Many years ago, when I decided to ‘become’ a novelist, I shipped myself off to a village in south-west France called St Jean de Fos for three months, banned myself from reading any novels in English (lest they corrupt my style) and became an obsessive maker of French dishes like cassoulet because my first book was about a restaurant critic and I wanted to make it perfectly authentic.
Now that I am older and wiser, I look back on that era and think, ‘Poor naive young fool.’ I honestly doubt whether any of that elaborate preparation made the blindest bit of difference to the quality of the book I wrote. I could have stayed in London — or wherever — and quite possibly have written a better one, because I would have concentrated on things like getting the plot right and using my imagination instead of burdening myself with all this ritual and research and prissiness. Then, again, maybe not. You just never know, do you?
I feel much the same way about French cuisine. Does it honestly, truly make the blindest bit of difference whether or not you break the crust of your cassoulet three times, or use goose fat or duck fat, or include lamb or exclude it depending on whether it’s the cassoulet de Toulouse or the cassoulet de Castelnaudary or the cassoulet de l’other place whose name I’ve since forgotten? Or is the rigid formality of French cuisine — all the excessive training you have to go through, the regimentation in the great kitchens, the sublime arrogance of it all — just an elaborate front, designed to create the mystique which hides the unpalatable truth that, actually, Italian cuisine is way better?
This, more or less, is the question likeable New Yorker writer Bill Buford sets out to answer in his two-part series Fat Man in a White Hat (BBC4, Tuesday), but I’m not sure he’s entirely successful.
He certainly does the legwork — slaving in a number of mildly terrifying French kitchens; moving with his family to Lyon, the better to learn the chef’s art — but I suspect the inevitable book will be much more interesting than the TV show. Not enough of anything exciting happens; it’s too wordy; there’s no dramatic tension; it’s all served up too straight. Sure, one deplores this hideous new world in which every TV doc now has to involve major humiliation, serious stunt-action sequences, riotous colour and fake-countdown scenarios, in which unless the objective is completed within half a day the entire city will be destroyed. But that’s still no excuse for a return to the good old days of watching-paint-dry TV.
The scene that really exposed the flawed nature of the enterprise, I thought, was when Buford sat in a highly revered French restaurant eating poulet de bresse, stuffed with foie gras and black truffle, with a dash of Viognier and brandy, poached inside a pig’s bladder. Buford spent a very long time telling us how good it was. Yeah. I’m sure. But with ingredients like that, how could it not be?
Read the rest in the Spectator.
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