Live from Paris: David Lebovitz on Food, France, and Writing

cafe paris rive gauhce (cc0)

For years, David Lebovitz has crafted some of the best desserts in the San Francisco Bay Area as a pastry chef at Chez Panisse. Almost two decades ago he decided to expand his repertoire, adding a keyboard to his whisks and piping bags. He now has seven books under his belt (with one on the way), including, most recently, the bestselling My Paris Kitchen.

A pioneer of food blogging, David has been writing about food online since 1999, and continues to publish a delicious mix of posts about cooking, restaurants, and life in France (where he’s lived since 2004) on his eponymous site. We recently chatted about the Paris food scene, the expat existence, and the future of food blogging.


I’m sure all our readers would love to know: what’s the best thing you’ve cooked this week?

david-lebovitz

I think it might be the corned beef that I’m brining right now. I got an inside scoop on a butcher in Paris that sells a “brisket” cut of beef (the French butcher beef differently, and brisket is not a typical French cut), and it’s almost ready to cook. Not sure if it’s the best thing I’ve made all week yet, though. You’ll have to check my blog to find out when it’s done!

Paris is often accused of being inauthentic and full of clichés. Can the food there still surprise you?

I’ve been more and more delighted at some of the dishes the talented young chefs are putting out. For a while some of it seemed forced, as if they were trying to do something different just to prove that they could be audacious. And I had several unfortunate meals that didn’t quite work out: once I was served a slice of raw beet dipped in chocolate, then an un-peeled tangerine on the end of a wooden skewer.

But now, some of the young chefs have really found their footing and are making great food. They’re not doing traditional French cuisine, and it may not be super-exciting to visitors, especially those who come from big cities where good restaurants are now a lot more common. But I love when I’m surprised by a pairing of flavors or when I discover a new ingredient that a chef is using here.

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Photos by David Lebovitz.

All the images in this interview are from David’s Instagram account, where you can join him on his daily strolls through Paris’ best markets, bakeries, and restaurants.

Your part of the city — the 11th arrondissement — was at the center of the deadly attacks in November, 2015. Several of the targets were cafés and restaurants, institutions that you care a great deal about. Has dining out gained any new meaning for Parisians?

I don’t think much has changed in terms of how people dine or socialize: if you walk around the 11th in the evening, there are hordes of young people drinking beer and smoking at the bars and clustered outside cafés and restaurants. Shortly after the shootings, I went to the Bataclan to read tributes and see some of the photos and drawings that people had left in front of the venue, and cars on the busy street were honking at those of us mourning to get out of their way. Paris is still Paris!

You’ve lived in France for over a decade, joining a long tradition of “Americans in Paris,” from Benjamin Franklin to Gertrude Stein to very recent transplants like Ta-Nehisi Coates. Does it make life there a self-conscious experience?

Living abroad, you’re constantly being challenged, surprised, disappointed, and delighted because you’re in a different culture.

Not anymore. When I first arrived, I’m sure I did feel self-conscious! But as I’ve become more integrated, I am a lot more at ease. People know me in the neighborhood, at local shops and at the market, and I banter with them. I do think a lot about being American here, though. When you live in your home country, it doesn’t really come up because you don’t see the contrasts so much. Living abroad, you’re constantly being challenged, surprised, disappointed, and delighted because you’re in a different culture.

And you do change. I’ve learned to be more exigeant — a French expression that could be translated as “discriminating” or “complaining.” But being discriminating or complaining is not considered a fault in France: it means that you care and know enough about something, and want and expect the best.

Images by David Lebovitz.
Images by David Lebovitz.

You’ve remarked in the past on the difference between DIY-oriented, Food Network-obsessed American home cooks and their French counterparts, who rely on skilled experts instead. Now, you’re an expert — but your audience is precisely the “I’ll make a perfect éclair myself!” crowd. Not to force your hand, but — which side are you on?

I’m an American so am mostly on the DIY side. But living in France, no one I know would make their own baguette or croissant. (Cue here the French person that makes their own baguette.) The concept of making certain things yourself in France just hasn’t caught on like it has in America. Part of that is because the experts, like bakers, do those things so well and they’re not hard to find, nor are they expensive. A baguette is €1,20, so why make your own?

People make fun of hipsters for raising their own chickens or making their own beer, but I think anyone who is enjoying better food should be commended. (Although I do wish some of those hipsters would find other outfits to wear and change their facial hair.)

I think in America, even though we’ve always been avid home bakers, we’ve lost a lot of things, from access to farm-fresh eggs to sausage made by the local butcher. So many want to be back in touch with these things, hence the DIY and “craft” movement. People make fun of hipsters for raising their own chickens or making their own beer, but I think anyone who is enjoying better food should be commended. (Although I do wish some of those hipsters would find other outfits to wear and change their facial hair.)

