We recently caught up with David Lebovitz, acclaimed cookbook author and food blogger to share a recipe and chat about the state of French food today, stocking a kitchen, and how his life as an expat in Paris has “absolutely, positively, 100%” not gone as planned.
What first drew you to a career in food?
I like to eat!
You got your start at Chez Panisse. What was that like?
It was great. I started at Chez Panisse when California Cuisine had just become a keyword, shifting the perception of food in America, which involved a lot of reflecting about what and how we ate. It was very exciting because we were getting things at Chez Panisse that no one had ever heard of — fresh goat cheese, radicchio, blood oranges — and focusing on buying food from local producers, before the term “locavore” was around.
In the early ’80s, we were insanely busy. At opening time, 5:00 pm, we’d have a line out the door, which didn’t stop until we closed. The hosts were turning people away. I worked in the café and we worked very, very hard but it was amazing to be surrounded by such beautiful ingredients and serve them. And everyone cooking there was, and is, completely dedicated to pure, honest cooking, doing the best job possible.
After working in the café for a few years as a line cook, I joined the pastry department, which was equally special because we had incredible fruits, like Meyer lemons, Oro Blanco, fraises des bois (wild strawberries), Frog Hollow peaches and berries from one neighbor, Mr. Hadsell, an old man who teetered when he walked, who loved picking raspberries and would bring us flats of them from his backyard that were still warm from the sun. I loved it all. It was a great foundation for me as a cook, and I still shop and cook following the same philosophy.
What inspired you to begin a food blog?
It was 1999 and my first book, Room for Dessert, was about to come out, and I thought “Wouldn’t it be nice if people had a way to get in touch with me, in case they have questions?” (Which might fall into the “Be careful what you wish for” category …!) That was back in the days when you never got in touch with the author of a book to ask a question. If you did, you wrote a letter to the publisher, who forwarded it. (Although some, like Marion Cunningham and Julie Child, kept their phone numbers listed so people could call them.)
In 1999, the word “blog” didn’t exist. Or if it did, I never heard of it. I was writing and putting pictures and recipes on my site for a couple of years, manually uploading them every week or so. Then, around 2004, I heard about food bloggers, people writing about food and posting their stories and recipes online. Much of it was because there was blogging software which made publishing much, much easier. Honestly, I never thought it would take off as much as it has. And for years, I think I was writing for three or four people. But then it kept growing and growing and growing.
I don’t really know why I started, except, I guess, I liked writing about food and wanted to share my stories. When I moved to Paris, I thought I’d write for the food and travel magazines because I had discovered so many great places — pastry shops, bread bakeries, restaurants and cafés — that were off the radar, that I wanted to share. But no one was interested in publishing them. So I did it myself!
Is your life now what you imagined it would be when you moved to Paris?
Absolutely, positively, 100% not.
So what items can we always find in your pantry?
Dijon mustard, smoked salt, za’atar, farro (spelt) pasta, French cocoa powder, dukkah (Egyptian spice and nut mixture), organic crunchy peanut butter, the most incredible tomato paste in the world (from Sicily), American chocolate chips, Lebanese tahini, instant ramen (just kidding!), fleur de sel (French hand-harvested sea salt), petite épautre (French wheat berries, which make a delicious salad), Sicilian organic olive oil, preserved cherries (for Manhattan cocktails), Mexican vanilla (the real stuff) and at least ten kinds of dark chocolate.
Are there foods you stock up on when you come back to the States?
Yes, dried sour cherries and dried California apricots, as well as the aforementioned organic crunchy peanut butter. I also bring back aluminum foil because the French stuff is like tissue paper and rips and shreds when you try to pull it off the roll. (French friends of mine who cook plead for me to bring some back for them from the states, too.)
And vice versa: If you were leaving France forever, what French food items would you stock up on before you left?
What are some kitchenware pieces you just can’t live without?
