It’s been years since I started following the writing and recipes of David Lebovitz, a pastry chef and bestselling author of cookbooks and memoirs such as The Sweet Life in Paris, My Paris Kitchen, and Ready for Dessert: My Best Recipes. David most recently published a book called Drinking French, compiling recipes for traditional Gallic tipples alongside inventive cocktails—many using spirits that are being enthusiastically taken back up by a new generation of bartenders.
I caught up with David recently over video, glimpsing his Paris-based kitchen and handsome cookware in the (grainy) background. We covered a lot of terrain in just over an hour: the inspiration behind his latest book, what life’s like in in Paris amid the Covid crisis, projects that are keeping him busy, the joy and confusion of navigating French culture, and how he fell in love with the art of pastry-making as a young cook in California.
What follows is an edited version of our (delightfully) meandering conversation. I couldn’t bring myself to cut much of it, so settled on leaving it long and peripatetic. Since you may prefer to skim by topic, I recommend using the table of contents below to browse to sections of particular interest.
Drinking French: Recipes & Inspiration Behind the Book
CT: Can you give me an example or two of a drink from your latest book, that melds the traditional French drink with a little something modern and innovative?
DL: Sure. There’s a great cocktail called the Quatresse, which is the invention of a wonderful woman, Margot Lecarpentier. She has a bar called Combat in Paris. I love her bar. I [asked her], “why would you call a bar in Paris ‘Combat?’” And she goes, “Well, that’s the name of this neighborhood.” I said, “No [it isn’t!]”– and she goes, “look on Google Maps”.
So I did. And I found out that the Belleville neighborhood used to be where they had animal fights, and they were very vicious and savage… It’s horrible. Anyway, [Margot] opened this bar, and she uses French ingredients like Suze, a gentian liqueur, in a drink called the Quatresse.
And the idea of using something like Suze in a cocktail– most French people would be like, ‘Oh, no, that’s something you drink over ice, or my grandmother drank it when we played boules –lawn bowling, I guess you’d say in English. So she’s using it in drinks and cocktails, and a lot of other bartenders are too, in France and abroad.
It was very exciting to see how young people are sort of reinventing the cocktail game, because so many classic cocktails were invented in France during Prohibition. [And now], almost 100 years later, you’ve got these people reinventing, circling back and saying, we have this tradition– let’s build on it.
CT: A few years ago, I had the sense that the cocktail bar scene was pretty traditional and staid in Paris– you know, beyond the Bar Hemingway at the Ritz, or something like that. But obviously now you’ve got the Experimental Cocktail Club Group in Paris, and others doing some really interesting things.
DL: In the old days….if you wanted a gin Martini, you had to go to somewhere like the Bar Hemingway and pay 30 euros, or go to a bar or hotel that catered to foreigners. And then the Experimental Cocktail Club started, and they sort of sprouted all these young people rediscovering their culture, and there were a lot of foreign and expat influences as well.
But French people and French Parisians were discovering cocktails again. My partner’s French and he was like, “You know, before I met you, the idea of a cocktail was vulgar”. Because it was always something with purple syrup in it, really sweet. Maybe no ice. Just a horrible thing. And now some of the best cocktail bars in the world are in Paris.
CT: It’s an interesting evolution to have watched happen. A move away from those cocktails with the crème de violette (violet syrup)– yuck. Ok, it can be good, but only in really small amounts!
DL: Yeah, and all that syrup that people put in kirs [wine or champagne topped with fruit syrups]. What’s funny is that a lot of people think the French don’t like sweets. Americans are considered to put sugar in everything– which is partially true. Well, in France they have a sweet tooth as well.
CT: That’s true—but not so much in something like chocolate cake. Now, when I go back to the US and bite into a piece of chocolate cake, it’s an instant sugar coma, and it’s hard to taste the chocolate. I think that’s one way my tastes have evolved, under the French influence.
DL: Also, the French style is just to focus on the ingredient. Not the stuff around it. So I often have to tell people– when they want to make, for example, a French apple tart in America– they’re like, “How many tablespoons of cinnamon do I add?”. But it’s maybe just a pinch.
[And] the French don’t even add vanilla [to an apple tart, because] they’re like, “oh, no, then it’s apple-vanilla!” You maybe add a little, but they’re very strict about that…It’s not about having a lot of stuff going on like that chocolate cake you have, with tons of sugar and butter. It’s focused. [French people are] used to a simple chocolate cake– that’s super-chocolatey.
