Would food blogs even exist without David Lebovitz? The recipe powerhouse (and former Chez Panisse pastry chef) and Paris-dwelling expat has been chronicling his culinary life in the City of Lights since 1999, basically the bronze age of the internet. In the course of this long, toweringly influential career, he's basically had a hand in shaping the entire phenomenon of food blogging, not to mention produced an essential library of cookbooks, including the recent My Paris Kitchen. In the fifth installment of The Eater Upsell (transcript below), Eater's podcast hosted by Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner, Lebovitz talks about his wild days in the Chez Panisse kitchen, why French food is finally making a comeback in America, and a magical island in France that's full of naked people and terrific cake.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, or subscribe via RSS or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Here's the transcript of our conversation in The Eater Upsell Episode 5: David Leboviz, edited to the main interview. Want to hear the part where Greg and Helen get really, really angry about plates? You'll just have to listen to the audio above.
Helen Rosner: David, welcome to the Eater Upsell
David Lebovitz: Thank you very much, I'm thrilled to be here. I've always admired Eater, I read Eater, and here I am.
Greg Morabito: So, why are you in New York right now?
David: I'm actually working so I'm working with my editor over at Crown Books and I get to go over there a lot, and they give me coffee, and cookbooks, and they stock me up with things, and I eat bagels when I go back to my little apartment. So I'm here soaking in New York culture.
Greg: That's cool, you like going to your publisher?
David: I love my publisher, I'm the only author who loves their publisher, I can't say enough good things about them. And I'm not just saying that because they probably are listening to this but — A lot of, if you've ever written a book, most authors, you write a book you turn it in and you don't know what it's going to happen, you don't know what they are going to do with the cover, what they are going to do with the content, what they are going to cut out. And they are really interactive, they ask me what I like, I ask them what they like, and what should I do and we have a great relationship. So fingers crossed.
Helen: That's, like, magical! You found a unicorn.
David: I know. Well it actually is the way things should be, in any kind of work situation — you want to enjoy the people you work with, because it's a symbiotic thing. Let people do what they do well, and then they should let you do what you do well, and hopefully all comes out well.
Helen: So have they published all of your cookbooks?
David: No they took over; well they published all but my first two.
Helen: Your first cookbook, Room for Dessert was your first cookbook, right?
David: It was in 1998 or nine.
Helen: I am really obsessed with that cookbook; do you know? It's out of print right?
David: It is.
Helen: I own two copies of it, one of which I bought at a used book store because I was like, I need to own this because it is fantastic and the other one of which I bought for an exorbitant amount of money on Amazon, because I thought I had lost the first one.
David: How much?
Helen: I paid like $74 for that book. It was completely worth it because it was one of the first books that I ever really sort of found my joy for cooking in. That coconut macaroon recipe really changed my life.
David: The success of that book was actually due a lot to the fact that I have been working for 30 years as a pastry chef, and I had all these great recipes. And people were always asking me, "Can I get the recipe for the macaroons? Can I get the recipe for the ginger cake?" It's all of these great recipes that I cultivated for 30 years distilled into that book. In a few years ago the book had gone out of print because the publisher stopped doing cookbooks, and I got the rights back to that and my second book. I got to actually, I thought, first I thought, "Why don't I just get in front of the computer and cut and paste to make a new book and then I will sell it." Then I started reading it and I'm like, "You know what, all these recipes, I want to make them again." Recipes change, so after 10 years I got to revisit all the recipes add things change techniques so it was great. I came out with my publisher, Ten Speed, as Ready for Dessert.
Helen: That was the first two books, hybridized together?
Helen: That's really interesting also, not to just reuse old recipes but the years and years of preparation that went into it. And when you describe it that way, it makes me think of a musician talking about their first record. It's like I've been writing songs my whole and here are the very, very best ones.
David: Well a cookbook is an experience. there was a big brouhaha recently on the internet that you were a little bit apart of.
Helen: I was.
David: About a cookbook about France. And first of all people don't realize what goes into writing and cookbook is a two year process, minimum. You work hard, things get changed there's photos, there's copy edits, there's proofs, there's translations, there's metrics dah, dah, dah. When I wrote My Paris Kitchen I was at a certain place in my life, which was very interesting, I was having actually personal crisis, and I lost the manuscript, and it was a very difficult time. So I had to reboot everything. It's like when your computer has too many windows are open and it crashes that's what happened. Snd so I had to start all over. Not literally but it happened in my mind. I had to start all over again, but I had something to say, and the book tells a story about that period of my life for the last, I've lived in Paris for 11 years but [the book covers] the last five years. And right after we shot the book — the photographer came to Paris to shoot at my kitchen — I had two weeks before the book was due, and I rewrote a lot of the book, because he had helped me something else that I hadn't seen in what I do, and so I wanted to include that.
Helen: What was it that you saw?
David: It was a tone. Cookbooks have a tone. I tend to be sarcastic and I tend to be — as I'm a restaurant cook — I tend to be a little obnoxious sometimes but that's okay, it's fine. I appreciate, when you have to write, you have to choose your words carefully. So I changed a lot of the words to soften the meaning. Living a foreign country, it's very easy to be critical, but the longer you live there, you realize why people are the way they are. Like why are Americans, why is all want to do is go shopping? Why do we carry cups of coffee around? It seems funny, I'm often explaining it to French people, I'm explaining French people to Americans. But I learned a lot about French people, and I didn't want to be critical, I wanted to be honest, and that was some of the rewriting that I did, helping me towards that. To make it more inviting and welcoming, for lack of a better word.
Helen: No, that sounds very therapeutic in a way.
David: Writing a book is therapy. Writing — you write articles for either that are pretty I want to say profound or deep, and they actually are about a subject, you wrote one about the recent brouhaha — and actually it's therapeutic! Because you have something in your head, and you want to get it off your chest, and you want to explain it, and you also want to defend your position in a way. On Twitter and so forth you can go, "This sucks." It's actually better to write a whole article why that sucks, and you can soften it, you can explain it and make it more, I don't know what the word is.
