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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Paris Week: Eight Questions for David Lebovitz

David Lebovitz makes his living doing that which many of us dream of: making desserts in Paris and writing about it.  The pastry chef has roots in San Francisco and learned his trade at Alice Waters' revolutionary restaurant, Chez Panisse.   But about seven years ago, Lebovitz sold all of his belongings and moved to Paris where he writes cookbooks and blogs about his experiences.  The Sweet Life in Paris, his latest book, debuted this summer and mixes memoir with recipes for a delicious read. 

AKN: The Sweet Life in Paris is about your life in Paris, France and your observations about your neighbors and friends. It isn’t your first book, but it is your first memoir. How did the book come about?

David Lebovitz: I was being asked the same questions and thought I'd take the time to answer them all; "Why do you live in France?" "Did you speak French before you moved to France?" "Aren't the French mean? Don't the French hate Americans?" And the impossible-to-respond-to: "How long are you going to stay in France?" I never understand the last one, because if I could see into the future I'd stop writing and start buying lottery tickets.

AKN:
Your book is a mix of recipes (50 total) with stories and tips for the Parisian-wanna-be. How do you go about developing a recipe for the home cook? 
David Lebovitz: I just write down and try to capture what I'm doing in my kitchen. None of my recipes are all that challenging and if I could make them in my tiny kitchen here in Paris, anyone can, no matter where they live.

AKN: You spend a lot of time talking about shopping in Paris – trying to find the right ice cream scoop, returning said ice cream scoop when it breaks, standing in line, greeting shop employees, etc. Is the internet shopping culture taking hold in France as it has in the US?

David Lebovitz:  Online shopping hasn't taken off as much as it has in America. For one thing, the French government doesn't allow stores to have 'soldes' (sales) except during certain times of the year. So the online price will be the same as it is in the stores, plus you'll pay for shipping. (The concept of "Free", including "Free shipping", hasn't quite taken hold here yet.)

Plus one of the pleasures about Paris is going to the specialty store, the one that sells ice cream scoops, and only ice cream scoops, and having the salesman show you each and every one, with an expertise usually reserved for discussing fine wines. Of course, it will be insanely expensive, but since the culture of 'cheap' is relatively unheard of here, you'll come home with a great ice cream scoop. I made the mistake of buying mine in the supermarket, perhaps the worst place to buy anything in France.
AKN: Americans often find Parisians to be rude – a fact which you both confirm and explain. What point of Parisian manners have you found to be most surprising in your immersion?

David Lebovitz: Aside from their habit of walking right into you, I like Parisians. They have a pretty good sense of conviviality and if you go to the same cafés and restaurants, the waiters and cooks will treat you like a friend, unlike in America, where they're usually just being nice to get a tip out of you.

I would say Parisians are more 'reserved' than 'rude', and if you ask a stranger for directions, they'll spend 5 minutes telling you the route to get there. Of course, they love any chance to tell someone else what to do.

A European friend of mine was in San Francisco and asked a transit employee where to buy tickets, and they guy told him he was off-work, then called him an "asshole." That doesn't mean Californians are rude, but there are douchebags everywhere.

AKN: You write that you are not fluent in French and have great fun with the common and sophisticated gaffes which come for anyone learning a second language. At this point do you spend most of your life functioning in English or in French?

David Lebovitz:
No, English is good for some things and because of its nuances and the gazillion verbs, French is better for others.
AKN:  With the Julie and Julia phenomenon this summer, Americans are dipping into Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking with wild abandon. As an American baking and writing in France, do you feel a kinship with Ms. Child? How has her work influenced your own as a chef and as a writer?

David Lebovitz: Julia Child set the bar right away and so far, no one's been able to reach it like she has. I never felt influenced by her in any way, other than admiration for what she did on her own and being a pioneer.

Oddly, so many people say, "I would never buy a cookbook without a lot of pictures" not realizing that all those photos they want would price the book a lot higher than they're willing to pay. But Mastering the Art of French Cooking didn't have photos, and it's one of the most popular and longest-selling cookbooks of all time. Julia's voice comes through in every page of that book.

AKN: Americans have a bit of an inferiority complex when faced with foods from Italy, Spain, and France. What can the American home cook learn from the French?

David Lebovitz:  Americans could learn not to be afraid of butter, cheese, and bread. All those things have been demonized, yet obesity just keeps rising in the America. And Americans with out 'customer is king' attitude, could learn how to go to restaurants, and let the chefs plan our meals for us, rather than try to control the experience. There's so much figeting and customizing with menus by customers in America.  I'm like, "Can't you just let the restaurant do what it's supposed to do, and relax and enjoy the experience?"
What lessons can the French home cook take away from American cuisine?  
The French could learn from the local and regional food movement that has taken ahold in lots of cities in America, where Farmer's markets have stands by actual farmers (as opposed to people re-selling produce they buy at a central produce market). And also to start thinking about the seafood they're buying. We're eating fish to extinction, knowingly, and while I love looking at all the amazing fish they sell at the poissoneries, it's sad to think about how all that will be gone.

AKN: Have any of your Parisian friends read The Sweet Life in Paris yet?

David Lebovitz:  Yes, some of my friends have. Most think it's funny, but a few disagreed with some of my points (namely about the quality of French supermarkets and my amazement of how they can tolerate such crappy, foul-tasting coffee.) Since it's my book, I explain, it's my experiences in Paris that I'm writing about. And if they don't agree, I tell them that they should write a book that expresses their feelings. So far, no one's taken me up on that offer.
Many thanks to David Lebovitz!  His latest book is called The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City, and you can check out his other books as well as his blog at http://www.davidlebovitz.com.







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3 comments:

DW Quilt Art August 11, 2009 at 8:24 PM  

I'm a follower of David's, even tho I don't cook a stitch...I just enjoy hearing about his experiences in Paris :-) Diane

Oh and thanks for the reference to Rebecca...I paid a visit! Diane

jessiev August 12, 2009 at 6:51 PM  

this book looks FANTASTIC! i'll have to read it. great, great interview!

LadyE October 24, 2009 at 8:37 PM  

Fantastic interview. As a fellow expat and traveler I too am always stumped when someone asks me how much longer I am going to be here. Why is that important? :)

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