David Lebovitz is hardly the first American author to pick up and move to Paris, seduced by the City of Light’s charming cafés and bohemian culture. But he is the most successful author turned blogger — allowing that Hemingway didn’t have access to WordPress. A pastry chef who famously did a stint at Chez Panisse before ditching the States for the expat life, Lebovitz has written six cookbooks, including the ice cream bible The Perfect Scoop and the autobiography/cookbook The Sweet Life In Paris.
The latter doubles as the tagline for Lebovitz’s long-running and very popular website about eating, cooking and living in one of the world’s greatest food capitals. The site, which he launched in 1999, is lively, informative and for my money, offers the best advice on the Internet about how to eat in Paris without coming off like a clueless tourist.
A couple of weeks back, Lebovitz graciously agreed to take a break from working on his latest book — which he was coy about, but which sounds like a sort of follow-up to The Sweet Life In Paris — and meet me at Barber Shop, a “très Brooklyn” cocktails, burgers and brunch joint in the hip 11th Arrondissement. We talked about whether the expat life is really so sweet, the differences between America and France, Paris’s soggy fries problem and much more over Sancerre (him) and a Negroni-like cocktail (me).
You write about how you started this blog not knowing what would happen, and now you have a really big following—
I started my site in 1999, and it’s funny because there’s a discussion going on online about how to monetize your blog or how to make it more popular. It’s kind of like writing cookbooks: It takes a long time. Julia Child spent 10 years working on her first book. I spent six or seven years on my thing, nobody left comments, you know… And then it hit a wave, and I got taken over with that. Now people say to me, how do I get noticed, and I used to have certain answers, like have really good pictures, good content. But now everybody has really good pictures and good content.
A lot of people fantasize about living in Paris, and you actually did it. Do you genuinely love it here?
I’ve lived in New York and San Francisco. You always have a love-hate relationship wherever you live. I like Paris a lot. It’s not an easy city live in. As a reader wrote to me, “It’s a city that kicks your ass.” It’s a very challenging place to live, like any big city.
But it’s great for a cook, right? You have all the street markets and farmers—
There are over 100 markets in Paris and a lot of the stuff is not from farms, it’s from Rungis market, a big wholesale market. Some people I tell this to go, “Really?” And I go, you know, when you go to a butcher shop, the butchers aren’t raising the cows and killing them and selling them. They’re buying and reselling them, and that’s what happens at a lot of markets.
Some of the stalls have to be farmers though, right?
Most markets, there are a couple of farmers there. It’s very difficult for them to come into Paris because of the traffic, the cost. The small farmers don’t have a lot of stuff and they can sell it where they live. I’ve actually joined what’s called a ruche, where you order your stuff in advance from local farmers and they bring it in to the city and you pick it up. But food shopping here is, well, it’s easier than in America in some respects. But today I needed horseradish in a jar, mirin (or Japanese cooking wine) and panko, and I’m like, “OK, that’s a whole day.” [Laughs.] Whereas in New York, you could go to Zabar’s and get it all. Or Fairway.
So people like me tend to romanticize Paris, right?
I’m from San Francisco, and it’s a great, great food city. You go to the farmer’s market there and it’s really special. And there are markets like that around America. You go to the San Francisco green market and there are like 12 kinds of spinach, and all these heirloom tomatoes. You don’t see that in Paris as much. There’s a lot of sameness to the produce here, a lot of eggplant, zucchini. There are great things as well. There are some beautiful Reine Claude plums in the summer, apricots from Provence. But you have to know where to shop.
What about from a diner’s perspective. Is it hard to keep up with the dining scene?
I go to the same five places. When you live in France you go to the same people all the time because they get to know you and it’s a different experience. The first time you’re a stranger, the second time you’re a guest, and the third time you’re a friend. I tend to go to the same places where they have really good food, they know me and I can get in. I try not to go to new places. In general, anything new and trendy — if it’s good, it sticks around.