CT: To go back to your new book: is this a new development for you– expanding into thinking about how to create drinks, given your history as a pastry chef, primarily?
DL: I wrote a book called L’Appart, about buying an apartment [in Paris], renovating it, and having a lot of stuff go wrong. That was harrowing. I had signed a two-book deal. And I said, Well, I think I’ll write that first book. Then afterwards, I’m going to need a drink!
I saw what was going on in France, and in America. I saw all these American bartenders using things like [French liqueurs] Armagnac, Suze, Dubonnet and Lillet to make drinks. I thought, well, there’s this interest in all these things, but no one’s really written a book that brings them all together– [one] that explains the cocktail and drinking culture of France.
When we had the lockdowns due to COVID, the thing that bothered everybody was that they wanted to go to a cafe and have a drink with their friends. You have to have the aperitif after work, coffee in the afternoon, and so forth.
So the book came about, because– for one thing– I love to learn stuff, and I like to explain and explore French culture. Through the drinks, I was able to do that. But for another, I was a pastry chef and a baker all my life.
And I realized what bartenders do is what we do: we mix different ingredients together to create something new and wonderful, that.. allows you to still taste all the ingredients. It’s much like a good brownie: you can taste the eggs, the butter and the chocolate, and the nuts– if you like nuts in your brownie. [In the same way], in a Manhattan, you can taste the whiskey, the vermouth, and so forth.
Unfortunately, as I got into the subject, I realized it was a big subject– and I fell in love with the subject. And I really took a deep dive into things. I went to Chartreuse, to the mountains. I saw the monks and the monasteries [there], and I went to see them making vermouth, and Chambéry. It was really a wonderful journey.
CT: That’s remarkable that you put so much research into it– and got a sense of how French regional cultures are sort of feeding back into these drinks.
DL: Well, I was also tackling a new subject for me. And I wanted to become an expert on these things… I [wanted to] be able to walk into a bar in Brooklyn, and converse with the bartender like a knowledgeable person. Also, [during my research trips] I presented myself as being an amateur bartender…
I used to think [bartenders] were either arrogant, or they were going to be tough– because you see them behind the bar, and, you know, they know what they’re doing. They’re shaking these drinks. And the men have tattoos, and the women are super cool and hip. [But] everybody was super nice to me, in France and America, wherever I went.
CT: How did you get the conversations going?
DL: In France, if you’re interested in what people do, their craft or métier, as they say in French, they will really spend the time [with you]. It’s not about money or fame. They want to show you what they do because it’s their life. It’s their city or their region, where they make this liqueur– and they’re proud of it.
I went to visit [the French vermouth maker] Dolin, and the owner was a great guy. He showed me the books that had the recipes for vermouth written in them, using a quill pen– you know, beautiful script, and he took me to the archives, [showed me] all these old bottles…. I said I loved the handwriting for the vermouth recipe, and asked if I could take a picture. And he goes, “Yeah, what are you gonna do, start your own vermouth company”? Yeah.. (chuckles)
Also, French people can be very closed, and it can be hard to find a way in. And I did that by actually talking to people, stopping and really expressing interest in what they do. And they just opened up to me. Its’ touching when that happens in France, because it doesn’t happen automatically.
On Falling in Love With Patisserie, & Earning Chops in San Francisco Restaurants
CT: I’d like to ask you about your early days as a chef. I know that you began your career as a pastry chef in California. You’re Californian, correct?
DL: Well, my parents were born in New York. I grew up in New England and went to school in New York. But I consider myself a Californian. Because that’s where I spent most of my adult life until I moved to Paris– I was in San Francisco.
CT: And for those still unfamiliar with the story, how did your career start? And how did you fall in love with pastry-making, to begin with?
DL: I was a line cook at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. In those days, there were lines out the door. Everybody in the world wanted to eat at Chez Panisse– this was the ‘80s, and the farm-to-table movement was just starting– California cuisine. This is before anybody was doing this stuff. Nobody knew what goat cheese was in America. Radicchio? People thought it was cabbage.