Helen: More articulated? It's true I think —
Greg: You can add context —
David: Well also writing is all about editing. You write this long article and then you edit it, and you take paragraphs and you start screaming, "It took me three weeks to write these paragraphs!" And they don't make sense three weeks later, so you cut them out.
Helen: Well how does that translate into a recipe?
David: You know, recipes — when you're working for two years on this book, and then when you photograph it, you're actually remaking the recipes. And you might not have made them for a year because you turned in your manuscript a year before. Also you have food stylist and you are buying the ingredients, so the food stylists says, "Oh, you had onions here this is usually where we would add the shallots." And I'm like, "ooh, I never thought about adding shallots." I was very fortunate — I had a great food stylist who the first day said to me, "You know what, I need you to make all the desserts, because I want them to look like you made them, not like I made them."
Greg: Wow, she really knows her stuff then?
David: I mean she's a really good food stylist and we ended up and I ended up making certain things, like the cassoulet, because she would have to sit there and follow the recipe, where I know the recipe and I could and I actually want to make it again. And as you make it you're like, "Maybe I shouldn't add this, or maybe I should add this, or maybe I should tell people this," and so forth.
Helen: How do you know when it's done, like when it's right?
David: It's never done. Food is never done. Julia Child took ten years to write her first book and she kept revising it, revising it, revising it, because things change, tastes change. The last ten years in America chocolate has changed — all of a sudden we have bean-to-bar chocolate, and high-percentage chocolate. It's like okay, well, some recipes don't work with that, and some do, and so you have to modify to the times. The good thing about having a blog is you can go back and you can change it.
Helen: That was the sound of typing on the table.
Greg: David, were you always, always a food person? Did you grow up wanting to cook? Did you grow up — were you the kid in the kitchen, or the teenager with the frying pan?
David: I was fascinated by the Good Seasons salad dressing bottle. It told you how much vinegar, how much oil, and the packet. It was my first cooking project and I remember mixing that that together and shaking it and I was like, "Oh my God I just made something."
Helen: What was is this product; I don't think I know it
David: It's — how old are you?
Greg: I remember this but — but only so vaguely
Helen: No maybe this is a California thing because you're —
David: No, no, no, no, it was commercials with Anna Maria Alberghetti, she talked about making this Italian dressing. It was a cruet, that you bought a glass cruet with these packages of seasonings. On the cruet was a little line that said vinegar and there was one that said oil.
Helen: Oh my God.
David: You added whatever vinegar to it and then you added oil to the line.
Greg: It's like the Tang of salad dressings.
Helen: I love this.
David: It was all pre —
David: You don't have to do anything, so you —
Helen: You don't have to do — I mean, that's what a recipe is! You don't have to do anything, you just do what it tells you to do.
David: Right, I tell lots of people who are like, "I can't bake," I'm like "A cup of sugar is a cup of sugar." You know, It's not making a steak where you have to evaluate it and say when it's done. Bake a cake for 45 minutes, three-fifty.
Helen: What's the path that you take from a glass cruet of salad dressing to Chez Panisse?
David: [exhales] That's the sound of all my, the wind coming out of me. I actually went to film school in New York. I wanted to be a filmmaker. And filmmaking is actually pretty boring. You sit around all day and do nothing, or you think and you wait and then something happens for ten minutes and then you wait for three hours, and so forth. And I just couldn't deal with that. And I didn't know what I want to do with my life, and so I ended moving to San Francisco with someone who I had met when I was traveling in Turkey, a very nice woman. And I said, "Well if I'm going to work, I need a job," so I wanted to work in a restaurant, and I thought I should work in the best restaurant in San Francisco —
Greg: What year is this? What decade is this?
David: I hope there's no fact checkers out there. I think it was 1983. This is when California cuisine was becoming the age of Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Bradley Ogden, Judy Rogers — people were getting notoriety but it was pretty, it was a new thing.
Helen: It was the perfect time to join the team.
David: Well Chez Panisse — the Chez Panisse menu book had just come out and it was — I read it and I was like, "Oh my god, I have to work here." I went in to apply for a job, and the chef at the time, she told me to get out because she was really busy. So I left, and I went back six months later when I heard she was leaving. I have to say she's a very — she's a great person, I know her now, I've never talked to her about the story.
Greg: What's her name?
David: I don't want to say. But she's great, she's great. She's someone who I totally respect 150 percent. You shouldn't just walk into a restaurant and say, "I want to work here." Anyhow I started walking there and it was really — that was when at five o'clock there was a line out the door and onto the sidewalk, and as soon as the door opened it was mobbed until we had to, shut the door because the neighbors — it was a thing in the neighborhood, you couldn't serve food after a certain time. It was like that. I worked there for a long time, but it was really crazy in those days.
Greg: What did you have to bring to the kitchen there? Did you have prior pastry experience, or cooking experience? Had you just decided I really, I want to do this, I want to learn?
David: I had worked in a restaurant in college in New York, upstate New York, and it was actually a farm-to-table restaurant, before I even knew what it was. We just bought stuff from the local farmers. We were ahead of our time, but that's how people used to cook. Now it's elitist. But we were, you know, a bunch of people in Birkenstocks. And I got a job there because the chef said, well — he goes, you know, I didn't really have any experience, but he goes "You know how to move in the kitchen, you got the moves!" So.
Greg: You got the moves, kid.
David: I had the moves! And then so when I came San Francisco I said, "I'll go to another farm to table restaurant."
Greg: The ultimate farm-to-table restaurant.
David: Yeah. And at the time Chez Panisse was a rarity. It was — it really changed the way we eat in America, and a lot of people don't realize that. The next generation doesn't — now you go on the airplane and there's radicchio on the salad. You go to McDonalds and they have arugula.
David: That's unthinkable and even now, you go to D'Agostino's, and they have organic apples. It's like, when I was a kid that was unthinkable everything was wrapped in plastic and the styrofoam tray.
Helen: It was — I mean, I have very no really formed memories of the early eighties because I was not alive for much of it, but —
David: I think you were going to say you were stoned. Okay, that's my excuse.
