Living the Sweet Life in Paris
A veteran pastry chef who spent 13 years working for Alice Waters at Berkley’s famed Chez Panisse, David Lebovitz has written six cookbooks including the best-selling The Perfect Scoop and The Sweet Life in Paris (stay tuned for the upcoming My Paris Kitchen, due out in 2014). After choosing the expat life in Paris a decade ago, Lebovitz started a blog that has become our go-to guide of restaurants and bakeries in the City of Light (you gotta check out his suggestions and download his Paris Pastry Guide app before your next trip). We chat with Lebovitz about his stint at Chez Panisse, the next generation of Parisian chefs, and his favorite wine bars and splurge-worthy eats.
AndrewZimmern.com: You were a food blogger before food blogging was cool. Why did you start your blog? How has it changed over the years?
David Lebovitz: I started my blog in 1999, before I (and I think, just about everybody else) had ever heard of blogging. Back then, I would update the site by writing stories and uploading them with the help of someone with more technical experience than a guy who bakes cookies. Then blogging platforms came along, making it easier to blog more frequently, and more easily. Initially, I started it when my first book came out, thinking it’d be a great resource to be in touch with readers who might have baking questions, and so forth.
As a result of the new-found ease of blogging, other people started blogging, and soon it mushroomed into a massive community. At first, there were just a handful of people who were really fun and interesting, and we all kind of got to know each other by linking and so forth. (In Paris, we had a few get-togethers, which – of course – involved sharing amazing food.) The great thing now is there are a gazillion fascinating voices from all over the world, sharing recipes and travel tips. But I do miss the intimacy of how it was back then, when finding out that someone else had started a food blog was almost like a celebration. But as readership increases and with blogs taking on more of a voice in the media mix, they’re being scrutinized more closely. So one needs to be more careful with things like grammar, typos, etc. The original idea of a blog was to be a casual, personal diary, or “log,” of events and I hope to keep it still fun, in spite of the evolution.
AZ.com: What was it like working at Chez Panisse and with Alice Waters back in the ’90s?
DL: I worked at Chez Panisse when it had just become really (really) popular, and was getting an enormous amount of media attention, and it was exciting – and hard. When the café opened at 5 p.m., we had lines out the door that didn’t end until 11:30 p.m. From the moment you got there, you went to work. Fortunately, as a cook, you couldn’t ask for a better place to work; the owners (including Alice) were intensely interested in getting the best fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products available, and as much from the region as possible before “local” became a buzzword. Money was always secondary (which created some problems when you’re running a business!), but somehow, it all worked.
Alice was, and still is, a model of inspiration. She works incredibly hard and it was not unusual to see her emptying the garbage or furiously sweeping the floor of the kitchen right before service. The restaurant has over a hundred employees, and I don’t know how she does it. But the thing that I really admire about her is that she doesn’t just talk about her convictions – she actually does them, and puts them into motion (like the Edible Schoolyard Project) and she really does want people, especially the next generation, to eat well.
AZ.com: What do you miss most about San Francisco?
DL: I miss the fresh air. In spite of the chilly weather that blows through San Francisco, the air is constantly being cleaned by the natural breezes off the bay. I also miss the farmers’ market and the produce. Paris has some interesting markets, and great cheeses and bakeries, but I miss shopping directly from the farmers and talking to them, learning about new varieties of peaches and plums, and packing up tangles of locally grown bitter greens, and taking them home to sauté with lots of garlic, olive oil, and red pepper flakes. Or scoring a few baskets of berries from farmers in Santa Cruz, or tablets of dark chocolate made right in the city.
AZ.com: When you first moved to Paris, what cultural differences made for the biggest hurdles?
DL: I think the hardest difference for Americans is the customer service, or more specifically, the lack of it. (Note: It drives Parisians nuts, too.) But you have to spend a considerable amount of time getting past “Non” or “C’est pas possible.” (“It’s not possible.”) And it can really be a challenge, especially when you need to conduct business and with all the obstacles, it can be frustrating to have to keep re-doing paperwork and waiting in lines.