I’m really attached to All-Clad cookware. I’ve been using it forever and nothing feels the same to me, in my hands. I also like my mortar and pestle for grinding pepper and spices, and making tapenade and aïoli (garlic mayonnaise). I’m not sure I could live without my OXO plane grater and salad spinner, and I love my rubber-bottom mixing bowls, since they don’t move around the counter when mixing and whisking. And I use my Cuisinart ICE-50 ice cream maker all the time. Since it requires no pre-freezing, I can churn up a batch of ice cream or sorbet whenever I want. And I do!
Was it difficult adjusting to cooking with the French version of common ingredients (like flour or butter)?
Yes, and that’s one of my most frequently asked questions from newbies to Paris, who’ve opened their ovens only to find their carefully formed chocolate chip cookies oozing in a lava-like flow off the baking sheet. French flour is much more finely milled than U.S. flour, with less protein (which gives flour its strength), and the butter has more fat, which tastes better (of course!), but can be tricky in recipes.
I don’t have a standard formula that I use, but I do keep U.S. flour on hand for testing recipes when I write cookbooks because I want the recipes to work everywhere. So when baking at home, I use my senses — mostly look and touch — when making certain desserts, like doughs, adding a bit more French flour to American recipes, and dialing down the butter a bit as well.
Do you think American home cooks have misconceptions about how the French cook at home? Or about French food in general?
Absolutely. French people don’t bake at home, at least the same way that Americans do. People are often surprised to hear that, but with a very good bakery on every corner, Parisians don’t have the “DIY” thing about making things themselves at home. They let the experts do it. Because, frankly, they usually do it better. There are pre-made tart crusts available in supermarkets, sold in rolls, like boxes of aluminum foil, which French people use as shortcuts to make tarts and quiche. Most people don’t bake for fun and relaxation at home in France, like Americans do.
French people also don’t try to make something that looks perfect. They’re more concerned about flavor. And French recipes leave a lot more room for users to improvise, which is something Americans are often afraid to do. Baking recipes in France often don’t tell you what size pan you’ll need for the cake or tart; they’ll assume that you know. And tasks and techniques aren’t explained in great detail.
An American recipe might read: “Lift the dough with your left hand, folding it over with your right, to form a 90º angle in all four corners. Then use both hands, left and right, to place the dough in the mold, centering it carefully. Then unfold it, pressing it into the pan, making sure the corners are firmly attached. If it’s not centered, move the dough toward the center of the pan.”
A French recipe would say: “Put dough in pan.”
Do you feel like you’ve seen France’s (or Paris’) attitude toward food change since you’ve been living there?
French food is changing and on my last book tour, a lot of people asked me about French cuisine. And I’d respond, “Well, what is French cuisine?” In the past it was coq au vin, cassoulet and crêpes. But walking down the streets of the less-touristed neighborhoods in Paris these days, you’ll see a lot of contemporary cooking, using ingredients like root vegetables in unusual ways, flowers and herbs, and dishes composed with raw fish, yuzu, etc. Plus there has been a huge influx of burger joints in Paris. In fact, at last year’s International Agriculture Fair in Paris, where people come from all across France to display their foodstuffs and set up restaurants to highlight and serve the foods of the regions, the “Café de Paris” was serving — yup — burgers.
The identity of France is changing and the younger generation of chefs is looking to be more creative and break free of the past. They are also looking outside their borders, not just by serving burgers (and fish and chips), but also being influenced by Japan, Korea, the Basque region and even the United States (most noticeably, Brooklyn), with the farm-to-table movement.
People often remark that you write less-than-flattering things about the French (and Parisians). What say you to these disillusioned Francophiles?
There have been a number of books and reports on how great the French do, well … everything. French women somehow stay miraculously thin, the kids are unbelievably well-behaved, and the people are all polite and well-mannered. (Those people obviously haven’t taken the Métro at rush hour.) If you asked Parisians if Parisians were polite — prepare yourself for an earful! But it’s honest to present people as they are. Women are not all gorgeous and thin. Some are heavy, and some aren’t necessarily attractive. Which is fine. There are rude people and there are polite people. Kids are kids, and I’ve seen kids displaying atrocious as well as being little angels. That’s how people are, in France and elsewhere.