Helen: I was a stoned one-year-old in 1983. But no, I think you're really right. I have clear memories as a kid in the late eighties of my parents bringing home fancy lettuces and it being a really big deal. And that sort of Chez Panisse, Silver Palate Cookbook palate of Mediterranean-slash-California favors, this idea that it was okay for stuff to not be subtle. It was really beautiful and crazy and weird.
David: Well also it was okay for a recipe to be about the ingredients. Rather than being about making coq au vin, it was about getting this chicken that was really good, or knowing the wine you're using. Buying a shallot! And the Silver Palate Cookbook was actually part of it, it was a different sort of path, but it was an amazing cookbook. They brought it back a few years ago, they rereleased it.
Helen: Yeah, the twenty-fifth anniversary, I actually worked on that that was back when I was a cookbook editor.
David: It was a great — but I don't know if it had the same, I think people have moved on from it, but it was really — that changed the way America ate as well.
Helen: I totally agree and I think you're right, the reissue was amazing because it reminded of about the original but the original was the magic. It was really — But pastry though, that's not usually farm to table?
Greg: Were you working with Lindsay —
David: Well I was a line cook up stairs in the café and I always used to look at the pastry people, I was like, "That really looks easy, they're just standing there making, decorating cakes and baking cookies and I want to do that." Because we are upstairs, going crazy as line cooks. But actually I was very fascinated by what they were doing, and I would always go down there and talk to them and hang out, stalking them. Then there was an opening, and I thought, you know, it's like being a brain surgeon, having a specialty is actually better than just being a generalist. I just thought, I want to go work in the pastry department, and so I got the job, they moved me down there. It was actually a wonderful; it was an amazing experience. I — I'm getting goosebumps, I can't even talk about it. It was really a profound era for cooking, for me, for Chez Panisse, and I was really thrilled that I was a part of it. I got to meet people like Richard Olney, Jane Grigson would come in, and James Beard, Julia Child, they would sit in the kitchen. I remember Daryl Hannah and Jackson Browne had dinner with me. In the kitchen they put like little booth benches, and I was like — I couldn't breathe.
Greg: It was a bit of like a Hollywood hangout a little bit, right?
David: Sort of, but as a very — people say "Berkeley elitist" — but it was a very democratic restaurant. Anybody, whether you are Daryl Hannah or Helen Radner, whoever got that tweet, you can go in and say, "Can I go in the kitchen?" And it's like, "Sure come on in." We used to let people come in, they used to hang out with us, and talk to us and I'd go, "Do you want to see the walk-in? Let's go downstairs." I'm pretty sure it's still is like that.
Helen: I feel like that's been formalized into service at a lot of restaurants now, like at these very high-end tasting places, it's like, "Okay and for your seventeenth course we are going to pick you up from your table and walk you into the kitchen and you're going to like eat something hand-fed to you by our chef de cuisine." That formality — it's exciting to go behind the curtain, but it's still performance.
David: Well, it's also nothing worse than something — I have a blog, I like to go in the kitchen, and then there's nothing worse than looking in the kitchen or going in there and everyone scowling. Its like, "Oh my God, this is not a good place." You go to Chez Panisse and everyone's usually pretty nice. I mean, everyone has their moments.
Helen: Well the kitchen at Chez Panisse in the eighties is legendary as a place. I feel like Greg probably knows the stories more than do.
Greg: I grew up in Berkeley, and I never went there until I was an older teenager, and didn't really know about it. But I have been back many times in the last few years since I have been writing about food and I just, I love it.
David: Berkeley is a pretty special place, especially it is —
Greg: It's awesome.
David: There's this whole discussion this week about Monterey Market, and people don't realize that was a really democratic place. They would just buy stuff that people would pull up in their car with a couple of cases of peaches and Bill Fujimoto is like, "I'll take them." Well then you just put them out, put the crates and everyone wanted, for whatever they cost, they weren't expensive.
Greg: That's one little anecdote I guessm to talk about how I understand that restaurant and it's aura — I remember so there was that fire, what was it like two years ago?
Greg: I remember hearing in the local news there were talking of this burly fireman, the guys that did it, that saved the day, and it was way early in the morning. And I think the fire chief said, that when they heard the restaurant was burning down, there were like, "This is Chez Panisse, we have to." Like he started crying or something. It's just, it's a huge, important, important thing for that city.
Helen: It's funny because, so for me, I grew up in Chicago and like —
David: I love Chicago; someone told me that Chicago is Paris of America, the Paris of America.
Helen: That's — interesting, we are going to have to revisit this idea, I think. But I grew up in Chicago and my awareness of Chez Panisse was much more salacious. I knew about it as a restaurant where extraordinary food was happening and I had heard of Alice Waters and I'd heard of Jeremiah Tower but I also heard that the kitchen was a den of sin, like —
David: What did you hear? Is it about me?
Helen: There was this one guy David Lebovitz in the pastry section — like no, I was, I don't know I feel there was, it was probably just like shameless gossipmongering but people were just, "Oh yeah, you know, the food is incredible, the kitchen is amazing but everybody is screwing in the walk-in and doing coke off the freezer top and" —
David: Okay well, I was there for a period of time and I saw certain things, and participated in certain things, but to be honest —
Helen: That's very diplomatic.
David: To be honest, I've worked in some restaurants where it was, like oh my god. There was — it was Berkeley in those days, there were, people had been, people were hooking up with other people, as people tend to do who work together, especially when they're hot, attractive young cooks. You know hormones are going wild after work, when you're drinking beer and wine and so forth — things happened. And it's a hundred and forty people that work at Chez Panisse, something is going to —
Helen: That's sounds, it's inevitable.
David: It's the law of math.
Helen: That someone is going to hook up.
David: Is like, things will join up.
Helen: So, how long were you there?
David: I was there thirteen years. I left for a few years and then came back. Or went back.
