By Joe Yonan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
PARIS -- One taste of the caramelized white chocolate ice cream he has just pulled from the freezer, and David Lebovitz has an opinion: "I think it's missing something. Ginger? No. Kirsch? No. Baileys? Would that be weird?"
The base of his dessert is white chocolate that he has slowly baked and stirred until it turned into something like a nutty dulce de leche. Maybe he should flake some of it on top of the ice cream? That doesn't quite do it. Chopped dark chocolate? Nah. The eventual answer: smoked sea salt.
"This is what I do all day," Lebovitz says in his kitchen, whose salts and oils and flours and nuts have taken over most of his little apartment near the Bastille. "People say, 'I want your job.' Well, this is the fun part. Some of it is not so much fun."
Actually, it all looks pretty fun from the outside, at least if you read Lebovitz's quirky blog (http://www.davidlebovitz.com), his thousands of tweets or his recent memoir-with-recipes, "The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious -- and Perplexing -- City" (Broadway Books, 2009). With a wry wit evocative of David Sedaris ("except that he's an actual writer, and I'm not"), this former Chez Panisse pastry chef brings a curmudgeonly voice to his attempts to translate French culture, food and otherwise, for Americans.
Show him a tourist blinded by the City of Light, and he'll show you someone who needs to be set straight. The city is so clean, they say. But you almost stepped in dog doo, he'll say. The cafe culture is so rich, they say. But the coffee itself is horrific, he'll say.
The retorts don't mean he doesn't love Paris, where he has lived since moving from San Francisco in 2002 after the death of his partner. On the contrary, he's enthralled. But he wants people to love the city for what it is, not for what they want it to be.
"The image people have of my life in Paris," he writes in his book, "is that each fabulous day begins with a trip to the bakery for my morning croissant, which I eat while catching up with the current events by reading Le Monde at my corner cafe. (The beret is optional.) Then I spend the rest of my day discussing Sartre over in the Latin Quarter or strolling the halls of the Louvre with a sketchpad, ending with my sunset ascent to the Eiffel Tower before heading to one of the Michelin three-star restaurants for an extravagant dinner. Later, after toasting the day with glasses of Cognac in the lounge at the George V, I stroll along the Seine until I'm finally home, when I tuck myself into bed to rest up for the next day."
The truth is, Lebovitz, 50, spends a good deal of time at home, testing recipes or writing his blog or Twittering at 6,000-plus followers with 140-character dispatches that are sometimes about food ("The frittata I had big plans of making and eat for lunch turned into a bowl of cherries") and sometimes not ("I spent the whole day trying to spend some time alone. And now that I'm finally alone, I'm kinda bored"). Along with the blog, where his posts regularly draw 70 or 80 comments, Twitter serves to keep him connected with colleagues and fans in the United States while also suiting his stream-of-consciousness, short-attention-span way of thinking.
"I'm not the king of social media or anything, but these little bits are perfect for me," he says. "What used to be called a vignette is now just another term for 'blog entry.' "
Lebovitz, who has written such highly praised cookbooks as "The Perfect Scoop" (Ten Speed Press, 2007), is now among the most-read food bloggers around. In a ranking of baking blogs that factors in more than 20 criteria, including RSS feed subscriptions, incoming links and unique monthly visitors, Invesp Consulting puts Lebovitz's at No. 1. And that has changed the way he works: "It used to be, when I developed a really great recipe, I thought, I'll save this for the next book. Now I put it on the blog, because there are so many more readers."
On his blog, "Living the Sweet Life in Paris," a story precedes each recipe, such as his tale of high-altitude baking with Mormons in Salt Lake City (with chocolate-covered salted peanut caramel cups) or a weekend spent with a media trainer (with rhubarb-berry jam). "The thing is, I'm not a food writer, so I can't say the chocolate is 'unctuous,' " he says about a chapter in his book on working in a chocolate shop. "So instead, I write about the complicated scale that I had to weigh the chocolates on."
The blog also chronicles Lebovitz's restaurant visits with friends and with boyfriend Romain, and the shopping required for his recipe exploits. He shops at his favorite outdoor markets -- where the produce is just as likely to be from Spain, Florida or Thailand as from France, by the way -- and at fromageries, boulangeries and the occasional Franprix supermarket, when he can't help it.
In seven years, he has found himself becoming more and more Parisian, perfecting the time-honored practice of cutting in line at the market or store (tip: always have exact change) and dressing for every occasion, such as taking out the garbage (you never know who might see you).
Lebovitz leads regular culinary tours of Paris, and he seems to particularly relish showing visitors -- respectful ones, preferably -- the joys of the modern city, rather than the idealized, tradition-bound Paris of their imaginations. And while he tries to teach Americans about food-shopping etiquette here, he also has counseled French shopkeepers on how best to woo Americans (tip: hand out samples).
On a Thursday in June when he showed me his favorite purveyors at the Bastille market, the first stop was for a tapenade made with Provencal olives. It is so good Lebovitz stopped making his own. The olive man, whom Lebovitz knows only as Jacques, "has really taught me so much about Provencal food," Lebovitz says. For instance: The term "tapenade" refers to capers, "so traditionally you can't make tapenade without capers."
For someone who can project wisecracking cynicism, Lebovitz also gets honestly excited about the best food in the city. He points at Jacques's array of picholine, Lucques and other gleaming olives and says, "People ask me, 'Why do you live in France?' and I say, 'Look.' "
At a fruit stand nearby, the wiry, balding Lebovitz picks out Spanish apricots. Back at his apartment, he quickly throws together a clafouti, that simple French dish of fruit suspended in something between custard and cake. He butters a white gratin dish, washes the apricots and some raspberries, then whirs together a batter in a blender. He pours it over the fruit in the dish, bakes it, then sprinkles coarse sugar on top and bakes it a little more. Once the clafouti has cooled a bit, Lebovitz and I taste it: The baked apricots have become more tart, which makes the sweet sponge enrobing them all the more delicious.
Later, Lebovitz takes me to one of his favorite places, Breizh Cafe, which makes perfect buckwheat crepes. "I try not to tell people about it, but I just can't help it," he says, remembering the blog post he wrote. And sure enough, just as we're leaving, a young American woman gets his attention: "I'm sorry, David, is that you? I just love your blog." The woman, Bess MacInnes, lives in Holland and is vacationing in Paris with her sister. She holds up a printout from the blog's "My Paris" page, and says, "I was just reading about this place."
Lebovitz turns to me and says, "I didn't plant them. I swear."