For my money, there's no better judge of French-American culinary dichotomies than David Lebovitz, the pastry chef who decamped the Bay Area and the kitchen at Chez Panisse for Paris a decade ago. In the years since, he's penned best-selling cookbooks, led food tours of the rich, but mystifying, food scene in the French (and culinary) capital and chronicled his own cooking adventures — as well as a host of French paradoxes besides that famous wine one — on his eponymous website.
This is why I sought him out during my last visit to Paris a year and a half ago. Well that, and he'd bantered with our site on social media about the dreadful Brooklyn-ization of his adopted city, which I found fascinating. And it's why I wanted to reach out to him again as he prepares to release his latest cookbook-slash-memoir-in-the-making, My Paris Kitchen, out April 8. Here, the admirably witty Lebovitz takes on my emailed questions about why Paris's restaurant and cooking scenes are improving, how the French cook at home and we get a status update on the latest "Le Brooklyn" news.
When we met awhile back, you seemed a bit down on the restaurant scene in Paris, but a recent post on your site is pretty hopeful. A change of heart just in time to promote the book or legitimate changes in Paris's dining scene?
It’s actually been something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit over the last few years as I wrote My Paris Kitchen, which coincided with some interesting changes in the restaurant and food scene in Paris. I spent a lot of time thinking about the changes taking place in Paris, what the younger generation of chefs in Paris were doing. When we met, I wasn’t sure all were on the right path; some began embracing gimmicks, like foam, slate plates and artistic presentations, in lieu of simply letting the ingredients and flavors take center stage. And I saw them moving away from their traditional roots, but not always in directions that I agreed with.
So I started pondering “What is French cuisine?” in 2014, and an article about an international mix of chefs in Paris who were “saving French cuisine” prompted me to write a post on my site, since it’s hard to understand what is happening in Paris unless you live here or are familiar with unique aspects of the French culture.
The short answer is that there have been quite a few changes recently in the direction that chefs are taking in Paris, happily, and quite a few have become focused on using well-sourced ingredients rather than gimmicks. But, like the farm-to-table fare in America, I’m not sure you can define what they’re doing by the country, or if it’s really French cuisine. (At least what most people think of, when they think of “French cuisine.”). They’re using French ingredients, creating their food in France, but is a plate of fresh peas, lightly sautéed, with fresh herbs, sheeps’ milk yogurt and tiny leaves of Swiss chard “French cuisine”? Or is it just good cooking?
My Paris Kitchen has a very Parisian feel to it. What are some of the differences between the way Parisians cook at home versus the way Americans do?
Parisians are pretty busy people, which you know if you’ve even been bulldozed by one in a métro station during rush hour — Ouch! At home, kitchens are smaller in Paris, so it’s harder to create a masterful, multi-course dinner, unless you live in one of those grand apartments. (Which none of my friends seem to do.) And because of time constraints, cooking and entertaining is relegated to the weekend, when they can relax, shop the markets and make a meal at home for friends and family.
Parisians also have [access to many] excellent foods that are already made, such as the terrines and pâtés at the charcuteries, and amazing cheeses (which are a course in themselves). Butchers will happily stuff or tie up a roast, so all you need to do is pop it in the oven, which is great. And it’s hard to forget the excellent desserts at the bakeries.
There's little of the DIY movement that has swept certain parts of America, and a number of people think that Parisians have chicken coops in their backyards or have turned their closets into smokehouses for their housemade sausages. That hasn’t really happened because of the space, but also because people in Paris leave most of that stuff to the professionals. In France, butchers and pastry chefs are considered masters of what they do, and they do it well, so people leave those kinds of things to the experts.
Another difference is that French people aren’t as concerned about how things look and don’t expect picture-perfect foods. Most are very happy to have anything homemade and are grateful that the hosts took the time to make dinner. So there’s not the pressure to present the perfect meal — folks are happy to have an evening with friends and family, and don’t stress over whether the side of the chocolate tart has sunken down a bit or the butter isn’t churned at home.
Also when we met, your apartment was undergoing renovation. How did the kitchen turn out? Any details you're willing to share?
The whole experience was one I would never want to repeat. I had considered writing a book about it, but realized that no one would believe me. Afterward, I had a terrific Lebanese contractor come to fix things, who saved my life, literally (that story is in the book…), and he gave me an excellent tip on how to dial-up the Tabbouleh recipe I was making for My Paris Kitchen, while he worked around me.
If someone is just about to open My Paris Kitchen with the aim to cook out of it, what's the first recipe you'd direct them to and why?
I love the salted olive crisp recipe, which is the first recipe in the book. They go perfectly with cocktails during “aperitif hour” — which is my favorite time of the day.
You've also lamented the Brooklyn-ization of Paris. Is that still happening, and is it a good or bad thing?
Initially, it was fun to see it happening in Paris, taking cues from places in Brooklyn. But it’s been taken out of context and become a cliché, with too many new places opening with the same exposed brick walls, neo-industrial look and chairs that looked like they were salvaged from a French school cafeteria. (And menus written on French school notebook paper.) The emphasis became about the look, rather than the food, and it quickly became irksome.
While I like Brooklyn (and even have an exposed brick wall in my apartment), it was a sign that Paris had opened up and showing signs of vitality. And I think once the Brooklynization trend wears off, chefs and restaurant owners in Paris will realize that they have a wonderful, exciting city — and that Paris being Paris is just fine.
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