Helen: And then immediately went to Paris? Or was there —
David: No, I left when I wrote my first cookbook because I had, I had turned 40 and I was getting older, and it was really hard to stand for that long period of time. I had just done it, I had done everything I could do there, and I remember Alice talking to me and she said, "Get the hell out of my restaurant." No, she said, "Your style is very different than here. You should write a book." I was like, "Oh, okay!" So I did and it was, it is different. Alice's idea of the perfect dessert is an exquisite peach, which is terrific. I love that.
Greg: People need to stop making fun of that, by the way.
Helen: Yeah, David Chang was it, who like dismissed the entire city of San Francisco?
David: Well you know, the thing about like a perfect croissant, does it need like jam, butter, and so? That's good enough on its own. It's a really good piece of bread, or whatever. That's kind of the distillation of Chez Panisse. It's the perfect glass of white wine, the perfect steak, the peach just happens to be this very sexy, juicy, salacious —
Greg: Because it's not just a peach that they picked up across the street at Andronico's, or whatever —
David: Then and a good peach can't be raised industrially, because they are so delicate, they have to be picked when they're just right. They used to come in in these flats, and each one cost the restaurant at the time like $2 each, that was our cost. And how much can you charge for a peach, when you mark it up.
Helen: And your style was less the perfect peaches?
David: Chocolate, chocolate.
David: I was actually very interested in chocolate, so I went to school in Belgium to learn chocolate making and chocolate decorating and all that kind of stuff.
Helen: What do you — chocolate school is like a real thing?
David: Oh yeah. I went to, at the time it was Callebaut College, Barry Callebaut is a chocolate company it's now Cacao Barry which is French, and Callebaut which Belgian, and they've merged, but it was the time of the Callebaut School. So I went there to do chocolate, and it was really amazing. Because I had never, Chez Panisse just this isn't about fancy desserts, so I had never done things like decorating and making scribbles and designs, chocolate cages and just working with dipping chocolate. Then I went to school in Paris as well, at L'Ecole De Notre which is another professional-only school for candy making, which was amazing.
Greg: This was after Chez Panisse?
Greg: Wow okay.
Helen: Candy making is crazy. I have attempted this once and it was extraordinarily — it's straight chemistry, it looks like a meth lab.
David: Well I took this course, it was called Old-fashioned Candies, so we did things like licorice whips and lollipops, and we had this French professor, French chef, who was our teacher who was amazing, he could do everything he didn't even, didn't have to even think abou itt. He was so professional, such a nice guy. And it was funny because in that particular class no one in the class was nice to me. I didn't speak French, everybody was mean to me. The classes were all in French and when I realized they didn't understand me I realized I could say anything I wanted to them. And like, this woman who was mean to me — it was like, "You're actually pretty but you are such a" — well, it's salope in French, but I didn't say that. "You should be nicer, you should smile." But the chef had had picked up on this whole difficulty I was having with everyone else, and he grabbed me the last day and he spent the whole day with me in the factory where they make all the candies. I was like, "I love you." That's a real professional, too. He's not — he didn't have an ego. He just wanted to share his craft.
Greg: I would imagine those chocolate guys are probably pretty serious. I feel that's almost like a stereotype of pastry people, they're very serious and —
David: Well one thing I've learned doing this a long time is the real good, serious masters of what they do are nice, and they want to share. They don't have an ego about it, the're like, "You know what, I make chocolate." They know that they're good at it, they don't have anything to prove, they make good stuff. And I know a lot of them in Paris, these — the really good chocolatiers don't, they're really nice guys. People who own the candy shops, the bakeries — the good ones, they're just really good people.
Helen: You've been in Paris for a decade plus?
David: For 12 years.
Helen: Now you speak French?
David: Oui. Mais oui.
Greg: Obviously great at French. I need to hear no more.
Helen: We'll be conducting the remainder of this conversation in French. I speak like four words of French and they are all like —
David: When people say to me, "How long did it take you to learn French?" I'm like, "The French don't even speak pure French." I mean, they make mistakes, there's a spelling —
David: Yeah, there's a dicté every year. It's a competition for people's comprehension of French, because it's very difficult for French people, there's fourteen verb tenses, whereas in English we have seven or something. You go to dinner parties and people are discussing grammar. When was the last time you discussed grammar in America?
Greg: Did you have to like crack open a book, or did you use Berlitz tapes or anything, or it's just like, that weird thing of being in a place for so long that you just —
Helen: It seeps into your blood.
David: I want to school for a while, but it was a little difficult. But it was okay because I learned stuff, but I'm not that good at homework at fifty is not very exciting.
Greg: That sounds like the name of the book right there, Homework at Fifty.
David: You can write that down.
Helen: The next cookbook from David Lebovitz.
David: I have a French partner who doesn't speak English so that and I met, we met almost six months after I moved there. It was pretty — we had a lot of misunderstandings, we were pretty funny.
Greg: Good incentive to learn.
Helen: That's very romantic comedy.
David: There were some really funny things that happened because of my misunderstanding.
Helen: Like what?
David: The less embarrassing ones — you know in French you could say, douze hueres or deux heures. Douze heures is twelve o'clock, where deux heures is two o'clock.
Helen: Those sound like exactly the same sounds.
David: Douze hueres or deux heures. Wait. It's like douze euros or deux euros.
Helen: Oh, there's like a —
David: One is two euros and one is twelve euros, I was, "What?" One day I was waiting for two hours, and I was like, "What a douchebag"
Helen: But, you know, love prevails.
David: He's really, it's funny, because all my friends are like, "He is so great!" Like all my women friends love him, they're like "He really listens to me." I'm like, "I know, get away from him."
Greg: Does he have a strong French accent when he speaks English?
David: Yes, under the dictionary, under like "Parisian," there's a picture of him. He's super Parisian, but he's super nice. Everywhere we go people, even in France, we get into the bus and he'll start talking to the driver, and they're best friends after like six minutes. And how do you do that?
Helen: I find, I think — a really important skill, I think, for a writer to have is the ability to fall in love with a person who helps you be a better writer by talking to people who you would never want to talk to. Like my husband is great at that: I get really freaked out in certain social settings and he's like, "Helen I found some person who is amazing and he should be your next story." I'm like, "I'm so glad I have you." It's terrific teamwork.