When it comes to food, expats often find themselves swinging between one extreme (“Look at these amazing things here I could never get back home!”) and another (“Why can’t I find all these absolutely necessary ingredients?”). Which sentiment do you experience more often?

Heading to the French capital and not sure where to find great food? David’s My Paris page has got you covered.

I am thrilled to easily find all the great foods that I love in France, from fleur de sel (hand-harvested salt) to amazing cheeses at the local fromagerie. But I do wish there was more diversity sometimes, especially when I am craving tomatillos, chiles in adobo, wild rice, or bean-to-bar chocolate.

But when I leave France, I really miss bread. There is good bread elsewhere, but the culture isn’t the same, and I miss having a good, bien cuite (extra-crusty) baguette, slathered with salted butter from Brittany. To me, that’s heaven right there.

Photos by David Lebovitz.
Photos by David Lebovitz.

Nowadays, so many people start blogging and feel like they need to “get” something out of their blogs. But in fact, blogging is giving.

You’ve been writing about food online since before it was even called “food blogging.” How do you find the motivation to keep your blog active after so many years?

A blog needs to grow with you. I started in 1999 when I was just putting stories out there, not getting feedback, and wondering what the heck I was doing. But it was fun, and after a few years, around 2004, I remember discovering food “bloggers,” a handful of people who were doing something similar to me, but different at the same time. We all kind of loosely bonded. A few have stopped blogging for various reasons, but we’re all still friends.

Nowadays, so many people start blogging and feel like they need to “get” something out of their blogs. But in fact, blogging is giving.  When you write a cookbook, you are sharing recipes. With a blog, beyond recipes and travel tips, you are sharing more of your daily life with readers, and I think they appreciate honesty, rather than being talked to as if you are trying to get something out of them, like traffic or monetization.

Has the process of building an audience changed over the years?

One of my most frequently asked questions from food bloggers is “How do I get more traffic?” It used to be: have great photos, good content, engage with readers, and network with other bloggers. Search engines have changed, however, and if you search for any recipe on Google, the first few pages are mostly big corporations that use keywords, recipe markup code, and other things to get them on those valuable first few pages. So the rest of us are stuck somewhere on page three or four — which makes it even more challenging to build your readership.

If you’re just blogging to promote products, I don’t know if that’s the way to build long-term relationships and engagement with readers.

Thankfully we can use social media and newsletters to engage readers, although some of the major social media channels are curated feeds, so that’s another challenge for us food bloggers.

When I go to a blog and the first thing that hits me is a pop-up telling me to subscribe, I can tell the author of the blog isn’t thinking about their reader’s experience. Same with sponsored posts and so forth. To me, they are a short-term strategy. If you’re just blogging to promote products, I don’t know if that’s the way to build long-term relationships and engagement with readers. But who knows? Maybe in a few years, you’ll read more posts about me on a tropical beach at a lovely hotel drinking tiki drinks in a hammock. (And could you really blame me?)

Photos by David Lebovitz.
Photos by David Lebovitz.

There are now thousands of food blogs out there. Is this sustainable — are there too many food blogs?

I don’t think there can be too many food blogs, but I do think there are a lot, and a lot of them are amazing and wonderful.

Are you making your first steps in the food-blogging world and looking for advice? Check out our roundup of handy resources for the aspiring food blogger.

I love that I can follow a cook in Iran or a noodle expert in Vietnam. I think social media has changed the focus, turning a blog post into a more special experience — maybe once or twice a week — and a post on Facebook or Snapchat is now the place to share a snippet of what’s going on in the moment, like what you had for lunch or some interesting pears you saw at the market. That’s what we used to do on our blogs before each post became much more scrutinized and people expected higher-quality content, not just a quip or a photo.

You’re working on a new book project — does book-writing peacefully coexist with blogging for you, or is the relationship more complex?

I like writing books because they are a more permanent statement and you’re collaborating with a publisher, who often brings their own ideas to your story. A good editor or publisher will nurture their authors, and I have a great publisher who is collaborative and makes sure that I’m happy.

Books by David Lebovitz.
Books by David Lebovitz.

Blogging is more casual: you don’t really need to worry so much about grammar and so forth as the whole idea is to be more conversational, less uptight. I like the looseness of blogging, and that I can easily go back and update, change, or correct something. But I also like holding an actual book with printed words and pictures on paper. Both are different experiences.

Speaking of food and writing, if you could make one food-related buzzword disappear tomorrow, which one would you pick?

I strongly dislike the word “foodie.” But the worst for me is “drooling.” The idea of foamy saliva dripping from someone’s mouth doesn’t make food sound appealing. If you are an adult, and you’re drooling, you should seek medical attention.


Read more from David Lebovitz at his blog, and follow him on Twitter (@davidlebovitz), Instagram, and Flickr.

March 3, 2016Cooking, Food, Interviews, Jetpack, Longreads, Writing, , , , , , ,