q & a
I just returned from a four-week book tour where I met a lot of people. Everyone was incredibly nice and it was a treat, although because of the nature of the events, it wasn’t possible to spend lots of one-on-one time with anyone – including myself. However, I tried to answer as many questions as possible. The most frequently asked questions were; “Where have you been?” “Where are you going?” and, curiously, “When you are leaving?” I’ll assume the last one was people just being polite. (I hope!)
Another popular question was about mes bonnes adresses in Paris, or favorite places to eat. While I update the list on the My Paris page regularly, and there are more complete descriptions in the Paris restaurant category on the site, I suspect people thought I was holding out on them. (I swear, I’m not! – well, maybe one or two…but I have my reasons…) I was also interested in how many people were coming to Paris in the near future, which may explain the rise in airfares this summer, which are preventing us from going to Cape Cod and having a lobster, steamer clam, beer, and corn-on-the-cob fest.
At a particularly well-attended talk in New York City, we took questions on index cards to make things easier all around. Time didn’t permit me to get to every one of them. I said I’d answer the rest on my site when I got back. And because I am a man of my word, here they are:
What bistros would you recommend to someone visiting Paris today?
DL: Classic bistros in Paris are not as common as they once were, as styles of eating have changed and younger people are less interested in bistro fare. Places that still do a good job are Astier, A la Biche au Bois, Le Trumilou, and L’Européen, the latter being across from the Gare de Lyon, and is a fun place to go for oysters at the counter after a train trip. It always feels very Parisian to me.
Favorite place for breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Paris?
DL: Parisians don’t really go out for breakfast. If they do, it’s to the corner café for coffee and a croissant, pain au chocolat, or a length of baguette with butter and jam. (However le Brunch has become pretty popular on weekends. Especially in the hipper, or more “bobo” neighborhoods.) I don’t go out for brunch because I worked in restaurants most of my life and it’s not relaxing to be around people who have to work on Sunday mornings, because I feel for them. Plus I’m not really interested in eggs Benedict, and other dishes that show up on brunch menus.
That said, I recently had a stellar breakfast in Paris (albeit at 11:45am, and not on Sunday) at Holybelly, which boasts fresh food, great coffee, and friendly service. However, it can get crowded as the day progresses, so it’s a good place to go early, if you’re the kind of people (unlike me) that does well around other people in the early hours. Although it’s a chain that’s expanded Le Pain Quotidien does a good job, and I like their casual style of eating, with breads, butter, and an array of spreads. (Although I always keep my eyes open, because I’ve seen people lick their knives, then dip them back into the communal jars.)
For lunch, I would choose Septime. The reason I choose them is not only because the food is excellent, but unless you’ve reserved eons in advance, it’s impossible to get in for dinner. Lunch seems to be your best bet. In addition, you can reserve a table online. So that’s my choice.
For dinner, it’s hard to say where I would send someone. Often people ask me, and I say, “What neighborhood?”, I also want to ask about other factors, such as price range, cuisine, and comfort level with traveling to various parts of Paris on their own. Many people want to go to places “off the beaten path”, and/or places with “no tourists,” which is a challenge because in a city like Paris, any place that is good, is quickly discovered and shared. So there are no secrets. (I recently had a fun time at Café Léon. The food is fine – although certainly not “gourmet,” the service is friendly, the prices reasonable, and it’s definitely off the beaten path. I’m fine walking around there, but I’m not sure how comfortable visitors would be wandering the streets of the Goutte d’Or at night.) The best bet is to check the My Paris page as there are a variety of places listed in all categories, cuisines, and price ranges.
Besides your own cookbooks (of course), what are your favorites, and which do you consider essential if you could only take one to a desert island?
DL: I like anything by Alice Medrich, because she’s one of the few people who likes chocolate more than I do. And we did an event together and I finally told the crowd the story of how, when I started at Chez Panisse, I used to stop into her bakery, Cocolat, before my shift and get a chocolate truffle. Those dark, round nuggets introduced me to the world of top-quality bittersweet chocolate. Years later, my first book was nominated for a cookbook award and she was the presenter in my category. I was hoping to win, because I wanted to give a speech about how my pastry life had come full circle, having been introduced to good chocolate by Alice, then ending up receiving a baking book award from her. I didn’t win, but I got a chance to recount the story at an event that we did together on this trip, nearly fifteen years later. So there are second chances!
Speaking of Chez Panisse, I like all of the books, because they are ingredient-driven, which is the way I like to cook. And I’ve been taken by the books by Yotam Ottolenghi. But if I had to whittle down my favorite cookbook, I’d say the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, since it’s about all the kinds of food I like to eat. It’s beautifully written, and I learn something from every sentence in that book.
Do pasteurized eggs works the same way as regular eggs in dessert and baking recipes?
