There’s this conversion story about French food in the 20th century: American goes to France, tastes an oyster or a sole meunière and becomes a convert—pow!—eyes open, taste buds open, ready to preach the beauty and the majesty of French cuisine, from the fussiest galantines to the littlest fraises des bois. It happened that way with Alice Waters, Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, Judy Rodgers, Richard Olney—hell, who didn’t it happen to?
Flipping through David Lebovitz’s gorgeous new book, My Paris Kitchen, it’s clear that French food in the 21st century is way more complicated than the Parisian scenes from Julie & Julia. Lebovitz is an author and pastry chef who worked in California, including 13 defining years at Chez Panisse. He’s lived in Paris for more than a decade now, and while he loves the food there, Lebovitz doesn’t spin a French fantasy narrative. “When I sat down to write this book…,” he says in the intro, “I honestly wasn’t sure what ‘Parisian food’ was [and] pondered if French cuisine was even still relevant.” Globalization, fast food, and especially the microwave—they’ve all changed that beauty and majesty thing, at least the way Alice experienced it way back in the 1960s.
Lebovitz was in San Francisco to promote My Paris Kitchen. He let me take him to Belinda Leong’s b. patisserie, a shop he admires (he’s crazy about the granola), to talk.
Birdsall: Traveling to Paris is usually some hunt for this idealized French food that maybe doesn’t even exist anymore. Does it exist?
Lebovitz: People want to go to a bistro, but you know, France has changed, eating styles have changed. You go to Paris and you want to eat blanquette de veau, but when’s the last time you had a hollowed-out French loaf with clam chowder in it here in San Francisco? All that bistro food is just not something the French eat very often. A lot of people have written about Paris, so I had to ask myself, “What am I adding to it?” I talk about the changes in a lot of ways, the hummus, the North African food.
Yeah I love your honesty in this book.
People like France because it doesn’t change, they like seeing the old buildings and the dog doo on the street. Part of it is charming, and Paris is a beautiful, beautiful city. I’ve gotten criticized for pointing put things about France that aren’t very flattering, but I think it’s important to address the reality, instead of saying all French women are thin and stylish. It’s like saying all gay men have abs and they’re hot—French people come in all sizes, there are plenty of French women who aren’t thin, and they shouldn’t feel degraded for it.
Has it now been reversed—that myth that cooks like Alice Waters came to France and ate perfect food for the first time and got inspired? Are young French chefs now coming to the U.S., to a place like Manresa, to get inspired by the amazing food and going home to copy it?
In some ways. Look, industrialization crept up on France, and I don’t think they knew what they were in danger of losing. French people took all that stuff for granted, the cheese, the breads. France was always a great country, there was never any competition, French cuisine was the best. The fast-food thing snuck up on them, and McDonald’s was really smart, they adapted to the French palate. They have red wine, macaroons—they even have clean bathrooms! Some of the best restaurants in Paris have horrible bathrooms.
Also, young people in France, they’re raised a certain way. When they’re 16 their future is decided, they take this baccalaureate test and it sets their course for life. In America some of our best chefs are like, “Oh, I studied architecture but then realized I wanted to cook,” and then they throw themselves into it. But the idea of change isn’t as ingrained in the French. And the young chefs in France don’t want to do cassoulet or bouillabaisse, they watch MasterChef, they do swirls on the plates, on big squares of slate. They’re really into foams right now in Paris—I know, foams. Actually they don’t really bother me.
But the exciting food in Paris is coming from smaller-scale places these days, like bars à vins, right?
Yeah, all these young Parisian chefs are opening wine bars and single-dish restaurants. That era of waiters in the long aprons—now there’s kids in T-shirts, hipster-looking, and they’re very sharp.
Photo of David Lebovitz by Chris Rochelle; shot at b. patisserie in San Francisco