie would pretend to “mount her from behind” each time she passed.

For the epilogue Buford tracked them down to see how the mistreatment had affected their careers. Chern went on to open what Buford calls a “witty and anarchic” restaurant in Dijon. The female cook, though, gave up on restaurant kitchens and went into the fashion business. “Her cooking spirit had been crushed,” he writes.

Dirt is more explicit about the damage done by masculine aggression and volatility in the kitchen than Heat, published in 2006. In that book Batali is seen acting coarsely, making sexual suggestions toward at least one female employee. The author’s tone, though, is nonjudgmental. I asked Buford if he regretted that now.

“I think I felt pretty confident in the weight of the observations,” he said. “A lot of the observations were not loaded in their presentation but loaded in their content. And I think that’s what works.”

The book, which for years remained one of the only pieces of journalism that showed the uglier side of Batali’s bacchanalian drive, caused a rift between the two men. “Mario hated it, and it took him a long time to get over it,” he said. “He described it as ‘standing naked in front of a mirror for 24 hours.’”

Bill Buford poaching a chicken via Zoom. Photograph: Pete Wells/New York Times
Bill Buford poaching a chicken via Zoom. Photograph: Pete Wells/New York Times

By 4.30pm, with Buford’s video guidance, I had successfully taken out all the chicken bones that seemed to matter. I’d spread the chicken out like an open paperback and covered it with parsley, mushrooms and bread. Buford showed me how to tie the bird into a neat bundle with a wrap-and-twist motion that I’ve seen butchers make but have never been able to copy.

“Now we poach them,” he said. The trick of this was to keep the stock between 65 and 70 Celsius, well below boiling, barely hot enough to decorate the surface of the liquid with slow fingers of steam. The steady, moderate heat of the stock mimics the sous-vide method. In fact, chicken breasts are now cooked sous vide with an immersion circulator at La Mère Brazier.

Buford prefers the older, low-tech method because he gets two delicious things out of one recipe: very tender chicken breasts and double-strength chicken stock. During lockdown he began taking it one step beyond, boning several chickens, poaching them and then cooking the stock a second time, with the carcasses. He called it “chicken squared”.

Earlier I had asked Buford how the restaurants of a city once famous for its women chefs – Brazier was one of many mères in Lyon – had come to be dominated by men such as Bocuse.

He pointed to the generation that followed the mères, including Bocuse’s father and Fernand Point of La Pyramide in Vienne, who went off to train in expensive hotels before coming back to take over the family business.

“In hotels then, you would be taught the brigade system, which would be Escoffier,” he said. “You’re learning an expertise that the mères didn’t have. Also, if you have that training, you’re not doing home cooking. You’re being taught to do grand cuisine.”

The brigade system became standard in ambitious French restaurants, as did a more stylised form of cooking that took pains to set itself apart from what the mères had achieved.

It would take several generations for French women to regain what had been taken from them. Now, Buford said, “There’s a whole generation of female chefs in France who are better at the men’s game than the men. They’re brilliant and tough and they all had to force their way through the heaps of abuse they faced entering those kitchens.”

By 5.15pm both birds were in the pot. Clearly, a glass of wine was called for.

Once a few glasses of wine had been put down, Buford and I went back to our kitchens. His chicken was nearly cooked. Mine was not

Buford called Green to join our Zoom cocktail hour. About 20 years ago, when I was writing news releases for the New Yorker, she had worked in the fiction department and Buford had been the fiction editor. The three of us never had a drink together, though.

I had opened a Sardinian Vermentino. Buford and Green had a long colloquy about whether they had a Vermentino in the house from Sardinia or anywhere else. No. A Riesling, perhaps? They settled on a Chablis, taking it out to a small patio behind their apartment.

Green is a wine writer and educator. While the couple lived in France, she earned a diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust in Mâcon. In the first year, though, she took care of three-year-old twins while Buford learned to cook.

The boys are 14 now. The New Yorker has hired them to make videos of their father’s cooking kicks.

“Frederick is the bossy-pants director and George is the genuinely bossy-pants cinematographer,” Buford said. “They’re not getting a lot, and they’ve got no rights whatsoever, but they’re already talking about what they’re going to do with the money. And they’re quietly expressing disappointment that I haven’t turned in another piece.”

Once a few glasses of wine had been put down, Buford and I went back to our kitchens. His chicken was nearly cooked. Mine was not. He began to whisking up a variation on sauce suprême that would incorporate sherry vinegar and mustard made with grape must.