DL: I’ve not used pasteurized eggs so I can’t say. But I have used pasteurized egg whites and have had trouble whipping them, which I found out the hard way during a demonstration as I watched a bowl of egg whites get slapped around the bowl of a stand mixer for about ten minutes, doing nothing but getting a little frothy. If you use them, and plan to whip them, check the container; they should note whether they are suitable for whipping. If you’re concerned about salmonella, some say that buying your eggs from a trusted source can reduce the risk. But for folks with health issues, there is always a risk. And in those cases, raw eggs should probably be avoided.
You say that food brings joy because there are stories that tag along with each recipe. What would you say is a recipe that brings you the happiest moment/time?
DL: I would say churning ice cream. It’s such an interesting process. You transform basic ingredients; milk, sugar, cream, and eggs, then churn them up to become something greater than the parts, that is – ice cream. I like all kinds of ice cream, although I think my favorite flavors are coffee and chocolate (at least at the moment), as well as mint chip, caramel, rum-raisin, and fudge ripple. And toasted coconut, especially with chocolate sauce.
What is your absolute favorite dessert: American and Parisian?
DL: For Americans desserts, I’d say Rocky Road. I am really crazy for chocolate-covered marshmallows. Add in some nuts, and it’s a combination that’s even harder to beat. (Although I’m really into black & white cookies as well.) In fact, I like it so much that I made a batch as soon as I came back from this trip! (Photo above, and the recipe and instructions appear in The Great Book of Chocolate.)
My favorite French pastry is the chocolate éclair. When done right, you get a rich, bittersweet chocolate cream encased in a crispy pastry shell, painted with a stripe of chocolate on top. J’adore ça.
How can you cook and eat such great stuff and stay so slim?
DL: I often put photos on Instagram of cakes, tarts, and wheels of cheese, and find it amusing that people wonder how I eat all that food. I guess they think I eat the whole thing by myself! But I’m not eating the whole thing, just a piece or part of a cake or wedge of cheese, shared with friends.
I do need to be careful what I eat because I am around food all the time. In fact, I came back from this trip with two full boxes of chocolates that people had given me to try. While I would happily gorge myself on all of them, I need to exert some self-restraint because, like cocktails, while I love ’em, if I ate them all in one sitting – or even over the course of a week – I don’t think I’d feel (or look) very well. When I left the restaurant business, I had to teach myself to eat moderately because I was eating anything that came my way. And once I hit forty, I noticed I started expanding in certain places. As a bonus, here’s a picture of me back in the 80’s!
The key is when you said “great” stuff. I don’t eat crap. I try to stick to eating “real” food, meaning that I don’t buy prepackaged foods and I don’t eat junk food. I rarely drink soda. If I want a hamburger, I go to a place that does them well. I don’t go to a fast-food chain for one as I don’t like what they put in their food. I don’t demonize any particular food group, I eat moderate portions, and I avoid overeating, because I don’t like the way it makes me feel. I also exercise a few times a week, plus I ride my bike as much as possible in Paris. For more information, check out How I Eat.
What was the most valuable things that you learned at Chez Panisse?
DL: The main thing was quality. The owners of the restaurant spared no expense on ingredients, supporting local farmers and growers, and the price that was paid for ingredients was rarely an issue. That said, good ingredients aren’t necessarily the most expensive. So tasting and evaluating things was and important part of our job as cooks there. So the other valuable thing I learned at Chez Panisse is taking care when cooking. I don’t understand why people open restaurants or food-oriented establishments and don’t do a good job. If that’s your métier, as they say in French, you should be good at it, or at least take care (and pride) in what you do. And while not everyone is a highly skilled cook, using good ingredients and – very important – tasting everything, is incredibly important, especially if people are paying you for it. When I worked at Chez Panisse, before service, all the cooks would share the plates of food and give feedback to each other, noting when something might need salt, or need another ingredient, or need to be simplified. It drives me bonkers when I go out to eat and the food isn’t good. I always want to take the plate back to the kitchen and ask, “Did anyone taste this?”
What American food do you sill have left on your to-eat list? (On this particular trip to the States.)
DL: Most of them are in San Francisco, so I ticked them off my list already when I was there the previous week (before this talk). So I had burritos, chips and guacamole, homemade tortillas, bean-to-bar chocolates, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean food, as well as cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies (from b. patisserie), toast at Josey Baker’s place, and an excellent lunch at Bouli Bar, which sort of defies description.
(Just a note: You can forget what I said a few questions up about eating in “moderation,” at least on trips to San Francisco.)
I got my bagel fix in New York (and elsewhere, since great bagels seem to be just as available outside of the city as in it), but when I got to the airport, one of the restaurants had slices of pizza with pepperoni on them. I didn’t realize how much I missed pepperoni until a while back, a French reader wrote to me and said that pepperoni was one of the things he missed from America. So I had to add that to my to-eat list, although I have to say, I wish I had had a slice somewhere better than at La Guardia airport.