David: Well if you're shy, especially if you live in a foreign country, it's scary, going in. We actually have this joke sometimes when we're going to a restaurant and I'm like "You go ask for a table," because if I do it we'll get seated like way in the middle of nowhere. And he's like, "No, no." Because he doesn't see that if I go out with my American friends, sometimes they will put us in — you know, they'll hear our accents.
Helen: Oh my God, the Americans in the back. Siberia for them.
Greg: Le Siberia.
David: That's a myth in a way because a lot of people don't realize in France, a lot of times the waiters don't speak English so if there's a waiter who speaks English they'll put all the Americans in his or her section. The myth — and I've seen that happen just because, it actually works. The waiters have to have the patience if they're going to translate the menu. So you are not always shunted to the American section.
Helen: Right and so Americans, who are always looking for a reason to be angry will say, "Oh, they've just getaways just in this corner of the restaurant all the Americans," but it turns out it is actually a practical — Paris is weird like that. You've written — your cookbooks are often as much about Paris as they are about actual recipes. One of the things that I have been so amazed by is how much I misperceived Paris when I was there. And I think it's because when you are an American tourist, you're not seeing the real thing?
David: Well you're there for a week, you're staying at a hotel and you are going to Laduree, Maison du Chocolat, and you are doing all those things that are fun, you're not going to the cable office to argue about your bill. You're not — the repairman isn't supposed to come, the FedEx people aren't yelling at you. And just actually getting back to that point about being seeded, one quality the French admire is, it's called exigence, which is being discriminating. So, a lot of Americans we get timid. We're not like, "Can I get a better table?" or "Can I sit there?" "I don't want that cheese that you are offering me, I want that one, it looks better." Because we get scared, especially when we're on vacation and we don't live there, but actually to the French it means that you're, you know, you're demanding. So actually it's a positive quality to maybe complain, or just to say, "I don't want that table." It's a show of force; everything in French is just a show of force.
Greg: Wow, no wonder New Yorkers love it so much.
Helen: We can just be —
David: New Yorkers are nice! Everyone is nice here, everyone's like, "Can I help you? Do you need a bag; do you want me to carry that home for you?"
Helen: There's been a huge —
David: Holding the door for me.
Helen: Well I feel — French food in New York and in the US in general, I think, it's like having this tremendous resurgence. Suddenly French, which was the dominant high cuisine reference for America for decades and decades and decades, and it was pulled back with California cuisine in the eighties, and saw the Asian food coming in the nineties, and all the crazy new American farm-to-table stuff that is happened in the last decade — like suddenly there's this return to classical French.
David: Well one thing about French cuisine is that it's very ingredient forward. A chicken dish is not meant to have 14 different spices and seasonings and all this weird, you know — it's meant to be, like, "Put the chicken in the oven with some salt and pepper." And that's classic French, you know, French fare. It's usually not that complicated, and it's about the ingredients rather than adding all the stuff to make it taste like something else. I think that's sort of appealing to Americans at our point now; we've had a lot of a stuff, America is a very exciting, varied diverse place, it's got a lot of cookbooks and recipes, blah, blah. But when it comes down to it there's nothing better than steak frites or you know roast chicken or cassoulet or just a simple gratin, tapenade, or things like that. You know, in my book when I was writing about it, I was thinking well, a lot of these recipes have been discussed elsewhere, but they do tell a story and I want to tell the story like — this is this sort of simple, basic food and the fare that French people, this is how they really eat. They don't cook fancy food, they don't pull out recipes and make macarons and so forth. Well I do, but —
Helen: Dorie Greenspan's cookbook this year sort of touched on the same idea. She had, I'm not going to remember, Baking Chez Moi was her book. And it was about how French home cooks cook dessert at home.
David: Or don't.
Helen: Or don't! But I remember talking to her about it and she was saying that at every dinner she would go to there would be the perfect cake that you bought from the patisserie and that's what you serve to your guests. But on the nights when you're not throwing a dinner party, you make this beautiful, simple, accessible dessert.
David: Or not necessarily beautiful.
Helen: Or not necessarily beautiful! Yeah, that's the thing, they can be ugly. Ugly food.
David: I made Floating Islands yesterday for my blog, and I was trying to make it look pretty for a photo and I was saying, it was well, I could — this is what a French person would serve it like, they wouldn't spend all this time fixing and making sure it looks nice. I was like, "I'm going to take a picture of it in the bowl." You know, Dorie's book was very interesting because people are shocked actually — French people, French people don't bake, it's, well they have bakeries. French people are like, "Why would I make sausages? I can get them at the charcuterie. Those people are experts, they've been doing it for 50 years," and so forth. Because in France your job is sort of determined when you're 14 years old, so there's a certain respect for those professions. People are really good so it's, "Why would I make my own cheese?" and so forth?
Helen: Whereas in America, cooking has become almost performance and DIY.
David: DIY, sport — part of it is great because we're sharing, we're writing recipes, we're talking about it online, there's blogs, social media, and it's exciting. People are making their own sausages and they're thinking about the ingredients.
Greg: I'm inclined to say that a lot of cookbooks — and I'm no a super close cookbook follower or cookbook obsessive — but I'm inclined to say, I don't know, seven years, there's been this move towards sounds like doing what you have been doing all along with this idea of, "This is the food," but it's not, it's more the lifestyle, but the way that you serve it. It's not so much, you need to be, it's not this crazy operation to make this stuff.
Helen: Right, tweezers and dishes and —
Greg: Just like, "this is the soul of the food."
David: When I wrote My Paris Kitchen, I shared a lot of stories in the book. They're not long, but I love writing headnotes, which are the beginning portions of recipes. Some of the stuff just expanded into these stories that were funny or interesting or funny or quirky, and they helped explain the recipes and a little bit about French culture, and why tapenade is a certain way, what happens if you go to an island — I went to this naturiste, nudist island in the South of France, and I got this amazing cake recipe, I got some amazing idea to make this cake and —
Helen: From looking at the naked people?