I was working upstairs in the cafe, which was super busy doing regular food.. And I loved watching the pastry people work. I loved all the fruit, I loved watching their manual work, making dough and all that. And finally, after a year of working at Chez Panisse, there was an opening. And I said, “Can I work in the pastry department?” I also thought it was going to be really easy– I’m like, “Oh, they’re just sitting around making cakes and tarts and cookies. How hard can that be?” (laughs).
So there was an opening. And I applied for it, as well as a friend of mine who also worked at the restaurant. And she got the job. But then she decided to leave the restaurant business and move back to wherever she [was from, I believe] North Carolina. I was so sorry to see her go because she was wonderful. But I got my first job in the pastry department.
CT: These moments of luck can play an important part in a career. But obviously, the ability and talent were also there.
DL: I would say it was fortuitous… it was more about being in the right place at the right time. You know, getting my job at Chez Panisse was quite a challenge in a way, because it’s how you pay your dues when you work in a restaurant… and we worked really hard.
CT: I mean, I really salute you all. I didn’t survive more than three days working as a server in Paris!
On Settling Into French Home Ownership
CT: To shift gears and talk about your everyday life in Paris for a bit—your earlier book that you mentioned, L’Appart, sort of exposes the vicissitudes of trying to navigate the French real estate world, and the infuriating mishaps that come up as you try to renovate and settle into your new place. I was wondering, given the lockdowns in Paris this past year, and the fact that you have to be home a lot more– have things smoothed out recently, compared to the time when you wrote the book? Are you feeling nicely settled into your Parisian home, now?
DL: Six months ago, there was a leak in the roof in the ceiling. And that involved a lot of drama. And now, my toilet, my bathroom is not working. It’s been two months. I mean, I think any homeowner or apartment owner can relate to things going wrong. I wrote a post about this on my blog, an article called “La fuite d’eau”, which means “the water leak”. And everybody in Paris has a fuite d’eau at some point… It’s just part of daily life.
Things are [generally] okay, though. You know, you settle in and get used to stuff. But ever since the lockdown, I’ve been thinking how nice it would be to have a balcony, or a terrace or a garden. And I talked to a real estate agent who said, “you and everybody else!”
Everybody’s looking for outdoor space now in Paris. People are packed pretty compactly together. Apartments are small. It can be very dark in the winter, as you know. At some point, I will jump back into the real estate market and maybe find a place with a garden or terrace.
On Life in Lockdown… & the Birth of the Instagram Live “Apéro” Series
CT: And how have you experienced this bizarre, sort of sci-fi reality of being in lockdown and living through a pandemic? How have you and Romain, your partner, experienced it, and what projects are you working on to kind of alleviate the tedium or the frustration of being in confinement a lot of the time, this past year?
DL: Well, being a writer means social distancing is a fact of life. You regularly don’t leave the house, don’t see people– and you regularly make sure everybody stays away from you. I was fine with it, in the spring… Drinking French had come out and I was supposed to go on a book tour– it was all planned. Then in March, [that’s] when things really hit the fan. And finally, we just said, you know what? We need to cancel, I don’t think is going to happen.
At the same time, somebody from Instagram reached out to me and said, “We’re big fans of yours, we all follow you, and we’d like to help you”. And she said, “Have you ever thought about doing videos, on Instagram Live”? I said “no, I don’t do video”.
But I thought, well, maybe I’ll do a daily happy hour [on Instagram]. And it’ll be fun to promote the book, but also to have a project. More and more people started watching…and it became sort of my full-time job. It was really fun. I was doing [the virtual Apéro hours] every day, and it sort of took over my life. But it was good for me, because I was meeting people and building an audience.
People were enjoying my book, [and] I think a lot of it was because they couldn’t travel. They were like, “We miss Paris, we can’t come to Paris”. I’m like, ‘Well, here’s the drink you can make. And even though you’re not in Paris, it’s got cognac in it. And having that bottle in your house will make you feel a little more French”–which isn’t a marketing line. It’s true.
So that was really interesting for me. And it gave me a chance to be myself. I think that people want to see reality [these days]… they were ready to just see somebody real in their kitchen making a mistake, saying, “Oh, my God, today is a terrible day. … talking, you know, in real life terms, rather than putting a smiley face on everything”.
CT: That makes sense. And not to eternally invoke Julia Child, but on some level, it’s like going back to that live show of hers in the ‘60s, where she dropped the whole chicken on the floor and said, “Oh, nobody saw that!” That was a long time before the overproduced Food Network TV shows, and there was a sense that she was just letting you in on a joke. There was a sense of realness, and intimacy.