What are you hoarding to bring back to Paris?
DL: On this trip, since it’s a book tour, I’m traveling with a carry-on because I sometimes travel daily. And in addition to the speed with which I get out of the airport, I don’t have to worry about my luggage getting lost. (That would be a catastrophe!) But that also means that I can’t take many things, including liquids, since my bag is already full. I did get a French friend a stainless-steel Oxo squeegee (or raclette) because I promised her, which caused some head scratching by the TSA agents manning the metal scanning screens.
That said, I shipped a few things forward to my last stop, in Washington, DC, where my trip ends up. And I brought back as much of the chocolate as I could, as well as some homemade jellies, honey cultivated in New York City. Or to be more precise, West 68th Street.
What do you crave in Paris that you can’t find here? (In America.)
DL: Cheese. While you can get excellent cheeses in the States (one of my favorites was a Valencay – which Ivy made at home, and I had great cheeses made by the dashing fellows at Firefly Farms) there are certain cheeses, like Camembert du Normandie and Brie de Meaux, that just don’t have an equal here. (Although I had a French camembert that was exactly as good as the ones in France, at The Pasta Shop, in BerkeIey.) I also miss salted butter, the kind with the coarse crystals of salt kneaded in. A few places on this trip to the U.S. were offering butter with wisps of sea salt sprinkled over the top, to spread on bread, like the excellent République in Los Angeles. And I hope that’s a trend that continues.
Can you tell me the reason that coarse sea salt is gray, and why fleur de sel is so white?
DL: Gray salt gets it color from the minerals in the clay or soil that lines the salt marshes. However, some say that it also gets its color from being bulldozed for harvesting, and the color comes from the machinery. But I don’t believe it. Fleur de sel is pure white because it doesn’t come in contact with the earth; it collects on the top of the water of the salt marshes, where it gets harvested with paludiers wooden rakes.
What is your next baking challenge?
DL: I want to make toasted marshmallow ice cream. I’ve had some that were fine, but none have been truly exceptional. (No offense to anyone. There are probably great ones out there. But I haven’t had one – yet.) So I want to give it a try. Hmm, maybe I should’ve doubled up on that marshmallow recipe I made for that homemade Rocky Road?
What are your thoughts about molecular gastronomy? Have you tried any of it?
DL: A few years ago, I read through a copy of the Alinea book, named for the restaurant in Chicago where Grant Achatz does his own take on molecular gastronomy, and wanted to give it a try. While it’s easy to dismiss it as “not real cooking,” I was curious, because things like baking powder, dry active yeast, and even gelatin, could be seen as molecular gastronomy. And now we think of them as normal.
I made the dry caramel in the book, and while I liked it, the recipe wasn’t something I was going to be adding to my repertoire. I think time will tell how much of that remains – and young chefs in Paris seem to still be captivated by foam – so not sure it’s time to put it out to pasture quite yet. In cooking, I think the focus needs to be on flavor. But if there are interesting ways to coax it out, or represent it, then I think they have merit. I wrote a little more about it at Molecular Gastronomy and Playing with Powder.
What would your advice be to someone just starting out in the food business?
DL: Work really hard, and only work with very good people. I’ve found that people who are very good at what they do will not have an ego about it and will be happy to show others how to do it. Try to work in the best places that you can, ones that remain ingredient focused. That’s the base of good cooking and baking. Learning techniques is important, but making a great, simple green salad is more important than learning how to construct a plate with fourteen different ingredients, that doesn’t taste very good.
Is there anything that you learned the hard way?
DL: Get it in writing.
The Sweet Life in Paris was my source of light and joy during superstorm Sandy. I read it by candlelight. How much fun did you have writing it?
DL: It was interesting writing that book and certainly fun to compile all those stories. I’d never thought about writing about myself, and had always written recipes and headnotes for cookbooks. After I moved to Paris, and began writing about things other than food on my blog, quite a number of people said I should write a book about my life in Paris – and wanted to know more about my story, of how I ended up here. Writing a memoir is interesting because you’re writing about yourself in a certain place and time. I started writing the book just a few years after I moved to Paris and I was at a different place in my life.
It was the first time I had lived in a foreign country and I found a lot of the differences funny, but some were perplexing to me. (I also learned that the locals are sometimes perplexed, too – which they shrug off with a “C’est comme ça,” or “That’s just how it is.”) So many people have written about Paris, and life on the Left Bank or more well-visited sides of Paris, describing the beautiful monuments, museums, chic people, and shops. That’s great, but it’s a different life from mine. I live on the other side of town, where there’s more grit. And dog poop. And cigarette butts.