David: Well I was doing, this whole island, everyone is naked because it was setup as a nudist colony in the ‘30s.
Greg: It sounds like something that people would talk about in high school.
Helen: Like a fantasy.
Greg: "There's this island, man."
Helen: "They're all naked French people, and you look at them —"
Greg: "They're naked all the time!"
Helen: "You look at them and you come up with a cake idea."
David: Actually they told us in the island that in the fifties and sixties the showgirls used to go there for vacation, because it was the only place that didn't get tan lines.
Greg: It's very important for your showgirls.
David: Because it's only great, this is very beautiful.
Helen: Wait, so, this is literally the place in France where the naked ladies dance?
David: Well they don't dance, they don't go there anymore.
Greg: They more just lounge.
Helen: So what cake came out of the island of naked French people?
David: What's called a gateau tropezienne, or tarte tropezienne. It's a tropezienne tart, and it's made, it's like a cake, a brioche but it has a little bit orange flower water sometimes, and with a cream filling and a sugary top. And I actually made it seventeen times when I was coming up with the recipe because I was crazy to get, you know how much cream? And I need a little more cream, and less, and more, and more, how do I get this to stay high, and so forth. That was a tough recipe but I loved that cake and I had the best one of my life there and it was so good. I just, you know, every time I go down there now, I need that cake, I need the cake. We found the bakery; it's on the mainland, and you wear clothes when you go on the bakery.
Helen: I'm glad about that.
David: It's good.
Greg: I hope they wear clothes when they are making the pastries?
Helen: Or like a really strategic network of hairnets.
David: I didn't ever look in the kitchen, it's a pretty conservative town. I think they all wear clothes.
Helen: They're all, like, mildly horrified by the island of nude people.
Greg: What do you think about French pastry, et cetera, in New York when you come and visit? What do you think about a place like Maison Kayser, where you just were?
Helen: Right, you are holding a Maison Kayser coffee cup right now. Maison Kayser has been slowly colonizing Manhattan they are popping up everybody like Starbucks now. It's like Starbucks but with amazing pastries and like, not the best coffee?
David: The coffee, it's not going to one of the artisan coffee places in Manhattan that's, you know, they're all sitting around with scales and measuring your coffee. It's funny because ask me, "Have you had the croissant at Kayser? What do you think of it? Or what do you think of dah, dah, dah—some other bakery, that brioche!" I'm like, if you came to Paris I wouldn't say "There's a great bagel place you have to go to, or there's this amazing cart that has egg sandwiches you need to get one." You're like, I'm in Paris! I don't — here [in New York], I eat pizza with pepperoni, Mexican food, deli stuff. So I have — I just went in there, and it really looks really nice, the bread looks good. I have been having a little trouble with the bread, I've been in the states for a few months and you get really used to bread all of the time [in Paris]. I bought a baguette the other day that looked beautiful, over in Brooklyn, and it was crusty and lovely and I took, like ripped the end off and I bit into it and it was so sweet. I was like, wow, sugar in bread?
Greg: I feel New York is not a bread city for some reason. I feel like it's good some places, but bot in the everywhere sense.
David: We don't have the same bread culture that they do in France. And I was actually talking to someone I said, "Well I was staying in Brooklyn there's no bakery and we should have, like, a bread bakery." They said, "We don't need another upscale address here." I was like, "Bread is not — bread is the most peasant, basic food!" You look at pictures of old French peasants and Italians, you know, there's a big loaf of bread and some wine from the jug and the mule is in the background over their shoulder. So it's funny that some people think of bread as being upscale.
Helen: I guess it's sort of the return to artisanality, you know? I think you grow up like buying thrice-plastic-wrapped Pillsbury sandwich bread and then suddenly the idea of a rustic loaf or a real baguette does feel kind of decadent in exactly the same way in the eighties California cuisine like felt decadent.
David: I think there's a reluctance — and it's understandable — a lot of people don't like feeling like they are being reprimanded. I often, recently I bought some shishito —
David: Shishito peppers. They are like the padron peppers but they are longer.
Helen: And harder to say.
David: Yeah, I think they were from Florida or Mexico or something, and people were — I put a picture on Instagram and people were going nuts, they were like, "Where are those from and why did you buy those?" I'm like, "There are from, where coffee is from and chocolate is from and so forth." And I didn't like feeling reprimanded. You know, I eat well, I try to buy good stuff, but here I am in New York and there's these peppers that I don't get in France. It's just not — no one wants to be scrutinized, no one wants to eat with the food police like, appearing over their shoulder. Every once in a while you might go to Dunkin' Donuts and get a doughnut. I love Dunkin' Donuts; I haven't been in a while, but —
Helen: They're great for what they are, I think a Dunkin' Donuts doughnut is its own unique form of deliciousness.
Greg: It's its own special butterfly.
Helen: It is a special butterfly.
Greg: I'm curious David: what is your relationship to that thing called blogging right now? You've been doing it for a while.
David: 1999! I started my site before people knew what a blog was — even I didn't know what a blog was. Then in about 2004, there were a few people, like Adam Roberts of Amateur Gourmet, Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks, and Molly Wizenberg of Orangette. People kind of started and it was just, like — "Did you see this new blog? It's a new blog!" And now there's a lot, I mean it's changed a lot. The good thing is, there's a lot of voices out there. Anything — if you want to learn about how to make Korean pancakes made with mung bean flour that's hand-milled, you can probably find that recipe and great photos. The quality of blogs — you know, I used to think, "How do I get more people to read my blog, and do better?" Really good photos, and write well, and be interesting, and now there's a lot of really good photos. Anyone can take a really good picture with a digital camera.
Greg: That's very true, that's a good point. I always remember that working for Eater if there was an independent blog, you'd read it and it was really good. It's like, "Thank God, I have found something that's really—" you know.
