David Lebovitz worked as a baker and pastry chef in the San Francisco Bay Area, including a thirteen year stint in the pastry department at the renowned Chez Panisse. He currently lives in Paris and is the author of eight books, and also runs a popular blog, davidlebovitz.com.
Though Justin Spring has published a small cookbook, he’s primarily a biographer, art historian and critic. Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist and Sexual Renegade (FSG, 2010) was a finalist for the National Book Award and the recipient of many other prizes and awards. He is also the author of the critically acclaimed Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (Yale, 2000).
Both Lebovitz and Spring have books about Paris coming out this fall: Justin’s is The Gourmands’ Way: Six Americans in Paris and the Birth of a New Gastronomy (FSG), tracing the lives of six now-legendary food and wine writers in Paris during the years 1945-1975: A.J. Liebling, Alice Toklas, Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, Richard Olney, and Alexis Lichine. David’s is L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home (Crown), a personal narrative about buying and renovating his apartment in Paris.
JDS: David, even while I was researching and drafting The Gourmands’ Way, I was reading and enjoying your Sweet Life in Paris food blog in my free time. It consists of recipe writing and food photography with a diaristic narrative about your daily life and work—and it’s a delight. How long have you been living in Paris full time, and what gave you the desire to do so?
DL: I moved here about 15 years ago. I’d started my blog (before anyone even knew what a blog was) back in 1999, and after arriving in Paris, I found it a great way to communicate with readers about all the wonderful bakeries and markets I was finding, and foods I was discovering.
JDS: More to the point, how did you come up with the idea of combining a personal narrative with recipe writing?
DL: Blogs have changed a lot. Many of my early posts weren’t recipes. But so many people were requesting recipes that the focus shifted. I still enjoy telling stories, which is the delightful part of having a personal blog. The recipes are adjuncts.
JDS: I remember reading Clotilde Dusouliers’ Chocolate and Zucchini blog at around the time I started reading yours—she comes from a French-born perspective. (I was also reading Heidi Swanson’s 101 Cookbooks blog.)
DL: All of us, Clotilde, Heidi, and others, were writing from different places. Even though Clotilde and I both live in Paris, she’s Parisian and I’m American, so we see things differently. I think the diversity of viewpoints in food blogs is what attracts people to them. Ditto with Heidi; we’re both writing about our food experiences, whether it’s Tempeh Curry (her) or Chicken Liver Mousse (me).
JDS: As a lifelong fan of cookbooks, I have to ask: Do you think blogs such as yours are creating a new kind of “cookbook” for the next generation?
DL: I like to think of my blog as a diary, whereas a book is a permanent record. Since you read food blogs, what’s the difference to you between a blog and book?
JDS: Blogs are ephemeral and immediate, and their triviality is part of their charm. It’s like an informal conversation with a friend on the sidewalk, as opposed to a lecture. I didn’t have many friends when I was researching my book in Paris, so in my mind, you were the friend that I was sharing discoveries with and learning from. That’s something unique to our time, isn’t it—the immediacy and informality of internet communication. The six writers in The Gourmands’ Way had it very different—they were really on their own when it came to learning about French food and wine, and exploring Paris. What do you think is the difference between then and now?
DL: Today there is a lot more paperwork and bureaucracy. (I can’t see Alice B. Toklas standing in line all day to get her paperwork in order, then having to go home and bring back more documents, etc., which is a fact of expat life.) But like the six Americans you wrote about in The Gourmand’s Way, I’ve lived in Paris long enough to become part of Paris life—we somehow integrated into the city, and created our own niche in France. Most notably, Alice B. Toklas and Richard Olney—they stayed here their entire lives.
JDS: Some of your funniest blog posts are about experiences that are actually very painful—attempting to set up a bank account, for instance, or to apply for residency. It seemed to me you have experienced something all writers in my book experienced: a basic clash between the French and American way.
DL: When I wrote my first memoir, The Sweet Life in Paris, I was so perplexed by how things worked—or how they didn’t—that it seemed comical. Basically, Americans are result-oriented and look for the fastest or most efficient way to get things done. The French like the process, and everything has a certain way of getting done, and that way must be followed. Interestingly, the last few French Presidents were elected into office with slogans and promises of how they were going to change things, but once they got elected, everyone took to the streets whenever they proposed changing anything.
JDS: Which of the six writers from The Gourmands’ Way speaks to you most directly, or is a favorite?
DL: Definitely Richard Olney. Oddly, when I was going to be interviewed by Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, before I got hired, everyone said, “She’s going to ask who your favorite cookbook authors are. Say ‘Richard Olney.’” I had no idea who he was at the time, but now consider him to be one of the great food writers of our time. I like how you mentioned he was an outsider, and immersed himself in France, and French culture and cuisine, and wasn’t interested in making short cuts or modifying things to appeal to American palates and tastes.
I know he was a difficult person to some, but he had such talent as a writer and cook. You did such a great job capturing not only who he was, but how he related to those other people around him, some who had more success at the time (like Julia Child), and others whom he disdained. He didn’t hold back on his feelings, which is very French!
