David Lebovitz on Paris and Patisseries

April 29, 2014

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 on Food52  My Paris Kitchen

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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.

Chocolate Sorbet on Food52

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. 

David Lebovitz's Steak Frites with Mustard Butter

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.  

More: Make David's take on the French classic, Leeks Vinaigrette.

Leeks Vinaigrette on Food52

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; all other photos by Ed Anderson.

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Pamela J. May 3, 2014
After having found you on FB, I have become a huge fan. Your way of interacting with the public is so genuine and I truly appreciate your sense of humor. With two jobs, and having just bought a fixer-upper farm with my husband, I have precious little free time, but I am looking forward to reading your books and attempting your recipes!
Shikha K. April 30, 2014
Very inspiring - great interview! I'm traveling to Paris for the first time for a week in October and am so excited to experience desserts and pastries in such a fantastic city.
Nicola M. April 30, 2014
Am greatly looking forward to reviewing your cook book for Mumsnet Local (I am Editor). We have over 5 million members, many of them enthusiastic cooks. Have always loved your books, blog and recipes and have re-read 'The Sweet Life' many a time. My daughter is now in training as a Patissiere and I am enjoying introducing her to people like you David (in print), who walk the Patissiere walk alongside the talk.
Eliza L. April 30, 2014
Salt, mustard and bread. I wish he would stop over in Hawaii some time.
I think it was Nancy Silverton's cookbook, Stars, that made me want to get serious about cooking. It also made me need to go to San Francisco and eat there. Now, it looks like I will have to live in Paris... I love what food will make you do.
Chocolate B. April 30, 2014
Oh, that chocolate sorbet! I have a pint of it in the freezer at this very moment. Indeed, there is hardly a moment in my life these days when I don't have a pint of that sorbet in the freezer. That and your Fresh Ginger and Lemon ice cream are the two most-requested desserts I make, and I make a lot of desserts. Your new book is lovely and inspired me to reread your treatise on chocolate, with much enjoyment. Thanks for sharing your food and life with the rest of us.
Wendy K. April 29, 2014
I'm glad I found your blog and work. I used to be a pastry chef (before kids) and my first pastry cookbook was The Chez Panisse Dessert Cookbook by Lindsey Shere. The food there (and you, because you cooked there) influenced me greatly as I was learning and working my way through kitchens. Plus, my dream is to live in Paris, if only for a month a year, after my kids are off to college. So I'm living vicariously through you until it's my turn!
Monica M. April 29, 2014
Big fan of David Lebovitz and have enjoyed making quite a few of his recipes. They always come through and satisfy. I am in the midst of reading his cookbook - and I do mean "read". Great job, David! All the work and thought you put into it really shows.
David L. April 30, 2014
Thanks! I specifically wrote this book to be both a "read" and a cookbook, since I read cookbooks like novels. Appreciate your kind works and glad you are enjoying the book!
Emily M. April 29, 2014
I am in love with his new cookbook. The pictures are beyond beautiful and the stories just bring you in.
spiffypaws April 29, 2014
Love his cookbooks. Already own 2 but looks like I'll be buying another one!!
David L. April 29, 2014
Glad you liked those figs. Many fruits benefit from roasting, and figs are one of them!
Serap April 29, 2014
I never read your blog or owned one of your books, but I'll have the chance to meet you in person tomorrow and I cannot wait to have a signed copy of your new book. I might even invite some friends over for dinner this weekend and cook every course from it. I'm so glad that Pantry has introduced you to me.
Bevi April 29, 2014
I love your cooking. My most recent David foray involved your recipe for roasted figs, which I made in copious batches and froze, stuffed in a roasted pork loin.