My Paris Kitchen
Chef David Lebovitz talks with editor-in-chief Anicka Quin about the new Parisian cuisine, his favourite hostess gifts, and Vancouver’s top-notch sushi.
Pastry chef David Lebovitz left San Francisco (and Chez Panisse) for Paris 10 years ago, and has since published a half-dozen bestselling cookbooks from his Parisian apartment. He regularly blogs on the sweet life in Paris (also the title for one of his books) and has just released My Paris Kitchen. Editor-in-chief Anicka Quin caught up with him on a recent visit to Vancouver and Granville Island.
Can you tell me about the French concept of “au pif”?
It’s cooking by the nose. A lot of it is going to a market like this and looking, saying, oh, maybe I’ll make short ribs tonight. Maybe I’ll do a pork loin, and over there they have Swiss chard, and when you go home, you don’t go through all your cookbooks looking for a recipe, you just kind of make something up. French people are very casual about cooking. They don’t get stressed out about it like we do in the United States: “Oh my god, I was following the recipe, and I only had 7 and a half ounces of ground beef and it calls for 8, and what am I going to do?” Make it, it’s fine!
I’ve been following your blog for a few years and I’ve noticed, for sure, whenever you post a recipe, people are always concerned about substitutions…
That’s one of the problems with having a blog, my readers are very international. A third of my readers are from outside the US. I’m very conscious of it. However if I write a recipe for cream of tomato soup, people in Australia are like, we don’t have tomatoes in our country this time of year, can I use canned? So I try to be conscious of that. On the other hand, everything doesn’t have to be in season all the time. I once got this ground roasted cornmeal from this little village in Italy. They’re the only ones that make it, and it’s something that’s dying, this product. And I made ice cream out of it. I thought, no one’s ever going to be able to make this, but I just made it. You wouldn’t put it in a book, but it’s a blog. I don’t feel like I have the same guidelines when I write a book.
What’s different between your cookbook and what you’ve been producing on your blog?
I read cookbooks like storybooks these days. That’s what makes them different from blogs—blogs you read in two minutes, or you’re reading it on the Metro. Whereas a book, it’s going to have to stand the test of time. I look at my first book that I wrote in 1998, and I love this book. I look at blog posts from 1999 and I’m like, ay, what was I thinking?!
What got you on to the blog in the first place? You’re a fairly early adopter.
I was the earliest. I started in 1999, before people even knew what a blog was. It was the era of websites. It wasn’t until about 2004, when blogging software made it easier. It became fun, about the time I moved to Paris, and I thought, wow there’s all these great stories that don’t fit into conventional media. Food magazines weren’t as interested, and I didn’t have an outlet for them. Everywhere you go there’s a story. Walking in this market, there’s a story.
Writing about food has changed so much too. There seems to be a real bottomless appetite for it.
I think people are looking for personalities nowadays. People want to know who’s behind the food. There are a lot of cookbooks with people smiling on the cover, these people wearing beautiful sweaters and making this lovely dinner. All dressed perfectly. To me, that’s not as interesting as showing how food really is. In my book I wanted to show the spills, the oil on the counter, going to the market. Also, the stories about going to the market—they’re all, “oh I’m going to the market and I grabbed my basket, and the birds were swarming me singing and they helped me come home, and I was crying tears of joy.” Well, you know for me, the guy tried to overcharge me for plums, and I challenged him that I know what a kilo of plums is, and now he’s my best friend. Those are the kind of stories I like—it’s real, it’s fun.
By the way, I just came up with a name for my blog post on my way here—it’s, “Sorry, I’m visiting Canada.” Because everyone’s always apologizing!
It’s true! I heard X-Files’ Gillian Anderson tell a joke on Late Night once: How do you get a Canadian to apologize? You step on their foot.
It’s charming. That’s something I like about the blog. People who read it all the time know that I’m not making fun of Canadians. I find it adorable.
When you’re in a new city, how do you explore it? How do you figure out the food scene and what is that you want to learn about it?
I love going to markets, because I think you see how people eat, good or bad. And I love going to supermarkets—I was in Australia and they have huge, fresh ginger everywhere. And I asked, do you guys do a lot of Asian cooking? And they were like, Asian cooking? Ginger? That’s Australian—we use that in our cooking.
