Food writer David Lebovitz on life in Paris
Food writer, blogger and Paris resident David Lebovitz scratches below the surface of the city’s culinary scene to share stories and recipes in his latest book, as Anna McKittrick discovers
After a decade of living in Paris, American food writer and cookbook author David Lebovitz certainly has a wealth of stories to share – it’s these tales that are brought together with delicious recipes in his new book ‘My Paris Kitchen’. It’s an honest reflection of his time spent discovering the culture and flavours of his adopted homeland since relocating from San Francisco in 2004.
David initially planned to write a book about French food and Paris, but his publisher and good friend advised him to incorporate recipes to narrate the stories. “When I started working on it, I realised that you can tell the story of Paris and France with food, cooking and recipes because that’s my life,” says David.
Before relocating to France, David spent 25 years working as a pastry chef, with 13 years at Chez Panisse in Berkley, California, where he cemented his love of French cuisine. “Chez Panisse is very much influenced by Richard Olney’s ‘Simple French Food’ and Elizabeth David’s ‘French Provincial Cooking’. The climate is the same as Provence, and the foods are similar, so there’s a close link,” he says.
He had already published ‘Room for Dessert’ and ‘Ripe for Dessert’ when he decided to move to Paris, and even through he knew it was going to be a challenge to find work opportunities, he wasn’t fazed. David attended two cookery schools to further his culinary knowledge; École Lenôtre in Paris and Valrhona in Drôme. He also continued to write the food blog he started in the late 90s, which has proved to be a huge vehicle for success.
“I started a blog in 1999 before anyone, including myself, really knew what a blog was. People said I was wasting my time, but when I moved to Paris, it was actually a really great tool for writing whatever I wanted about what I saw and my impressions,” remembers David, who says there were only a handful of other food bloggers at that time compared to the thousands that exist now.
David’s blog went on to become phenomenally successful, and gives readers a window into the trials and tribulations of life in the capital. He also shares recipes, favourite culinary haunts and cultural insights gleaned during his time in France.
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David writes candidly on his blog, and he wanted the book to echo that sentiment. “I was recently interviewed by somebody who said the book is very personal, and I told him that was the idea. The book is my story. It says ‘My Paris Kitchen’ on the cover, so I wanted to tell a deeper story of Paris, not just the ones you hear about people going to the Left Bank and eating in bistros, and having wine and champagne with friends. I wanted to tell the goofier side of Paris, which is actually more interesting,” says David, who recently summed up the premise of the book on his blog: “It’s a story about how I cook in Paris: where I shop, how I find ingredients, the friends I like to cook with, as well as recipes from Parisian friends, chefs, and pastry chefs, with plenty of photos (and stories) of the outdoor markets, pastry shops, bread bakeries, bistros, and cafés.”
The book features 100 sweet and savoury recipes, and while David says it’s hard to choose a standout dish, he does love the first recipe for salted olive crisps, which he recommends as the perfect apéritif accompaniment. “I also love the counterfeit duck confit. It’s one of my favourite things, but it’s a pain to make. This recipe simplifies it, and you just stick the duck legs in the oven for three hours and it’s done. There’s no mess; it’s really easy, and it’s not greasy,” he adds.
During his time in France, David has witnessed a shift in the Parisian culinary scene, something that he has been keen to embrace. “French people had a very narrow vision of what a restaurant is, what a café is, and what is a meal is, and that’s changed. The way people eat now is different, and they don’t have a long time for lunch before going back to work. It’s evolved into a lighter style of cuisine with more vegetables, and people are also enjoying food from other countries,” says David, who wanted to reflect this change of palate in his book.
Along with featuring classic French dishes, such as coq au vin, the book also includes recipes that pay homage to Paris’s diverse ethnic communities.
“One thing my editor and publisher were a little concerned about was that the recipe list included some recipes that decidedly aren’t French. What people who don’t live in Paris don’t realise is that there isn’t a ‘Parisian’ cuisine. Provence, Normandy, Brittany, they all have regional specialities, but Paris is a big mix and that includes ethnic foods, so I wanted to include those in the book as well,” enthuses David, who says his style of cooking has changed since moving, as the type of ingredients available in France don’t always mirror those he had access to in California. Plums and berries have been replaced with nectarines, peaches and apricots in the summer months, and figs are an autumnal favourite.
Going to the market to shop for ingredients is something that David enjoys, especially as he laments his frustrations with French supermarkets both on his blog and in his new book, which has a page devoted to: la stresse du supermarché. David lives near to two markets: Marché Beauvau-Aligre in the 12th arrondissement, one of the oldest covered markets in Paris that also has a brocante, and Marché Popincourt in the 11th, which is the arrondissement David has called home since day one.
“It’s a very big arrondissement, so it’s a pretty mixed neighbourhood,” says David, who has recently bought an apartment in the area. “When I moved to Paris I didn’t quite know what I was doing. I found a place on the internet with amazing views of Paris and the Eiffel Tower, but the kitchen was roughly the size of a child’s desk so I had to learn to cook differently.”
David now has a large open-plan kitchen that he designed while renovating his apartment, but he says it was challenging at times to work with French builders, who didn’t understand the concept. His perseverance paid off though, and the space now lends itself to hosting dinners for the many friends he has made since moving.
Settling in to life in Paris wasn’t a problem for David, who says that his experience of working in fast-paced restaurants geared him up to adapt to living in a new city. “Every day in Paris there’s something happening. You just walk down the road to post a letter and there’s a story. I adjusted pretty quickly, although there are some cultural differences that I didn’t understand to begin with. I still don’t agree with them, but now I know why people are the way they are,” laughs David, who loves to explore the city he now calls home. After all, you never know what or who you might encounter and the stories that will unfold. Sounds like perfect material for a future book.
Inspired to live in Paris? Read our guide to the city here