But I found all those things more interesting subjects to write about since Paris, like any city, has a lot of different sides. And I found the quirks of Paris at times challenging, and other times amusing. Many things, I laughed at…at my own expense. (I’m still wondering – what was I thinking working at a fish market?) I think it’s okay to laugh at silly things that one does. As you learned during the superstorm Sandy, there are things that are much more grave in this world. So why not find humor where we can?
Are you a storyteller who uses cooking as a medium? Or cook who loves narrative?
DL: I definitely started out being a more recipe-forward cookbook author, rather than a storyteller. But with the blog, I’ve enjoyed telling the story around the food and recipes. I love talking about why I picked up an ingredient at the market, what made me try a recipe, how I came up with a dish, or to talk about situations around cooking or eating it. While food and recipes are interesting, with so many recipes out there, I think the stories are what differentiates them all. Now I like writing as much as I like baking and cooking, so I am much more interested in the narrative than I used to be.
Do you agree with Julia Child, who said “A party without a cake is just a meeting”?
DL: Ha! Good one, Madame Child. Although one could replace the word “cake” with “cocktails,” “ribs,” “chips and guacamole,” or “wine and cheese,” and still have a pretty good party.
What was the event that made you feel you were accepted into the Paris food community?
DL: To be honest, when I arrived a lot of people assumed that I didn’t know anything about food, which I think used to be a common perception about Americans. I think that’s changed with all the media attention given to what’s happened in the U.S., and many people have gone to the States and seen what’s happened. Since I was pretty well versed in French cuisine, and familiar (and appreciative) of it, I could talk knowledgeably about it. That helped, especially when meeting chocolatiers and pastry chefs. (We’re all kind of a secret club, y’know.)
I also have to say that the French food bloggers I’ve met are all very nice, open people. And there is mutual appreciation, like bakers have for each other, since we’re all doing our own thing, in our own way.
What have you noticed that has changed the most about Americans’ tastes since you moved to Paris?
DL: The DIY thing has really been dialed up and in major cities people seem to be dramatically more interested in things that are locally made or grown.
Aside from Paris, were else in Europe would you want to live?
Do you ever run into Ina Garten in Paris?
DL: I saw her once when I was having lunch at Cuisine du Bar, and she walked by on her way out. I was a bit stunned when I realized it was her, and she kind of looked in my direction as she continued hurrying out. I think I may have scared her.
What do you think about the changes in the food scene in the U.S. and France in the past ten years?
DL: I think American cuisine changed a lot in the last few decades. Farmers’ markets have exploded in popularity, and at airports I saw things like kale salads, fire-roasted pizzas (made in the airport!), and excellent Mexican fare on offer. It’s one example of the remarkable transformation in the States. In France, the younger generation of chefs are experimenting with new techniques, while scouring the markets for things like légumes oubliés (forgotten vegetables), and opening more casual eateries. There’s also a focus on expanding “fast foods,” meaning a dramatic influx of “single subject” restaurants, offering just one, or a few, items. Many are influenced by Anglo-Saxon saxon foods (burgers, fish & chips, hot dogs, etc), but I think the next wave will be places offering things that are more closely aligned with French cuisine.
Are there any ingredients available only in the United States that you’d like to have available in Paris?
DL: I am always on the prowl in the summer for juicy summer tomatoes, which aren’t easily available. Fresh pecans are tough to find (many are old by the time you get them, in my experience), and while in the countryside, people mill flour from ancient varieties of wheat, they’re mostly sold locally so we don’t get them in Paris. I also miss corn-on-the-cob and big baskets of fresh, local blueberries, boysenberries, and blackberries.
Do you have any plans for a cooking show or for videos to go along with your blog?
DL: To be honest, I don’t watch that many videos online. I am a pretty impatient person and it takes a lot to hold my interest in an online video. There are a few videos on the site and I like doing them, but it takes technical skills, and talent, to put them together. So while I’d love to do more short videos, I don’t know if it’ll ever happen again.
What do you like most about France?
DL: I wrote about those here, in 15 Things I Would Miss About Paris If I Moved Away.
Please describe your process of creating recipes for your cookbooks?
I wrote a bit about the process here, but basically it starts with an idea. Then I take that idea and put it at the top of a blank, unlined page, and start writing down ingredients. Then I test the recipe, often a number of times until I get it right, making corrections as I go, and writing down things to point out to readers, tips to include in certain steps, and updating and changing the ingredients (or quantities) as I go.
What is the first meal you have when you return to Paris from the United States?
DL: I drop off my suitcase, then go to my bakery and get a nice, bien cuite (well-cooked) baguette – and I make them rifle through all the breads to pick out a really well-cooked one. Back home, I lop off a hunk, slice it in half, and smear it with salted butter.