Another is the brusqueness of people. I was raised close to New York City (and worked in restaurant kitchens all my life), so I am no stranger to people being around tough people. But I’m used to folks being naturally more open and friendly. The French can be incredibly nice (although if you talk to French people, they have a tough time with Parisians, too) and going into shops, markets, and so forth, I find the people friendly. But on the streets and in certain situations (like the guy who tripped me on the métro stairs last night, then turned around and scowled at me for interrupting his phone call), some could use a lesson in being a little nicer to others.
AZ.com: Paris has measured restaurant merit by Michelin stars for over a century, but it seems the newest wave of game-changing chefs don’t fit into the Michelin mold. What are your thoughts about the direction of the city’s buzziest restaurants? Is this trend here to stay?
DL: I don’t follow stars because they don’t tell me the things I want to know about a restaurant. Like how the chef uses ingredients, and where is she or he getting them. So it’s great that a younger generation is taking root and having a lot of success. I think most are here to stay as they are packed every night. There has been a certain amount of younger chefs emulating the “Top Chef”-style of cooking, which is just as popular in France as it is elsewhere. But the result will be in a few years, the ones who are serious good cooks, producing great food, will still be around. At least I hope so, because I plan to be!
AZ.com: For a first-timer, what must-see restaurants and sights should be on a weekend itinerary?
DL: I always advise people to hit the wine bars. They are the best place to soak up the local flavor; the food is always good and the best of France is on the plate (or cutting board), in terms of charcuterie and cheese. Most have youthful staff, who are usually happy to please and suggest a wine by the glass to try. Good, interesting wine bars are Le Garde Robe, Le Baron Rouge, Vivant, Buvette, and L’Avant Comptoir.
AZ.com: What off-the-beaten-track spots would you send someone who’s done all the touristy stuff?
DL: Honestly, I don’t know. I get asked that all the time. And Paris is so small, that anything off-the-track has either been discovered, or is far enough away (or in kind of dicey neighborhoods) that non-locals might not feel comfortable going there. That said, I love the Barbès market on Saturday morning, which feels like being in the frenzy of an Arabic souk. The crowd is lively and you’ll get a real eyeful there. I also think going up to the 20th, which is high above Paris, then walking down through Belleville is really interesting. You hit Asian markets, Arabic spice stalls, “bobo” (hipster) bars and cafés, and even a vineyard.
AZ.com: What one restaurant in Paris would you recommend if price was no objective? On a tight budget?
DL: L’Ambroisie, although the prices will take your breath away. But it can be amazing. And people forget that when you pay that kind of money for a plate of food (which could easily be €120 – €180 for just one course), you’re not just paying for a plate of food, you’re paying for the whole experience. It’s hefty, but I had a chicken there that was so good, I was tempted to take it – and the gorgeous copper roasting pan that it was served in – home with me, to gnaw all of it down to the bones.
On a budget, I think Le Rubis is a lot of fun, and very authentic. It’s certainly not for vegetarians, but the service is friendly, the wine is great, and you’ll get your sausage fix, that’s for sure.
AZ.com: Any new books or projects on the horizon?
DL: I have a book set to be released in April of 2014, called My Paris Kitchen. I’ve been working on it for a number of years, and it reflects what I make in my kitchen in Paris, but in some ways, also talks about how Paris cooking has changed, and what’s stayed the same. It’s a mix of recipes and stories – kind of like my life!
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
DL: Israeli tahini; fresh chicken marinating in fresh savory, garlic, and chipotle pepper; bunches of chives, flat-leaf parsley and sage; a jar of preserved lemons; Lebanese beer; two bottles of rosé; milk (for my morning café au lait); a big bottle of black sesame oil (that someone brought me from Koreatown in Los Angeles); four blocks of butter (not including the Bordier one that’s flavored with smoked salt, from Brittany); four kinds of mustard; nine eggs; homemade apple jelly; preserved anchovies; a jug of maple syrup from America; and a lovely wedge of Tomme de Savoie cheese that I should take out now, for dinner tonight.
Get David’s recipe for Toasted Almond & Candied Cherry Ice Cream from his cookbook, The Perfect Scoop.
David Lebovitz has lived in Paris for ten years. He’s written a number of books, including the best-selling The Perfect Scoop (the complete guide to making ice cream) and The Sweet Life in Paris, a humorous look at life in the City of Light. He worked for thirteen years at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California and was named one of the top five pastry chefs in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Chronicle. He blogs at www.davidlebovitz.com