Authors: David Lebovitz
Tags: #Travel, #Essays & Travelogues
Room for Dessert
Ripe for Dessert
The Great Book of Chocolate
The Perfect Scoop
The last thing I thought while frantically cramming everything I owned into a couple of suitcases was that I’d ever write a book about my life to come in Paris. But as I acclimated to my new home, I started writing about Paris, turning my Web site into a blog, chronicling my travails (which included learning to live by arcane rules and rituals that haven’t changed for centuries), meeting a lot of marvelous people, and most important, discovering an abundance of wonderful things to eat along the way.
Many of my French friends and readers enjoyed and commented on my observations, which were always written with humor and in the spirit of goodwill, even when critical. Despite what many tourists think, Paris is not a museum; it’s a big city with flaws just like any other major metropolis, and any frustrations and negative impressions I encountered are balanced by my love for the city and its people.
Well, most of them.
Thanks go to all who helped smooth out the rough edges and who contributed something special to my life in Paris: Gideon Ben-Ami, Paul Bennett, Lani Bevaqua, Anne Block, Randal Breski, Cliff Colvin, Lewis Fomon, Julie Getzlaff, Rik Gitlin, Mara Goldberg, Dorie Greenspan, Jeanette Hermann, Kate Hill, Dianne Jacob, David Lindsay, Susan Herrmann Loomis, Nancy Meyers,
Pellas, John Reuling, Mort Rosenblum,
Lauren Seaver, Heather Stimmler-Hall, David Tanis, and Claude and Jackie Thonat.
Much gratitude goes out to my virtual friends, who became real-life pals along the way. There are way too many to mention here, but I would especially like to
Shauna James Ahern, Matt Armendariz, Elise Bauer, Sam Breach, Louisa Chu, Michèle Delevoie, Clotilde Dusoulier, Brett Emerson, Keiko Oikawa, Béatrice Peltre, Deb Perelman, Adam Roberts, Derrick Schneider, Amy Sherman, Nicky Stich and Oliver Seidel, Susan Thomas, Heidi Swanson, Pim Techamaunvivit, Pascale Weeks, and Luisa Weiss.
kudos to Cindy Meyers for being the tester
extraordinaire aux États-Unis.
And to Carrie Brown of the Jimtown Store in Healdsburg, California, Gérard Cocaign, Meg Cutts, Rosa Jackson, Marion Levy, and Thérèse Pellas for sharing recipes.
Special thanks to Romain Pellas who, even though he didn’t always understand what I was saying, somehow understood me anyway.
Many thanks go to the shopkeepers and artisans in Paris who have gone out of their way to be helpful to me, sharing their craft and knowledge: Jean-Claude Thomas at G. Detou, Régis Dion of Tradition Guérande, chocolatier Jean-Charles Rochoux, and Corinne Roger at Patrick Roger chocolatier.
at Paris Pêche who patiently tried to teach me how to fillet fish. And apologies to the customers who, when they got home, found a badly mangled scrap of fish when they were expecting a nicely trimmed fillet.
To my agent Fred Hill and his associate, Bonnie Nadell, for their amazing support and moxie. To editorial assistant Anne Chagnot for making sure everything was in the right place, and editor Jennifer Josephy who told me, “Be yourself!” but didn’t realize what she was getting into. And to Charlie Conrad for steering the book home.
I’d also like to thank the people who read my writings, left comments that made me laugh, and followed along while I began a new life in Paris. To all of you who said that I should write a book about Paris—here it is!
I distinctly remember the exact moment when I became Parisian. It wasn’t the moment when I found myself seriously considering buying dress socks with goofy cartoon characters on them. Nor was it the time I went to my bank with €135 in hand to make a payment for €134, and thought it completely normal when the teller told me that the bank didn’t have any change that day.
And I’m sure it wasn’t when I ran into the fifty-something receptionist from my doctor’s office sunbathing topless by the Seine,
à la française
, and I didn’t avert my eyes (much as I wanted to).
It wasn’t when my shoulder bag caught the sweater of a young boy in La Maison du Chocolat and, as it started to unravel, I ignored his woeful cries.
“C’est pas ma faute!”
I reasoned to myself before walking away. After all, who in their right mind would wear a sweater to a chocolate shop, anyway?