A young Frenchman stopped on his bike the other day when he saw me, and asked if I was David Lebovitz. When I said, yes, I was (when a handsome Frenchman stops his bike to ask your name, that’s another time to be honest … and give it to him!) — he said he liked reading my stories and that I “understood France, and Paris.” And recently, a woman who works with La Grande Épicerie food store told me that My Paris Kitchen “was about Paris, as if it was written by a Parisian.” The French are especially good at poking fun about themselves, and each other, and it’s not considered a fault. And I’ve lived here over a decade and live in the real Paris, which is about beautiful, chic food stores, as well as everyday life on the street.
In the introduction to My Paris Kitchen, you write, “When I sat down to write this book about cooking in Paris today, I honestly wasn’t sure what “Parisian food” was, and pondered if French cuisine was even still relevant.” Can you elaborate a little?
French cuisine is hallowed around the world, and no one wants it to change. People come to Paris and want to dine in rustic bistros and find an out-of-the-way café that’s only filled with locals. Those things exist, but most of the “hot” restaurants in Paris these days aren’t cooking traditional French cuisine. They are presenting fare using French and local ingredients, but preparing them in new and exciting ways.
A lot of articles have come out over the past decade arguing that French cuisine is “over.” But people still like it. (I do, too.) And not only do they come to France looking for it, but in cities like New York, Seattle and San Francisco, you can find great French restaurants, serving classic fare. And they’re usually packed. So I think it’s premature to talk about the demise of French cuisine. But it is evolving.
What are some of your favorite recipes in My Paris Kitchen? What makes them stand out?
I love the green olive, almond and basil tapenade. It’s a quick recipe that can be made in advance, and goes well with rosé as an aperitif. I also am very fond of the chocolate salted caramel mousse, because I like the foamy texture, and the way the chocolate and salty caramel mingle in the glass. I am also finally happy to present my recipe for cassoulet. It was the dish that made me fall in love with French cuisine, and although it’s a bit of a chore to make, the payoff is worth it. (And you’ll have leftovers for days and days.)
Can you talk a little bit about your cookbook-writing process?
I think you should write a book because you have something to say. Each of my books is different. If I’m writing a single-subject book, like The Perfect Scoop, I’ll focus on what makes a great ice cream book: a variety of recipes, easy explanations of the process and technique, things to look out for and a broad spectrum of flavors.
In a book like My Paris Kitchen, I was exploring what cooking in Paris means to me. It’s highly personal, with stories about the markets and neighborhoods, as well as recipes, told from my perspective. It’s a personal story of my life in the city that is punctuated with recipes, tips and photos.
We wanted the pictures to be part of the story, so the photographer came to Paris and spent a lot of time with me in my kitchen and on the streets, to capture not just cooking in my kitchen, but shopping at the food markets, poking through the antique sales, going to the butcher, smearing French cheese on handmade breads and learning about French butters.
When I write a book, I don’t have a real focus as first, but just start writing — making different files on my desktop, perhaps as chapters if I’m doing a cookbook, or ideas if I’m writing a memoir. Then I’ll dip in and out of each, adding ideas and recipes to one, taking from another, and writing stories here and there as the ideas arise. When I write a book, I “live” it, meaning that every waking hour (and a lot of sleepless nights) is spent thinking about the book and making it happen.
There have been SO many books written about French cuisine. Was it daunting to throw your voice into the mix?
I was hesitant at first, because there were a number of great voices (and books) about French cuisine, namely by Julia Child and Richard Olney, that I wasn’t sure if I had anything else to say. But I realized that I did, because I’m here now, and Paris is a different place and French cooking has evolved since then. And I wanted to say something that hadn’t been said before.
I was glad I did the book because it gave me a chance to connect with people who love Paris, and offer them stories and recipes that are part of my culinary life in the city. And people have really been enjoying the book, which has been very gratifying. Vive la France!
Merci beaucoup, David!
Are you a fan of David’s blog and cookbooks? Which of his recipes is your favorite? Let us (and him) know in the comments!