David: Now I read these blogs they are amazing, and they don't have any comments, and I don't know who's reading them but I'm kind of like, "Wow, this is great." More people need to know about this but then there's thousands of others after them. One thing that's interesting now is the discussion is going, "How do you sustain your blog, how do you avoid burning out?" Because it's a lot of work. It used to be you could just throw up a picture and put up a story, and now everyone is scanning, they're copyediting your site, making sure you didn't make a typo. You can wrote 4000 words on one thing but if you say, "Nobody would ever eat that," they're like "Well, I would, and you should say, ‘almost nobody would.'" So you have to — all those details, you have to defend everything a lot. I just got a pretty funny passive-aggressive comment on my site this morning —
Greg: The best kind of comment.
David: Oh my god, and I mean, you know, I'm the king of passive aggressive. I'm like, "Um, I'm the wrong person to do that to."
Helen: So what do you do? Do you moderate your comments?
David: I don't. 99.9 percent of people, I would say almost a hundred, are respectful and interesting and I don't have problems. I have really good readers, I'm really fortunate. I learn a lot from them, they're very engaged with me, I respond to their comments, and I like it. I like my blog, actually I love my blog, I would love to be able to — in the old days, like I said, it would take a couple of hours, maybe, to put up a post and now it's a couple days. Editing the photos —
Greg: A couple of days, wow.
David: Well you know, you have to make the recipe, shoot it, edit the photos, then you have to upload it and then link it on Facebook, Twitter, and make sure there's no typos — It's just a long, then the server goes down you got to call the server —
Helen: It's literally every aspect of the publishing process — that a newspaper or a magazine that has a staff of 50 people and an art director and a production department and a circulation department and a publicist and all that. When you're doing an independent website which is really what blogs are now they are independent businesses, you do everything. Even at Eater where we we're like, an official professional operation, we all do a lot.
David: Well people also don't realize, it's really hard to catch your own typos. And I hired an editor for a while to just look at the posts, before I put them up. She was overqualified, she was a very good editor but she would come back and it's like, "Well when you say this, do you mean to say this and this and this?" Then it added two more days to a blog post, and I was talking to a friend and he said, well — Because I was saying, this isn't what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be much more casual and I mean, I care about typos, but on the other hand I do want to go out and see my friends and go out to dinner, stuff like that. I just — so I made an executive decision: You know what? That's the way it is, it's me, if I make a mistake in French too bad, if I make a typo, I can fix it. Its okay. I don't care.
Helen: Do you have a lot of French readers?
David: I do, I have a lot of foreign readers, it's very interesting but a lot of French people read my site. I've had French people like stop me and actually they go, "You actually understand France!" It's just, you don't just write about all the pretty things and little things and little hands with macarons and —
Helen: Hands with macarons! That's —
Greg: That's a whole Instagram account or something?
Greg: Oh my God.
David: It's pretty, but it's like, okay I've seen the pictures, and it's like —
Helen: Do French people buy your cookbooks?
David: Well, they're in English. It's hard to sell a French person a French cookbook by an American, even though in America there are American cookbooks by French people.
Helen: Whenever I travel abroad, one of my favorite things to do is to find American restaurants in whatever country I'm in. I was in Barcelona a year ago —
David: Like McDonalds? You are looking for —
Helen: McDonalds is it's own separate thing. I actually do try to go McDonalds in every country I go to. But I was in Barcelona and I was out with friends late at night and we walked past an American-style ‘50s diner. I was like, "We have to go, we have to go." It was awful but it was awful in this ethnographically fascinating way because it was so cool to see how the Spanish owners of this Spanish restaurant —
David: Saw America.
Helen: — perceived American culture.
David: Most people in the world, their only exposure American food is through fast food restaurants. They don't see farm-to-table, they don't know Blue Hill, they don't Chez Panisse. So they just see hamburgers, and that's what American cooking is to them. It is interesting — McDonald's is widely popular in France. I think it's their second biggest market in the world, and it's because if you go into a McDonald in a foreign country, they've adapted to the culture. Like you go into a McDonald's you have a couple of Eames chairs in France —
David: They have camembert on the — "The Camembert Burger." They adapt things to the locals, and they have bathrooms they let you use, and they're clean.
Greg: It sounds like they need to bring a French McDonald's to America.
Helen: That's an amazing idea; who can we call McDonalds to make that happen?
Greg: I don't know, Ray Kroc?
Helen: No, he's long dead.
David: No he's the founder, he's long one. But there's something to a good American hamburger. In-and-Out burger does it, Five Guys, they do good fast food American burgers.
Greg: So I have a very corny question for you, but I think that we can just trust that somebody that's listening to this who — it'll be worth it for them. Do you have any advice for the bloggers out there that are getting started? Any big aha moment or takeaway that you have?
David: Well the big — my advice nowadays is do it because you love doing it. Like working, and people — like, there was a whole era where everyone wanted to go into a restaurant, and it's like, you don't make any money working in a restaurant! Stay home and subscribe to Martha Stewart Living magazine, have amazing dinner parties, and then go back to your amazing job at the bank making a lot of money! And you'll retire nicely. Same with blogging. I blogged for maybe eight years before — you know, I had to have zero comments for a long time, and all my friends were like, "You're wasting your time, you need to be writing cookbooks rather than doing that." Then it changed. While blogging — it's a very crowded field now, the other thing is to find the next wave. Like we were there at that moment, so now maybe it's going to be video — maybe, I don't do video, I can't, I can barely put up a blog post. I tried to edit a thirty-second video once and it took me eight hours literally.
Helen: But the early entry advantage is huge.
David: The early entry advantage, it is huge. And it's very crowded field now. I also had a name, people are, "Oh, he's a cookbook author." So I had a little bit of a step up.
Helen: So your advice to bloggers is don't blog?
David: No it's: Do it because you love it, or because you like doing it, and don't expect to get anything out of it.
Greg: I think that's really great advice because it certainly had friends and stuff that started various blogs for things — and then they just stop it after three or whatever posts, I was —
Helen: That's two more than most people.
Greg: They are like, "what I was thinking, I don't want to do this."