It could have been the moment when I listened intently as two Parisian friends explained to me why the French are so determined to clip the pointed tips off
before cooking them. Was it because that’s where the radiation collects in the green beans, as one person insisted? Or was it to prevent the little points from getting stuck in your teeth, which the other one assured me would happen? Even though I didn’t remember ever getting a string bean end lodged between my teeth, nor did I think radiation had the ability to slide around in vegetables, I found myself nodding in agreement.
No, the exact moment happened just a few months after I’d arrived in Paris. I was spending a lazy Sunday in my apartment lounging around in faded sweatpants and a loose, tattered sweatshirt, my ideal outfit for doing nothing in particular. By late afternoon, I’d finally mustered the energy to take the elevator downstairs to the inner courtyard of my apartment building to empty the garbage.
With the elevator door exactly three steps from my front door and the garbage room just five steps from the elevator landing at the bottom, the trip involves basically four movements—walk out the door, take the elevator down, dump the garbage, and go back up.
The whole process should take maybe forty-five seconds.
So I extracted myself from the sofa, shaved, changed into a pair of real pants, tucked in a clean wrinkle-free shirt, and slipped on a pair of shoes and socks before heading toward the door with my little plastic
God forbid I should run into someone from my building while wearing my Sunday worst.
, was when I realized I had become Parisian.
The unspoken rule if you plan to live here—but equally good to adopt even if you’re just coming for a visit—is knowing that you’re going to be judged on how you look and how you present yourself. Yes, even if you’re just dumping your garbage. You don’t want anyone else, such as a neighbor (or worse, one of those garbagemen in their nifty green outfits), to think you’re a slob, do you?
Since only 20 percent of Americans have passports, we don’t get out as much as we should, and our dealings with foreigners are usually on our own turf where they have to play by our rules. We’re not so good at adapting to others, since we’re rarely in a position that requires us to do it. I’ve heard a variety of complaints from visitors (and uttered a few myself) expecting things to be like they are back home: “Why don’t they have doggie bags?” “How come there’s no ice?” “Why can’t I pick something up off the store shelf?” or “Why is our waiter flirting with those Swedish girls and having a cigarette when we asked for our check over thirty minutes ago?”
I wonder why when we travel outside the United States we expect people to behave like Americans—even in their own country. Think about it for a minute: how many waiters, taxi drivers, hotel clerks, shopkeepers, and others in your hometown could or would respond to a French person who spoke only French? If you don’t speak French and have traveled to Paris, you were probably helped by a number of people who speak pretty good English. And almost all Europeans coming to our shores make it a point to adapt to our customs. Well, almost all. Don’t ask a waiter who’s just been stiffed on his 18 percent tip.
Every culture has certain rules. In America for some unknown reason, you can’t get wine at fast-food restaurants, and spending a few minutes digging deeply inside your nose on public transit is frowned upon. In Paris, the rules dictate one shouldn’t dress in grungy jeans and a ripped T-shirt,
unless it says “Let’s Sex!… NOW!” painted in gold lettering across the front. To life in a foreign country you need to learn the rules, especially if you plan to stay. And I had to learn plenty.
Like so many other people, I dreamed about living in Paris ever since my first visit in the ‘80s, during that rite of passage every American student fresh out of college used to embark upon, before kids decided it was less of a hassle to explore the world with RAM rather than a Railpass. Why bother getting lost in the labyrinth of historic cities, dining on regional delicacies, sleeping with total strangers in youth hostels, and soaping up in communal showers with a team of Italian soccer players? Yes, I suppose it’s far better to stay home and experience Europe though a computer screen. But back then, I had quite a time doing most of those things. (I’ll leave it to your imagination to guess which ones.)
But explore I did. I spent almost a year traipsing around the continent after college doing nothing in particular except learning about European cultures, primarily by pulling up a stool or chair and eating what the locals ate. During that time, I made it through almost every country in Europe and tried whatever local delicacies were to be had: oozing raw-milk cheeses in France and hearty, grain-packed breads in Germany; Belgian milk chocolates that when sniffed, could transport you to a dairy farm in the countryside; and crispy-skin fish grilled over gnarled branches in the souks of Istanbul. And of course, lots of buttery pastries and crusty breads smeared with plenty of golden-yellow butter in Paris, the likes of which I’d never tasted before.