“It’s one of the secret weapons I picked up from Mère Brazier kitchen,” he said. “It looks like caviar. I love it.”

In theory, we were going to use the poaching stock for our sauces and for rice pilaf. In reality, there wasn’t enough for both things, and we used quarts of stock we had bought from Cascun Farm just in case.

The conversation turned back to his family’s time in Lyon. Buford said that they would have become eligible for French citizenship if they had stayed a few more months. I asked him what happened.

“We ran out of money,” he said. “I wasn’t earning money writing a book that took much, much longer than I thought it was going to take.”

The writing of Dirt, which he sold to Knopf in 2008, consumed 12 years. By May, when it was published, Richard had died – both Richards, the chef and the bread-baking Richard known as Bob. So had other subjects and characters in the book. So had its editor, Sonny Mehta. This is all recounted in an epilogue called Just About Everybody Dies.

At 7.30pm Buford told his wife that dinner would be ready in half an hour. He brushed the poached chicken with orange juice and butter to help it brown, and put it into the oven along with a casserole of rice pilaf. I asked if he’d used stock for the rice.

“I used it for the rice and I used other stock for the sauce, but I’m not using it for the zucchini I’m about to do,” he said.

Wait, zucchini?

It was about 8.15pm when Buford told Green that it was time to call the boys for dinner.

After Buford and I hung up I tried to picture them all sitting down together. When they grew up the boys would almost certainly remember when they didn’t have to go to school for months and their father kept coming up with new ways to poach a chicken.

A few days later, according to Buford, Frederick looked in the refrigerator. Once again, it was full of birds.

“So many?” he asked. “Why are we always eating chicken? I hate chicken.”

Suprême de volaille fermière à la crème (Chicken breast in cream)

Chicken breast in cream, which uses a stove-top approximation of a sous-vide technique. Photograph: Andrew Purcell/New York Times
Chicken breast in cream. Photograph: Andrew Purcell/New York Times

Serves two
Total time: two hours

1 whole large chicken, trussed, or legs tied with kitchen string
1.9ltr chicken stock
1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp plain flour
250ml single cream
½ tsp Dijon mustard
2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tbsp white port (optional)

 Set the chicken in a large, deep pot. Add the chicken stock, then add enough water to cover the chicken completely. Heat over high until the temperature of the cooking liquid reaches 160 degrees and is hot enough to steam. Cook the chicken until the inner thighs reach a temperature of 145 degrees, 30 to 40 minutes, monitoring the temperature and reducing the heat as needed throughout the cooking process to make sure the liquid stays under a simmer. Remove chicken from liquid and let rest until cool enough to handle, about 15 minutes.

While chicken rests, start the sauce: In a medium saucepan, whisk the butter and flour over low heat until the mixture melts into a thick, pale roux, 2 to 3 minutes. Slowly add 3 cups of the hot chicken stock to the roux, whisking constantly over low heat, until roux and the liquid are emulsified. Bring to a simmer and cook, whisking occasionally, until the mixture is reduced to 2 cups (500ml), about 15 minutes. (Let the remaining stock cool, then refrigerate or freeze for future use.)

3 Meanwhile, remove the legs (they will not be fully cooked) and set them aside for another use (see Note). Carefully remove the skin from the chicken breasts, then, starting with the pointed end of each breast, separate the breasts from the breastbone, with your thumb if possible (or your knife if necessary), gently moving your thumb down the center bone that separates the two breasts on each side. Using a knife, ensure that you remove the rest of the breast meat (including the fillets) from the bone without tearing; remove and discard any membranes from the surface of each breast. (The meat nearest the bone might still be slightly uncooked, but it will cook through in Step 6.)

Whisk the cream into the sauce in the saucepan, and continue to cook at a simmer until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon and has reduced to about 2 1/2 cups (625ml), another 15 to 20 minutes.

Whisk in the mustard, then lemon juice. Season to taste with salt and pepper, then add the port, if using.

6 Add the breasts to the sauce to reheat, basting them until fully cooked through, about five minutes. Transfer each breast to a warmed plate and slice thickly, if desired. Gently spoon the sauce over the breast to serve.

You can save the meat from the legs for another use or refrigerate for 1 or 2 days before enjoying as a separate meal, seared and served with a green salad: In a large skillet, melt 60g butter and 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil over medium-high heat. Season the legs with salt and pepper and sear until browned on both sides, about 4 minutes per side, using a large spoon to baste the legs with the sizzling butter mixture as they cook. – New York Times

Dirt: Adventures in French Cooking, by Bill Buford, is published by Jonathan Cape on October 1st