5 Questions for David Lebovitz: Spilled Milk #31
The American in Paris shares his favorite places in the City of Light.
Welcome to a new feature on Spilled Milk. On the regular you will find interviews we like to call 5 Questions for food focused friends of mine, some in the biz, some not. Enjoy.
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Want to know what’s happening in Paris? Ask David Lebovitz.
Twenty years ago, David, a veteran pastry chef who spent more than a decade working at Chez Panisse, did the thing most of us only dream about: Moved to Paris, launched a wildly successful blog, penned several cookbooks, and now writes one of my favorite Substack newsletters (get 20% off your subscription here). I asked him a few questions about food, cooking and what it’s like to live as an American in Paris.
Favorite childhood food memory?
It was my first baking experience. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but it was the first time my parents left me (and my sister) alone without a babysitter. Back in those days, we were given TV dinners to reheat, which were multi-course meals packaged (and reheated) in a foil tray, which had separate compartments for everything. (My favorite was fried chicken!) Back then, they were exotic and a little exciting as you could have a complete meatloaf or roast turkey dinner ready in a few minutes, with all the sides and even dessert.
For some reason, that night, I picked up my mom’s most-used cookbook, The Settlement Cookbook, and started leafing through the pages. I landed on a recipe for Chocolate Soufflé and noted that we had all the ingredients - baking chocolate, eggs, and butter - on hand. The instructions didn’t seem that hard so I melted the chocolate and butter as directed, and whipped and folded in the eggs. Lacking a soufflé dish, I put the mixture into Pyrex measuring cup to bake the soufflé in, and voilà - I’d made my first chocolate soufflé!
I’ll never forget how good it tasted after I plunged my spoon through the lofty, dark chocolate crust as it released a bit of encouraging steam, and pulled out a spoonful of the just-barely-set bittersweet chocolate soufflé. It was so good!
Favorite food city, and why?
I would say it’s a tie between San Francisco and Paris. Having cooked and baked professionally in San Francisco for decades, I’ve never seen a better place for produce than California. I was fortunate to work at Chez Panisse where we got the most spectacular fraises des bois (wild strawberries), Meyer lemons from neighbor’s trees, French butter pears, and inky, juicy mulberries. And at the farmer’s market, in the winter there might be six kinds of lemons and in the summer, there’d be apricot, pluots, sour cherries, fresh corn on the cob, and piles of gorgeous tomatoes. I developed a great love of produce there.
In Paris, we have outstanding bakeries on every corner, cheese shops with literally hundreds of the best cheeses in the world, and traditional and modern chocolate shops, that reflect both France’s adherence to tradition and offer classic chocolate ganaches, with others that tempt with a modern sensibility, using more audacious ingredients such yuzu, sesame brittle, curry, and herbs like lemon verbena.
In my neighborhood, there are five stellar bakeries - Graine, Chambelland, Maison Landemain, Fermentation Générale, and The French Bastards - within a block or two from my apartment. Each has its own specialty and I’m happy to have so many choices so close by.
I also love the outdoor markets. There are over a hundred of them in Paris and each has its own personality and speciality vendors. Everyone at my local market now knows me so I can pick out my own produce and they always greet me with a happy “Bonjour!” While there are great cheeses made elsewhere, none match the ones in France. I eat a lot of cheese because it’s just so good.
What’s your favorite restaurant in the place you call home, and why?
I know I’m supposed to reveal the name of an intimate hole-in-the-wall bistro, but our favorite place has only eight tables and I can barely get it as it is. (We do go to Aux Bons Crus, which is larger, so happy to reveal that one.) But to be honest, being from California, Asian cooking feels like home and The Hood serves authentic Singaporean food made with high-quality French ingredients.
Admittedly, I didn’t - and still don’t - know that much about Singaporean cuisine, since Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Vietnamese food gets most of the press. But I discovered Chicken Rice Lah, apparently a popular street food dish in Singapore, and the version at The Hood is amazing. The rice is cooked with pandan and ginger, and served with farm-raised chicken, homemade Sriracha sauce, and garlic paste. I know the whole staff by name - so yes, it’s home.
What pastry or baking recipe do you think every person should have in their back pocket?
It may sound too simple, but it’d be brownies. They really are the perfect dessert. Made with ingredients you likely have on hand, mixed together in one pan or pot, baked in a standard square pan, and ready in 30 minutes, it’s hard to go wrong with brownies. For a fancier presentation, top them with ice cream (coffee is my favorite…) or another favorite flavor, a scattering of salted candied almonds, and a pool of dark chocolate sauce.
What’s the one food or beverage you panic about running low on?
That’s a very long list, but I would say chocolate. (Which seems to be a recurring theme in this interview!) During the pandemic, French people, especially those stuck at home with kids, went on baking benders, and flour, sugar, and chocolate were in short supply, as was chocolate. Consequently, my biggest fear; running out of chocolate, came true. Fortunately, I texted a local bakery owner and he gave me a few pounds of baking chocolate. I tried to pay him but he waved me away and said, “You can make my family some ice cream when this is over.”
Frankly, no one knew when it was going to be over (...and is it over yet?!) and I must have looked extra-panicked when he said that, not to mention the idea of making ice cream for an esteemed French pâtissier. He laughed and said, “I’m just kidding.”
When it was over, I did make him ice cream, but forgot he had small kids at home and put a decent-sized shot of rum in it. I apologized over text after I gave it to him but a few hours later, he sent me a picture of his kids devouring the ice cream, saying the small amount of rum didn’t deter them.
I am coming to dinner at your house, what are you making?
I did have the pleasure to cook with you, Andrew, in a French chateau, back in 2008. I remember you made a spectacular meal that involved some abbats (innards) as well as a fresh fish ceviche-like dish, as the French are very fond of fresh fish served in its natural state.
My meal wouldn’t be that fancy, as I live in a loft (and old metal shop), not a castle. Knowing how much you like and appreciate simple, regional home cooking, I’d make Parisian Gnocchi. It’s not very well-known outside of France and is something you’d never see on a restaurant menu here, but everybody loves it. It’s puffs of pâte à choux baked under a blanket of cheese sauce and gratinéed with a little extra cheese on top so it’s well-browned and crunchy when it comes out of the oven. I know you’ve love it too!
David Lebovitz cooked and baked professionally most of his life, including thirteen years in the kitchen at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. He moved to Paris twenty years ago and is the author of nine books, including two memoirs about his life in Paris which are in development for a television series, as well as penning The Perfect Scoop, the bestselling guide to making ice cream at home, and My Paris Kitchen, featuring David's recipes and stories from his home in Paris.
David started his popular blog, DavidLebovitz.com in 1999, and now writes his newsletter on Substack.