After months of criss-crossing Europe, in the need of a good, deep scrubbing and a proper haircut to rein in my unruly mop of curls (which definitely earned me the term dirty blond), I eventually ran out of steam—and money—and returned to the States. During the carefree time I’d spent traipsing from country to country, I hadn’t given any thought to my future and what I’d do after I returned. Why spoil the fun? Back in America, after
seeing a world outside of our sometimes isolating borders, I didn’t quite know where I would fit in and hadn’t a clue as to where to go or what to do with my life.
I’d read about “California cuisine,” which was a new and exciting concept just emerging back then. And something to do with food seemed like an interesting option, since I didn’t see Europe through my eyes, but my stomach. Everything I’d tasted was a far cry from my college days, when I worked at a vegetarian restaurant ladling out peanut butter-thickened soups and dishing up desserts made by our long-haired baker, who added his own unique touches to anything he baked. In fact, I can still smell his fruit cobblers filled with apples and kidney beans, baked and scented with his signature handful of cumin, which gave them a distinctly unpleasant odor.
On second thought, that might have been him.
Fortunately, the European style of cooking was gaining a foothold in northern California, and there was a new appreciation for fine foods and cooking
buying locally produced foods at their peak of freshness, which was a daily ritual in Europe. It seemed like common sense to me, and simply the right way to eat. So I packed up and moved to San Francisco, just across the bay from Berkeley, where an exciting culinary revolution was simmering. And I hoped cumin-scented desserts weren’t a part of it.
Shopping the outdoor markets of the Bay Area, I discovered farmers who were raising things like blood oranges with tangy, wildly colored juices and tight bunches of deep-violet radicchio, which people at the time assumed were runty heads of cabbage. Laura Chenel was producing European-style moist rounds of fresh goat cheese in Sonoma, which were so unfamiliar that Americans were mistaking them for tofu (especially in Berkeley). And viticulturists in Napa Valley were producing hearty wines, like Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, which had a great affinity for the newly celebrated regional cuisine, which was liberally seasoned with lots of fragrant garlic, branches of rosemary and thyme, and drizzled with locally pressed olive oil—a big improvement over the bland “salad oil” I grew up with.
I was thrilled—no,
—to find the culinary counterparts to everything I had eaten in Europe. I savored the hand-dipped ultrafine chocolates of Alice Medrich at Cocolat, which rivaled those I had swooned over in swanky French chocolate boutiques. I’d line up daily for a
pain au levain
that Steve Sullivan would pull out of his fired-up brick oven every morning over at Acme Bread, and was ecstatic to find many of the pungent cheeses I remembered so fondly from Europe stacked up at the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley, just across from Chez Panisse.
Since I believed that if I was really going to pursue a restaurant career I should start at the top, I applied for a job at Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters was leading this culinary revolution I wanted to enlist in. I sent a letter to the restaurant, waited a few weeks, and got no response. Despite the lack of acknowledgment or enthusiasm on their part, I presented myself at the now-famous redwood archway, ready to embark on my lifelong career as a chef. I marched inside, where a busy waiter, who was rushing by holding a tray of wineglasses and wearing a white shirt, tie, and long apron, looking remarkably like a
in Paris, pointed me toward the bright kitchen in the back of the dining room.
The kitchen staff was working at full throttle. Some were maniacally rolling out ultrathin, nearly transparent sheets of pasta. Others were painstakingly trimming carrots tinier than a baby’s pinky, their peelers thwacking against the countertop at warp speed, spewing bright orange curlicues, then tossing each denuded root into a stainless steel bin with a little plunk before seamlessly moving on to the next one.
One cook was busy layering moist rounds of goat cheese in well-worn earthenware crocks, ripping apart bunches of thyme and layering them between whole cloves of garlic and pinelike branches of rosemary. In the back, I noticed some women intently guarding the oven doors, checking inside every few moments. I had no idea at the time that they were scrupulously watching the progress of Lindsey Shere’s famous almond tarts—making sure they didn’t cook a second too long and were taken out just when they reached their precise degree of caramelization.
I went over to speak with the chef, who was at the epicenter of it all, directing
the chaos around her. Overwhelmed by it all, I asked in my most timid voice if there was any possibility…any way at all…she could perhaps find a place for me at Chez Panisse—the Greatest Restaurant in America.