David: I understand. It actually — this is interesting, I was going to say weird but I'm going to say interesting — phenomenon: these bloggers get cookbook contracts, and they stop blogging as soon as they get the contract, and they write their book and they never blog again. And I'm like, "Well, is that why you were blogging ?" Like and also I don't think they sell a lot of books, because they've lost this audience that was following them, so I don't quite understand why — I mean, blogging is a lot of work, I do it, it's my life, it's integrated into my life. So that's something, that's really interesting subject that somebody should pursue an article —
Helen: They're all pointing at me.
David: You take the rap for it baby.
Helen: Well, I will consider writing an article about it. David we have a lightning round that we do at the end of each one of our shows. Greg and I are going to ask you a bunch of questions, just — it's a safe space say the first thing that comes to mind.
David: Do I get a hug afterwards?
Helen: We will hug you, we'll hug and cry, and it will be the best.
Greg: Okay lightning round question number one. What is your airport vice?
Greg: Like when you are in airport?
Helen: Like when you are in airport?
Greg: What's the thing? What's the thing you go to?
David: Well if I'm in San Francisco I get a burrito, because they have really good burritos there. If I'm in other airports, like the one in Paris, I usually make sure I bring food because I have, I'm not very good food choices.
Greg: That's funny, we talked to Dan Barber and his airport vice was also burritos.
Helen: Something with you farm-to-table people and burritos.
Greg: You love burritos.
David: I also bring, I wrote an article about it, it's called my French Train Travel Kit, and it's always a little ziploc bag with toasted nuts, dried fruit, some chocolate — it's like a trail mix. Because you never know! You might be trapped, and people make fun of you until you're stuck on the tarmac for three hours and you are sitting there eating your pecans.
Helen: Looking smug.
David: Yeah, and they're freaking out.
Helen: What's your go-to drink order when you step into a bar you've never been into before?
David: Manhattan. Rye manhattan. And I look at the bartender, and if — I always tell people, never order a drink if the bartender goes "What's that?" Like don't, no curveballs. A manhattan is hard to mess up.
Helen: Up or rocks?
Helen: Twist or cherry?
David: I like the cherry.
Helen: It's good, a snack.
David: I had a Martinez last night at Estrella?
David: Estela, yes. And it didn't, it had an orange instead of a cherry which is fine, but I was like I will snack at the end.
Greg: Did you like Estela last night?
David: I did! It was really good. There were a couple of things I wanted more of, like the steak.
Greg: It's not a lot of meat.
David: Right it was — The, what do you call it, the salt cod fritters were excellent. I actually liked the service; I thought they were really friendly and warm and wonderful, and even the host was sarcastic with me when I walked in which is cute. I thought about that was funny.
Helen: Very Parisian
David: It was funny.
Greg: Ploughing through: What's your favorite TV show?
David: Of all time or right now?
David: Right now is Orange is the New Black because I just finished it, and the second season freaked me out. It was great. Do you watch it?
Helen: No I don't.
Greg: Me neither.
David: Okay no spoilers. After the first episode of second season for like three days I couldn't function,
Helen: Oh my god.
David: Yeah, I was really freaked out, it's great.
Helen: What about of all time?
David: I would say Six Feet Under in fact. That was a really amazing show, but challenging. Very difficult topics handled really well. And the finale was probably the best finale of any show ever.
Helen: I cried so hard during that finale that my then-boyfriend was really concerned about my health.
David: That's good, it's healthy that you — I mean, it was emotional it's very, did you watch the show?
Greg: No I haven't, but I love dramas like this so I'm just thinking I should watch it this weekend.
David: Well it's —
Helen: The finale is like someone punching you in the face.
David: It's seven seasons and it's pretty — it's so well done great show.
Helen: If you are on a road trip in a car, and you are by yourself, what is the album that you are blasting?
David: It might be Shania Twain. I don't know why, she's just kind cool. I like she lives in, she's this country star who lives in Switzerland.
Helen: She has a giant castle in Switzerland which is —
Greg: That's cool, I don't know that.
Helen: Yeah, she's Canadian.
David: She is.
Greg: Of course she's Canadian.
Helen: She's a Canadian to Nashville to Switzerland, I mean she's this —
Greg: It probably won't stop there.
Helen: She's this weirdly fascinating — so, you sing along with Shania Twain?
David: No but I was, sometimes when I'm at home listening at music when I'm working and people come at home and are like, "What are you listening to?" I'm like, "While I'm not sitting here with playlists. I'm listening to Kelly Clarkson because I'm making cake." I mean she's belting out songs and it's fine, we keep each other company.
Greg: On that note we got our last question and it's somewhat of a loaded question, I will say that. What is your favorite dessert?
David: It changes. One of my all time favorite desserts is floating island, and people either love it or hate it. It's a bowl of really cold creme anglaise with poached meringue and caramel sauce. Ideally it should it be sweet but — I don't really like things that are really sweet it should be sweet but not too sweet, and the caramel sauce, the whole, like — are you making a bad face, Helen? I can't tell you are making a —
Helen: No! I've just never had floating islands in a way that I like them.
Greg: Yeah, I had it once and didn't like it.
David: It's something not everybody likes; I love it, so. I think that's my favorite dessert. And I love the Chez Panisse almond tart. That's an amazing dessert, and when we took it off the menu at Chez Panisse there was a lot of angst on my part I was very, I did not go along with that decision.
Helen: Is that recipe in any of your cookbooks?
David: It's on my blog, but it's from the Chez Panisse dessert cookbook as well, by Lindsay Shere. It's actually an old French recipe that she adapted and it's amazing. You have to make sure that you line the oven, because you don't want to clean the oven after that thing has been there for an hour.
Helen: But it's worth it. Awesome, well David thank you for joining us.
David: Thank you and I love being here and I'm going to take you up some day on setting a little desk in the corner and working with you.
Helen: David Lebovitz working live from the Eater office. Stay tuned!
Greg: Thanks so much, David.
David: They are all eating, you know, they are all eating and drinking coffee there's no one working, I love it.
Helen: Awesome, thanks so much David.