You’ve had 36 hours here—anything that you’ve noticed about Vancouver’s food scene?
The quality is really high. The freshness is really high – and the people are really nice. When I went to Hapa Izakaya – they were so nice. The food was really good – and they were really interested in helping me. When I asked what to order, it wasn’t just the easy stuff that they recommended. The fish is impeccable. I’ve eaten sushi in different countries in the world – and it’s very good here. Don’t tell anyone, but I think it’s better than California. Hawaii is great, Japan is excellent, but Vancouver in the top three.
You’ve talked about the changing food scene in Paris. People are often surprised that you’re eating Mexican food in Paris, though they shouldn’t – it’s a cosmopolitan city. That seems to be reflected in your cookbook—you have recipes for hummus and roasted eggplant, foods that aren’t typically French.
The question I’m asking myself now is what is French cuisine? French cuisine is coq au vin, it’s tapenade, it’s cassoulet. On the other hand, those are influenced by factors from elsewhere. The city of Nice was owned by Italy until a couple hundred years ago, so cuisine Niçoise is influenced a lot by Italy: olive oil, very fresh vegetables. There’s the Arabic influence, and Moorish influence. The cuisine of Alsace is influenced by Germany.
I’ve had a couple of purists say – why do you have this recipe in your book, it’s not French. Well, what is French cuisine? French people, do they have to eat French cuisine? Somebody wrote something on Twitter once about that, calling me an ugly American because I had to gone to a Mexican restaurant with a French friend. So French people aren’t allowed to eat in Mexican restaurants, but Canadians can, and Americans can? I think people need to regroup what they think of France.
If you’re a guest in someone’s house, is there a no-fail recipe you like to make for them?
When I get invited to someone’s house for dinner, instead of bringing wine, I often bring a jar of salted butter caramel sauce, which is very easy to make; the recipe is in the book. Or I’ll bring chocolate sauce, or granola, and there are recipes on my site for that. And people love that in France. It has a “bon souvenir”—a good memory. The French are very nostalgic. And so are visitors. Everybody wants the old France.
Are there things you bring back when you visit North America?
I used to miss dried sour cherries, but someone brought me a 10-pound bag so I’m set for a while. I bring back dried California apricots, because the ones you get in Europe are Turkish or Chinese and sweet, and I like tart things. I bring back heirloom beans. There’s a fellow in San Francisco named Rancho Gordo, and he raises dried beans that are really good. It’s great because they shock French people—they’re not used to multi-coloured beans. And I bring back wild rice. You can get wild rice in France, but it’s very expensive, and who knows how old it is, because it’s not something they use.
Do you have any cooking heroes?
I do, and they’re an eclectic mix. I look up to Yotam Ottolenghi, because he’s done something kind of special with this beautiful Middle Eastern food, but made it contemporary, and brought it to a very large audience. And you don’t see that kind of food in the Middle East per se, so he expanded on it, but kept the spirit of it, which is brilliant. And he’s a really nice guy.
I’m actually a fan of Michael Ruhlman. He writes about food from a technical point of view. He’s kind of a nerd, but he’s very opinionated. I think he’s great.
And Alice Waters. I’ve known her for 13 years, and I really admire her for what she’s done. Because in America, before Chez Panisse, everybody was eating really badly. And now you go to the supermarket and there’s organic milk in glass bottles; you get on a plane, and they’re serving baby lettuce. And a lot of that is because of Alice.
And since we’re on Canadian soil: the guys from Joe Beef in Montreal. They wrote this book that was kind of crazy—and I just thought, wow, they’re having fun. They’re the only Canadians that don’t apologize for what they do [laughs]. I was really charmed by their book—it was my favourite book that year.
You’ve lived in Paris for over 10 years now . What keeps you there?
I have a great partner who’s Parisian. We’ve only had one fight in 10 years, and it was an Ikea fight so it doesn’t count! (It was when we were remodeling the apartment.) He’s really great; he makes Paris fun, because he’s a Parisian, he puts things in perspective, and he’s funny. And I have friends there. In France there’s a saying: you’re a stranger first, then you become a guest, then you become family. So as I started going to chocolate shops and bakeries, they get to know you, and once you’re in, it’s very special. They don’t have to be nice to you in stores, and once they are, it’s very genuine. You feel like you’ve succeeded.