We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.
Today: David Lebovitz discusses the books he loves, the pastry he can't live without, and the ways in which Paris has changed his cooking.
David Lebovitz is a master of assuming multiple identities. He got his start under Alice Waters' tutelage at Chez Panisse, and his recipes carry the confidence of a chef; but he has since retired from professional kitchens, and thus writes with a home cook's sensibility. As an American living in Paris, he graciously describes the experience of an outsider while embracing his adopted city wholeheartedly. And his prose is as appealing as his pastry.
In his latest book, My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories, David exposes more of his own life -- his kitchen, his neighborhood markets, and stories from his daily life -- than he has in previous books. The photos will make you sigh, and make you hungry, but will eventually turn you towards your kitchen rather than intimidating you with inhuman levels of perfection.
Yes, this book will inspire you to book a flight to Paris, but first you will get the itch to invite a small number of friends over for a long dinner this weekend. David will help you make that happen, with appetizers and cake and a story to share at the table.
When Alice Waters first interviewed you, and asked which cookbooks you used, you mentioned The Joy of Cooking and refrained from lying about her favorites, like Elizabeth David and Richard Olney. Which books have been most formative for you in the years since? Which books do you cook from the most?
I used to spend hours and hours reading cookbooks, and the ones that were important to me were the baking books of Flo Braker, Alice Medrich, Nancy Silverton, Carol Field, Dorie Greenspan, and Nick Malgieri. While all their recipes are good, it was the information about baking that I really absorbed and I learned a lot from all of them.
In terms of books I cook from, the recipes in the Chez Panisse cookbooks have (of course) always been part of my repertoire. I turn to Susan Loomis for French country fare as she really understands the cuisine. I’ve been enjoying the books by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamini, Bethany Kehdy, and Paula Wolfert, for recreating the foods I love from the Middle East and North Africa. And The Zuni Cookbook by the late Judy Rodgers is a great book that I crack when I want to make something and learn a new technique -- it never fails to help me evolve as a cook.
More: Add David's Genius Chocolate Sorbet to your own repertoire.
Deborah Madison has said that when you’re writing a cookbook, “you’re on its agenda, not yours.” After finishing My Paris Kitchen, has your cooking changed?
When I write a book, and I'm working on recipes, first off I always think, “Will someone make this at home?” My agenda is to create recipes that people will make. That means avoiding odd ingredients or overwrought techniques. Fortunately, the best French foods are things made at home. Some are long-simmered (like cassoulet and coq au vin) or quickly-cooked on the stovetop, such as steak frites, and omelet, or chicken with mustard and bacon.
Since living in France, my cooking has become more simplified. The French taste is very vertical, meaning that there aren’t a whole lot of ingredients or big zingy flavors. Instead, it depends on using fewer ingredients, and letting the ones that you do use, shine. Parisians are always appreciative of home-cooked foods, especially dessert, since with all the bakeries around (and the tiny kitchens), few people do much home baking.
Most importantly, I’ve embraced long-cooked dishes, since Parisians are invariably late for everything, including dinner. So it really helps with the timing if you make things that you can turn off and let sit for another hour (or two...), until your guests arrive.
What French ingredient do you always bring back to the states with you -- either to gift or to cook with?
I always bring back fleur de sel, a French finishing salt that is hard-harvested off the Atlantic coast. It’s a pricey indulgence in the States, but you can buy a container for just a few euros in any French supermarket. It’s easy to pack and carry, and every possible nook and cranny in my luggage has a container of salt wedged in there. People are always appreciative -- especially people who know how special it is.
I have a few friends that request Amore Dijon mustard. There are fancier brands, and many are exported to the States, but Amore is uncommonly strong and comes in big jars (since the French use so much of it.) However it’s not easy to come by in the United States, so I pack a few jars of that as well.
The luckiest recipient gets a loaf of pain Poilâne, which arrives just a day after it’s come out of the oven in Paris. That’s the gift for the friend that I stay with, wherever I land first!
This is a very personal book, with photos of your kitchen and your Paris. How do you decide what to share and what to hold back? Has this changed at all as your blog evolved?
Paris is a spectacular city. And while it’s easy to show the magnificence of the grand boulevards, the Eiffel Tower, and the Seine, I wanted to also include the markets, butchers, vegetable vendors, and spice merchants, many of whom are away from the Left Bank, to give the rest of the city some props. Because I don’t live in a chic neighborhood (who can afford it in Paris?), I wanted to show where I shop. The book is about my cooking -- which means it’s everyday fare.
In terms of the stories, some of the aspects of life in France, like dealing with the bureaucracy, I didn’t include because people from elsewhere don’t really want to know about that. As perplexing as some of the other aspects of life are, I do find humor in banks that you find closed for no apparent reason (which is actually kind of scary when you find a handwritten “Closed today” note on the door of a bank) and poker-faced supermarket checkers that will tell you that they don’t have any change in their cash registers, which they say while slamming it shut -- but not before you get a glimpse of the drawerful of coins and bills in it.
Many readers of my blog have been following it for a few years, so they know when I say something that might come off as less-than-complimentary, it should be taken in a larger context, with other stories that extol the virtues of life in France. Someone opening my book for the first time needs to get an all-over impression of Paris within those covers, though, so the stories provide an honest and balanced view.
What is your French pastry achilles heel -- the thing you always have to buy when you see it in a patisserie window? Do you ever make your own at home?
I always get a chocolate éclair. I love those! I rarely make them, because when I want one, it’s gotta be now. (Although there is a recipe for hazelnut praline-filled éclairs covered with chocolate in the book, which are worth waiting for.) Fortunately, there are five bakeries within a block of where I live, with another one opening any day now. So I never have to worry about going without.
Sorbet photo by James Ransom; Photo of David from davidlebovitz.com; all other photos by Ed Anderson.