DL: Yeah, also like [French chef and occasional co-host with Child] Jacques Pépin– you watch him on TV, and he’s like, “I’m going to bone a chicken– you just put the knife here”. You see that and think, I could do that. Whereas a lot of stuff, as you said, has been overproduced the last few years– you know, the celebrity chef thing. And I think that’s coming back down to earth a bit, because of the web. People are taking to YouTube, doing cooking shows, [etc]. And [cooking] blogs were sort of the start of that.
On Paris in the Time of COVID– & Struggling Restaurants
CT: Recently, I read an interesting op-ed from Roger Cohen, who’s the New York Times bureau chief in Paris. He wrote this almost-creepy piece about how Paris is just really quiet and sad at the moment. He describes the empty terraces, and just a sense that life is in suspense, which is of course no different than anywhere else.
But there’s the famous and overquoted line from Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris“– and well, as Roger Cohen said in his piece, right now, we don’t have it. So I wondered whether you share that sentiment, and what your current impressions of city life are.
DL: [His piece] was very well-written. He understands a lot about Paris– but I think he also lives in a certain part of Paris. You know, it depends on where you live. If you live on the Île St-Louis or in the [well-to-do] 6th arrondissement, it’s very different than living in the 11th arrondissement (in northeastern Paris). Because daily life goes on in the more working-class neighborhoods.
Last Saturday, there was a rave on the Place de la Republique, the day that article came out. And one of my readers commented, “Well, I don’t know if [Roger Cohen] went to that rave, but there were like, 1,000 people dancing and listening to music and screaming and drinking beer.” There are many sides to Paris.
CT: So in other words, it’s not so quiet everywhere. But what about the bleak feeling he describes?
DL: I don’t find it as bleak [as that]. But… Paris does feel subdued. I think a lot of people have pivoted and adapted. As you know, French culture doesn’t necessarily [encourage] people to, be independent, strike off on their own or come up with a new idea. But the city was really great about letting restaurants [adapt] … when they could reopen, they let people put tables everywhere outside.
And now a lot of the restaurant owners and cafes have pivoted to take-out, carry-out. It’s not ideal. I know a lot of them are struggling. They’re having difficulty with the logistics….You know, the idea of having a restaurant or cafe is to be convivial, to have a place where people can gather. So a lot of [Cohen’s] article did ring true. You walk by cafes, and like they’re all shut up. And the menus are maybe still there [for takeout], but there’s no life.
CT: It’s funny that you brought up the takeout issue– I was going to ask what your thoughts were on that, particularly with high-end restaurants. I’ve seen that even some Michelin-star restaurants in France are offering takeout. And sadly, my first instinct is to say, “I don’t really feel like having to bring home even Michelin star-level food in plastic containers, then plate it, or even have to reheat it. It just doesn’t sound appealing, especially for that price point. I’d much rather just cook my cook myself something nice”.
DL: As you know, in Paris you see a lot of sit-down restaurants offering what they call “street food”– for example, a Vietnamese street food restaurant. But the whole idea of street food is that you eat it in the street!… A lot of Asian food—for example, sushi in a bento box– you can take it on the train. The food is meant to travel. Whereas typical French food– cassoulet or coq au vin or steak-frites, it’s “à la minute”. It’s meant to be cooked in a casserole or a pan and then served. Also, French people eat to be with their friends, not just for the food.
And it is hard for the [restaurants]. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it– places are having a tough time. The government has been really good in France, about paying people salaries, helping restaurants, restaurateurs, pay their rent, pay their expenses…
For a while the government was paying people 84% of their salaries. In America, bar staff are losing all their tips. But in France, bartenders don’t get tips. So they’re getting 84% of their salaries…and of course, people aren’t losing their health insurance, either, because health insurance is nationalized in France.
CT: I know fresh food markets are important for chefs. Which market are you closest to in your neighborhood? And are you still going to the market these days, and if so, what’s the experience like, amid social distancing measures and the rest?
DL: I go to the market on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir (near Bastille). The markets are really crowded now. I think part of is because people are cooking all the time. But people are also buying better food as well. So the stands from the producteurs, the people that grow the food… they have the longest lines now. I think people want to support them as well, but the quality’s [also] better.
