Living in Paris since 2004, David Lebovitz, the former pastry chef at Chez Panisse (the Berkeley restaurant known for pioneering the farm-to-table movement in the United States), is now an acclaimed food writer, food blogger, and artisan French baguette enthusiast. His seventh book will be published next Fall.
France-Amérique: You have worked in a kitchen for more than thirty years. How did you start?
David Lebovitz: I was sixteen years old and like most chefs, I started at the bottom, washing dishes at a steak house, a chain restaurant in a shopping center in Connecticut. When I was a student, I worked at a vegetarian restaurant in Ithaca, New York. So when I finished college in 1981, it seemed that if I wanted to continue working in restaurants, I should work at the best restaurant in America. In New York, lots of restaurants were old-fashioned — heavy sauces and chefs in white toques. Chez Panisse [in Berkeley, California] was doing something very different: It was a very American restaurant but it used the French tradition of cuisine du marché. So I moved to California, hoping to work at Chez Panisse.
How was Chez Panisse different from restaurants in the rest of the country?
America had shifted, and all of a sudden, people were much more interested in eating healthy food made from quality ingredients. People started to think about what they cooked and what they ate. In the 1950s and 1960s, food companies in America were telling consumers to use frozen and canned food to save time. Then Julia Child came along. She started to write about French cuisine and renewed people’s interest in cooking. She brought this new concept to America: “You, too, can cook!” Chefs like Alice Waters [the founder and owner of Chez Panisse] followed her example and started to celebrate American terroirs and local produce, such as California olive oil, New York wine, and fresh berries from Vermont.
Is the notion of terroir different between France and the United States?
People don’t talk about terroir so much in the United States, but the French and American notions of terroir are the same. California wine is different from New York wine. Peaches in Texas are different from peaches in Georgia or New Jersey. People don’t talk about terroirs per se, but they do exist in the United States. The sense of attachment to a place that comes with the idea of terroir, however, is different. French people like to hold on to things and protect their past. There is a real protectionist culture in France and in Europe; people are really proud of their heritage and origins. Americans are much looser about it, because we’re all from somewhere else.
© Ed Anderson/Ten Speed Press
In the introduction to your latest book, My Paris Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, 2014), you write that Paris “was struggling to hang on to whatever it is that makes it resolutely French in the face of globalization.” Can you develop?
When I moved to Paris [in 2004], I would go to the market and ask the vendors where their tomatoes or oranges were from. From Spain, they would answer. Or from Argentina. Is the food still natural if it traveled thousands of miles to the market? The French were starting to lose their food culture. Fast food was surpassing traditional cuisine. Several high-profile restaurants were exposed for serving frozen food. But in 2014, the New York Times wrote about how American chefs “saved” French food. American chefs [like Daniel Rose, for instance] had started to revisit and innovate around classic French ingredients and dishes.
So the big question now is, what is French food?
I don’t think there is a definition of French cuisine anymore. Of course, there are things like coq au vin and cassoulet — everybody wants to eat that in America — but in France, young chefs don’t want to make cassoulet or bœuf bourguignon. They want to make rognons de veau [veal kidneys] with flowers on the plate or some herbs, something light. A number of the younger chefs are using ingredients that are less familiar, or less used like parsnips, crosnes, potimarrons and other forgotten vegetables. Right now, Tatiana Levha [who’s part French, part Filipino] is cooking this wonderful food at Le Servan. I was probably one of the first to write about them in my blog, and now you can’t get in!
Do you have any other food recommendations in Paris?
People go to Paris and want to have a French experience; they want to go to Ladurée and Pierre Hermé! That’s the reason I started my blog [in 1999]: I tell people to go to smaller places where they will discover something new and have a more personal experience. The Fouquet chocolate shop, which has been in Paris for 150 years, is excellent. The bakery Blé Sucré, which makes the best Madeleine in Paris, is really good. Ten Belles, a bakery and coffee shop, and Utopie, a new bakery in the 11th arrondissement, are also worth a visit. It’s a new thing in Paris: People are starting to use artisan grains instead of industrial flour and make really good bread!
David Lebovitz is the author of the recipes published in the “Bon Appétit” section in the September 2016, October 2016 and, November 2016, January 2017, February 2017, March 2017, and April 2017 issues of France-Amérique.