David Lebovitz left San Francisco nearly a decade ago for the culinary world of Paris. In his new book, My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories (Ten Speed, Apr.), the blogger and cookbook author, who worked in the pastry department at Chez Panisse, recounts how he brings the city’s cuisine into his own kitchen in Paris, through both personal stories and recipes. PW spoke with Lebovitz about his transatlantic move and the changes he’s seen in Parisian food culture.
What makes your Paris kitchen such a special space for you?
That’s a question I asked myself when I started the book. Many people have written about the uniqueness of cooking in Paris before me and will continue to do so, but I wanted my Paris kitchen to be the place where I can bring together all my cooking experience.
Given your experience cooking in professional kitchens, what were some of the challenges you encountered in designing your Paris kitchen?
Traditionally, the French kitchen was always a small space with a door designed to separate domestics who worked there. The biggest challenge was that I was used to professional kitchens, and it’s unusual to have professional things in a French home kitchen. American kitchen styles have become popular in France, but I wanted to expand that and create a counter similar to professional kitchens where everyone can sit around, watch the cook, and eat. I was used to that since I first began cooking, so I wanted big sinks, hoses for faucets, and a large refrigerator. During the kitchen reconstruction, my curious neighbors wanted to know if I was opening a restaurant!
What are the similarities and differences between the Bay Area culinary scene where you worked for years and that of Paris?
Ingredients are very different. In S.F. we always had many varieties of tomatoes or peaches in summer, and lots of local or organic varieties. In Paris the selection is much more edited, and the French are more interested in things French. They traditionally have not taken much interest in or been influenced much by outside products. Some things, like kale or hamburgers, come to Paris as trends and concepts, but do become adopted, then take on a life of their own.
Did blogging about your move to Paris help you adjust to the transition?
Blogging actually did help. It came alive when I moved to Paris and it developed into an online diary of my experience. I am not a trained writer. I started to blog in 1999 when there were very few food blogs. As I grew to understand the deep cultural roots of France, and my blogging matured, people started reading and commenting on it. Writing about out-of-the-way shops and bakeries was what people needed to know about, and it was time to give these smaller pastry shops some love. Now a lot of French people read my blog and see me as part of the culture. I love the idiosyncrasies of culture. I poke fun at the French (and at Americans, too). My blog wasn’t as popular until I moved to Paris.
After nearly a decade of immersion in French culture and cuisine, would you now describe your approach to cooking as Parisian?
My approach to cooking is “me.” I see it as a globalized style. I don’t just cook French food. When I make lamb shank tagine, it is very Parisian in a way, but I am an American making a Moroccan-style dish in Paris. I think it is getting harder to draw the line as to what is meant by “French” cooking. When I shop in Paris, I look at everything. The American approach is to see what is best, but in Paris, I go to the vendor first, then see what is best. If you go to the same cheese shop every day, they will get to know you and teach you about cheese. I go to the merchants I like. My conversation with the guy with the wonderful cheese and sausages determines an appetizer. Customer service in France may seem a little standoffish, at first, but I get treated better now because vendors enjoy talking about their goods and now want to help me.
Why is Paris still, as you describe it, the “culinary capital of the world?”
In France there is a culture of bread, cheese, and wine that is thousands of years old. Paris does what is does well, but other countries do, too. In Tel Aviv, I was stunned at how good the food was. San Francisco is amazing with its small taquerias where everything is organic, local, and freshly made. But is the falafel better in Israel than in Paris? It’s hard to say.
Can you summarize the transformation you see taking place in the next generation of French cooks and food purveyors?
The concept of change is not something the French traditionally embrace. There’s talk of how American foods, restaurants, and chefs are influencing French cuisine, but the young generation sees change as inventing a new version of the traditional coq au vin. Influences are global. There are new restaurants in Paris, like Frenchie and Bones, that use French ingredients but are creating a new genre of French food.
What have you been cooking recently?
Lately, I’ve been revisiting a lot of recipes from my book, like the dulce de leche chocolate tart and the caramel ribs, which I cooked for a party. Everyone was going nuts over them. I’ve been making a lot of salads with grains, like freekeh, roasting asparagus, and I was using the last of the root vegetables and chard.
How can home cooks bring the spirit of a Parisian kitchen into their own?
They can use finishing salts, like fleur de sel or Maldon. Or upgrade butter with a really good cultured butter you can get from a cheese maker. I keep lots of cheese on hand in the fridge, but make sure to serve it at room temperature. People who are cooking my food are adding their own touches. I love it. That’s what should happen. Worry less about how things look on the plate, or about how much parsley to sprinkle over the top. Take a breath. Sit, relax, drink wine, and enjoy yourself.
My Paris Kitchen includes savory dishes, as well as desserts and pastries, for which you are known. Are you planning to write more non-dessert cookbooks?
I included savory recipes in My Sweet Life in Paris, too. I like writing them because they are less precise. People who don’t really enjoy baking pastry recipes that require precision can make the tapenades and feel great. I do a lot of testing for my baking recipes, and that’s a challenge.
Do you see yourself remaining in Paris for the foreseeable future?
I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. You never know what you’re going to do. Someone told me that people should make a change every 10 years. Who knows what’s next? My partner is French, and I will always have a strong connection to Paris. I am very happy with my book, and I hope people will find me interesting as well as the food from My Paris Kitchen.
My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories by David Lebovitz. Ten Speed, Apr. ISBN 978-1-60774-267-8