The other day, I went at 8:20 in the morning, and people don’t usually go to the market that early. But I didn’t want to spend two hours waiting in line for apples at one place, then go to another place and waiting for another 15 minutes for cheese.
CT: I imagine it’s kind of difficult to socially distance at certain points, since it can be so crowded at the markets.
DL: The upside is that the markets are outside. [But] people are squeezed into lines together. Everyone’s touching everything, people have the masks around their necks sometimes. It’s outside, but it’s not ideal. And I’m careful. I’m very careful about Covid because I’m an ex-pastry chef. So I’m really into hygiene. I love it.
On Exploring New Cookbooks and Showing Off French Groceries
CT: To shift gears, what sorts of culinary adventures or experiments can you report from your kitchen, these days?
DL: I got a bunch of cookbooks last fall that are really interesting…So I’m sort of tackling some of them [at the moment]. It’s quite interesting, seeing these younger people write baking books: their ideas, how they’re written, the tone of the book (…) I’m enjoying exploring other people’s books right now, and seeing what they’re doing. And it’s been an interesting and good year for baking books. So I’m doing some baking from them….
And I’m also exploring other [mediums], like video. [On Instagram Live], I’ll do videos showing what I bought at the grocery store that day. And I just unpack everything. And those videos get a lot of viewers.
What I love about them is I that I get to show people what’s real in France. I’ll take out something that people [actually eat here]– frozen pizza or something. I’m so over dishes. I’m having frozen pizza today. I’ll also pull out some beautiful lettuce and show it off, and talk about it. And people like it, it because they’re locked up, in “confinement” or whatever. But it gives me a chance to bring France to people. It’s a lot of fun, because it’s not serious…I kind of just want to be normal and show a slice of life [from Paris].
CT: And I’m curious to know, are there a couple of examples of things that you’ve either cooked or baked recently that turned out interesting, or that you just enjoyed making?
[Note: You can see David’s recent recipes at this page on his blog]…
DL: Tonight I’m making sardines. Fresh sardines are something you don’t see much in other places, but the French love them– and they’re cheap! I bought something like two dozen sardines for around six euros, and they cleaned them for me and the guys selling them were like, “Do want some free parsley?.” I’m like, “Sure, yeah. Give me a lemon too!” Anyhow, I’m looking forward to that.
On the Quest For Good Chocolate-Chip Cookies in Paris
CT: I do have a burning food-related question that I’ve been meaning to ask you for a while, which is this: have you ever found not just a decent, but a really good chocolate-chip cookie at a bakery in Paris or elsewhere in France? I’ve never found one, and I’ve given up on it. They just never end up being good. They’re too crunchy. And they never use brown sugar in them– only white sugar. So they end up being too hard. Anyway, would you be willing to share any findings you’ve made on the all-important cookie front?
DL: There are these dedicated cookie places—there’s one called Scoop Me a Cookie [in Paris], and they sell these giant, American-style cookies. But the really good chocolate-chip cookies are at the Eric Kayser bakeries.
[The cookies there] are chewy and caramelized, and they’re not hard. It was funny, because I used to go to this [other] bakery. And they had these horrible brownies that were dry and bad. I knew the baker, so I said, “here’s my recipe [for brownies], why don’t you give them a go?” And he made them, [but] they were really dry. Completely overbaked. I think brownies and cookies are not really part of the French tradition. But the ones at Maison Kayser [are very good].
CT: I’ll definitely try them out as soon as I get the chance.
On Getting Back to Travel…*When This All Ends*
CT: So, to wrap up things up—this has been pretty long!– I wanted to ask you about travel. Travel sort of feels like an impossible Shangri-La right now. But if travel does become possible soon again, is there any place that you and your partner will head to first?
DL: I’m getting two-one-way tickets to Thailand… all I want to do is go to the beach. Last summer, everything was open here. We went down to the Languedoc (region of France). It’s a part of France that isn’t super touristy, unlike Provence. We had a really good time. And there was hardly anybody there, and no foreign tourists.
The markets were amazing. The food was great. At the markets, we discovered some really good restaurants, and they have really good wine there (especially the reds) (…) I met a winemaker and we went to his house for lunch. It was delicious. It was lovely. We had a really good time.
CT: Well, let’s hope that that’s what this summer looks like, too.
DL: I’m optimistic.