Following the publication of his fifth book, The Sweet Life in Paris, award-winning pastry chef, best-selling cookbook author, and blogger extraordinaire David Lebovitz, 50, chatted with Alexander Lobrano about pastry shops, baguettes and being an American in Paris.
After working as pastry chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley for thirteen years, you craved a new life and moved to Paris in 2002. Has the city lived up to your expectations?
I never really fantasized about Paris, but I’d been drawn to the city ever since I first visited as a broke student with a rail pass, so I decided to throw everything over and move. I’m glad I did, too—I love my work and have made a nice life for myself. The only thing that hasn’t been a big success is my French, which is still terrible, but I have learned the correct way to eat a salad.
Even if you come across a lettuce leaf the size of a bed sheet, you never ever cut it up. Instead you use your knife and fork to fold it up origami style into a single mouthful. The French seem to like dexterity challenges at the table, since they also eat bananas with a knife and fork.
Your account of learning the ropes of Parisian life is astute, wry and entertaining, but you’re also critical of Paris and the Parisians. For example, you blast French customer service, saying that the French accueil, or welcome desk, is the least welcoming place in any French store, and you describe Paris supermarkets as dirty and poorly provisioned. Do you think some people will find these observations surprising or disappointing?
There’s a certain picturesque image of France in the United States that you just can’t erase. Many people spend a week in Saint Germain des Prés and think they’ve been to Paris, which is like saying that you know Hawaii after a few days in Waikiki. I live in the 11th arrondissement, which is part of the real city, not the tourist one, and I love it. In writing my latest book, I wanted to show what life in Paris is really like. Some of my stories are sweet, some of my stories are sour, but this is my taste, and I care enough about the city to have been honest.
How do Parisians react when you tell them that you’re a pastry chef?
Many French people still can’t get past the stereotype that Americans eat nothing but hamburgers, but those who’ve traveled to the US know we have some very good restaurants and that a lot of Americans take their food very seriously. Since I’m testing recipes all of the time, I often make gifts of my baked goods to local shopkeepers, and it’s very flattering to see them grin hopefully when I come through the door. I also love the fact that profession of pastry chef is really respected in France, whereas many Americans still think of it as a rather frivolous métier.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned professionally during the seven years you’ve lived in Paris?
I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve learned to filet raw fish—I worked at a poissonnerie for a while to learn, and I’ve learned all kinds of astuces (little tips) in terms of baking. My taste has changed, too—it’s become more French, which means that I don’t want fireworks all the time. I’ve learned to appreciate tradition and subtlety.
What’s your favorite pâtisserie in Paris?
I think that Pierre Hermé is probably the greatest pastry chef of my generation, but I really love Le Blé Sucré overlooking the Square Trousseau in the 12th arrondissement. It’s a fantastic classic French pastry shop with fabulous baba au rhum.
You love chocolate, and have written several books about it. Does Paris live up to its reputation as the world’s best city for chocolate-lovers, and what’s your favorite chocolate shop?
Yes, Paris really is a chocolate-lovers paradise. There’s good chocolate all over the city. I like La Maison du Chocolat, but my favorite is Patrick Roger in the 16th arrondissement.
Was there any single eureka moment when you realized that you’d become a Parisian?
There were two actually. The Sunday afternoon that I shaved, showered and got dressed just to take the garbage downstairs—in San Francisco, I’d have just made a quick break for it in my T shirt and sweat pants, but in Paris it’d be catastrophic if your neighbors thought you were a slob—I realized that I had become a Parisian. Appearances really matter in France, which is part of the wonderful overall Gallic preoccupation with aesthetics. The other was the day that I found myself apologizing to a sales woman in a chocolate shop because an American couple had shocked her by failing to return her bonjour when they entered the shop or her au revoir when they left. Daily life in Paris is framed by these small courtesies.
So have you decided to put down roots?
I’m thinking about buying an apartment, which would be a new stage of commitment to the city. I mean, what’s not to like about a city that prizes good manners, aesthetics, chocolate and pastry?
The Sweet Life in Paris is published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House.
Pierre Hermé 72 rue Bonaparte, 6th, 01.43.54.47.77. website
Le Blé Sucré 7 rue Antoine Vollon, 12th, 01.43.40.77.73
La Maison du Chocolat 52 rue François 1er, 8th, 01.47.23.38.25. website
Patrick Roger 45 ave Victor Hugo,16th, 01.45.01.66.71. website
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of France Today; updated in October 2011