Your site has a list of favorite Paris restaurants, including Bistro Paul Bert, where I had some of the best fries I’ve had in Paris—
Yeah. The problem is that they won’t give you them unless you order them as part of the steak for two. Even if you beg they won’t do it.
And the steak is basically served rare to bloody no matter how you order it.
Although somebody told me that they’re actually cooking it more. It’s funny — my French friends will only eat raw steak. Jeffrey Steingarten did a really good article about steak and how you should eat it medium rare, which is how I like it because you can actually taste it.
Let’s talk Chez Panisse. It is still considered the standard bearer for serving fresh, seasonal foods, and even Paris doesn’t seem to have something like it, right?
What happened in America in the ’80s was this food movement, and I remember when I started [at Chez Panisse], nobody knew what radicchio was, and the customers were like, “Whats’ that?” Nobody knew what goat cheese was. We had an Italian chef and he would make salumi and it was in the fridge, and it was beautiful, but we were sort of just doing it. People would come in the back door with these beautiful berries… Alice [Waters] said she was inspired by France when she came here as a student, and if you went to the French countryside years ago, it was like that.
Like there was a purity?
A sensibility. If you read Richard Olney, who was a great influence on Alice and Chez Panisse, he captured this time and place so perfectly. And Chez Panisse was — and maybe still is — the right place at the right time. Alice was really motivated to do what she did. Because of that, you go to McDonald’s now and there’s baby lettuce on the salad. Same on the airplane. I worked with her for a long time, and I don’t have illusions — she is responsible for those things happening in our lifetime, which is amazing.
Yeah, you go to places where they won’t serve tomatoes out of season now.
That’s the way it should be. The customer’s not always right. Maybe because I’ve lived in France for awhile I’ve learned that you should let the restaurant take care of you. Let them do what they do. Don’t control the experience.
So many Americans come here and can’t adapt. I really like your pointers on your blog about how to behave—
It’s a whole different world here.
Some places are actually starting to cater to Americans or non-Parisians, I’d say. You were saying that one of your favorite places of the moment is Septime, where they’re not stereotypically rude?
They’re doing two seatings, which is what Frenchie’s doing, and a lot of it is for the Americans, as they say. [Edit note: the French rarely eat dinner before 8 p.m.] I had a 7:30 reservation at Frenchie I couldn’t use once, and I tried to give it to a French friend who has always wanted to eat there, and she was like, “I can’t eat at 7:30.” I was like, can you do it just once? She said, “C’est pas possible.” So I gave it up.
Is there a way to bridge the gap between the way Americans think of Paris and how Paris really is?
I think people have to have expectations that Paris is a real city. There’s homeless people. There’s racial tension in the suburbs that hasn’t been addressed by the government. And there’s a lot of not-good restaurants. You go to a café and you can have a really crappy lunch here. You can get really bad food in Paris. And there’s really good food too. You have to know where to go.
And where to get the best fries?
Nothing drives me crazier than when I get bad food. The first thing that comes to mind is: Didn’t somebody taste this? In Paris, there’s a lot of soggy French fries. I really don’t order French fries anymore unless I can see them before I order them. Sometimes I wanna say, What were you thinking when you put these on the plate?! Once I actually tied them in knots in a restaurant and I left them on the plate to see if anybody would say anything, and the waitress didn’t say a word.
Lastly, can you talk about the new book you’re working on?
I’m still trying to figure it out. It’s about Paris. It’s writing and recipes. It’s probably not what people expect for a Paris book in some ways, but if you want a recipe for French onion soup you can go to epicurious and get it. It’s more of a story, not like my last Paris cookbook. It’s very eclectic. Somebody told me the other day, “I like your blog because I never know what to expect.” And that goes against conventional wisdom. People love the same thing — they love to go to the same restaurant and get the burger and the fries the same way. They love the same kind of book from an author. They expect things, and when you do something different, nobody likes it.
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