When I spoke to you at the beginning of your project, you were focusing mostly on Richard Olney. What made you broaden the scope of The Gourmands’ Way?
JDS: FSG wouldn’t agree to publish a biography of him—I had discussed the idea informally with Jonathan Galassi and he said he simply couldn’t do it. So I took the project back to the drawing board. And I realized that Paris—specifically, its transformative effect upon American food writing—was really at the center of my inquiry. Through that shift in focus, I was able to look at a whole bunch of writers who had interested me over the years: Child, Fisher, Lichine, Liebling, Olney, and Toklas. Comparing and contrasting their work made the project richer—and the book now became a six course meal, full of variety and contrast, rather than simply one large dish.
DL: What do you think divided those who stayed on (Olney, Toklas, Lichine) from those who returned to the United States?
JDS: Toklas, Olney, and Lichine were passionate about their various houses and gardens in France. So getting involved with property and land was the deciding factor—I expect that’s been the case for you, too?
DL: I think there is a strong feeling of “home” or perhaps “chez,” in France, which could be loosely translated as “my place.” People here are very closely attached to their agricultural roots, and even those who live modestly in Paris often have a maison secondaire, a country house that they retreat to.
I also think writers require a certain amount of solitude where they (or we?) can think. I was coming from San Francisco, and saw prices only going up . . . and up and up and up. So I felt that if I wanted to stay, I should own my own place. I also wanted a bigger kitchen (most Parisian kitchens are ridiculously tiny; I don’t know how people make such spectacular food in a toaster oven, and on a kitchen counter about the size of a magazine.)
I know you share a country house with your partner, and have a lovely garden. Do you find you’re more inspired when writing there?
JDS: Maintaining a garden (and a home) is impossibly distracting! And cooking for a household is another enormous distraction. So—much as I love being there—I seem to get much more work done at my studio apartment, with its Parisian-sized itty bitty kitchen. And at the end of the day, I can just turn off the computer and go out and see so many interesting people and things. In the country, you have to make your own fun.
Cities in general are great places for people who don’t quite fit in elsewhere.
DL: Cities in general are great places for people who don’t quite fit in elsewhere. Paris is uniquely special because there is the French habit of not acknowledging things, at least not openly. There is sort of a “live and let live” attitude and Parisians generally give others a wide berth. (Some might say it’s because they are so busy thinking about themselves!) For example, I lived in the same apartment building for ten years and my neighbors barely spoke to me. You’ve lived in New York City a long time. How does that compare?
JDS: Much about NYC drives me crazy, but I do love its ethos of live and let live. Parisians share that ethos, I agree; so do Berliners. But both the French and the Germans are so culturally different from me that I don’t know if I could ever move to either city full-time.
DL: Like New York, and other cities, Paris can wear you down, too. So it’s not surprising to me that the writers in your book ultimately chose to leave the city, with some moving to other parts of France. The smaller towns and villages of la France Profonde (or, “deep France”) retain a certain charm and culture, and the people tend to be friendlier. Life is more laid back there. As a cook, I find the products are better, too—you’re closer to the farmers and producteurs.
If you were to move to anywhere in France, where would you live, and why?
JDS: If I were to set up again in Paris, I might actually live in Fontainebleau and commute—life is very beautiful down there. Elsewhere in France? I find Basse-Normandie ravishing, the food superb. I have often fantasized about living there, because it would put me within range of Paris and London, and keep me near the Ocean (that is, the Channel.). The upper Rhone is also amazing, and a gastronomic delight—but my partner is based in London and he likes rain and cold weather, so Normandy would be more his style. We’d need to be someplace that made us both happy.
You, meanwhile, have married a Frenchman—I bet that makes being there easier.
DL: We’re not married, but we’ve been together for nearly fifteen years. And yes, I feel a lot more connected to France now that I have a French family here.
After my year in France I’d never felt more like an American. But I loved so much about France, and I wanted to create a more French way of living in my “real life” back home.
JDS: Have you started to think of yourself as French, or to find that French ways make more sense to you? After my year in France I’d never felt more like an American. But I loved so much about France, and I wanted to create a more French way of living in my “real” life back home.
DL: It is wonderful to be able to experience another culture. Even though some of the experiences that I talk about in L’Appart weren’t as glorious as eating a croissant in a café or sampling dark chocolates, it’s all part of the mix. There were some wonderful things I learned about France that I explored in the book that might surprise people. Those kinds of things are what makes moving to a foreign country so thrilling. I’ve learned a lot about myself from living here, and I could tell from your book that your perspective was changed by living here, too.
JDS: It truly was!
Justin Spring is the author of the biographies: Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art and Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, the latter a finalist for the National Book Award. His writing on visual art includes monographs and museum catalogues, including Andy Warhol: Fame and Misfortune and Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude. He is a recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Leon Levy Center for Biography, and numerous universities.
David Lebovitz is a sought-after cooking instructor with an award-winning food blog (davidlebovitz.com). Trained as a pastry chef in France and Belgium, David worked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California for twelve years. He now lives in Paris, France, where he leads culinary tours of the city.