Meet David Lebovitz, a Chez Panisse alum, author of nine cookbooks, and one of the Internet’s original food bloggers. If you don’t know him already — and particularly if you’re a fan of pastries or Paris — his blog is likely to become a fast favorite. It’s filled not only with David’s best recipes (sweet and savory!), but also with travel stories and musings about his life in the City of Light, where he moved from San Francisco a decade ago.
With Valentine’s Day around the corner, we have baking on the mind — not to mention the most romantic city in the world. Here, we ask David all about how he started his blog, his ideal dinner party, favorite ingredients, and what he misses most from the US. And, of course, his favorite dishes for Valentine’s Day. Read on, get inspired, and start cooking!
Tell us about your background and how you got into food writing and blogging.
I was baking professionally for many years, working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley for over a decade and doing stints as a pastry chef at various restaurants in San Francisco. I loved working in restaurant kitchens and being surrounded by lots of amazing, creative people. However, as the years moved on, my body started to rebel. Standing long hours and racing around carrying sacks of flour and sugar (and eating way, way too much butter) were taking their toll on my over-40 body, and I couldn’t keep up like I used to. So, I started writing books and launched my website in 1999, before the word “blog” was in existence. I was sharing recipes, baking tips and travel stories for a number of years before it become more widespread. It was fun to have a casual way to interact with readers and other bakers, from home cooks to pros.
Writing books is interesting, but it’s a whole different thing. It’s a two-year process, and the rewards are not as immediate, due to publication schedules and the process of putting a book together. My latest book My Paris Kitchen was really fun because I got to really explore what I love about Paris: the food, the cafés, the outdoor markets, the multicultural neighborhoods, the quirks — and, of course, the chocolate. But each one of my books is special to me. And with over 1,000 blog posts (and counting..), it’s hard to pick favorites.
What’s your favorite recipe on your blog and why?
It’s hard to pick one. But for savory recipes, I love the Shakshuka, a terrific spicy egg dish that can be made in one pan and is a great breakfast, lunch or dinner. For desserts, I’d have to say the Chocolate Idiot Cake. In addition to the spot-on name, it’s a great cake because any idiot (er, I mean…person) can make it. It only has four ingredients that you basically just stir together. Once baked, it keeps for quite a while and the flavor is pure, unadulterated chocolate bliss.
You’re hosting a dinner party tomorrow night. What would you serve?
Well, that depends on who is coming. Sometimes I like to make Mexican or Korean food for French friends, because they’re not that exposed to it and I always like to see their reaction when they try it. I do warn them that the food is somewhat spicy, since I’ve had a few French friends turn fiery red…especially when I make it “authentic.” (And I also get a kick out of watching them look to see when the cheese plate is coming around after the bibimbap or enchiladas!)
Most often, though, I like to not plan ahead and just go to the market and see what appeals to me. In the winter, it might be a bunch of Swiss chard that I’ll sauté with bacon and toss with olive oil, garlic, and whole wheat pasta, then dot with crumbled chèvre (goat cheese). If it’s spring or summer, I might do a lamb shoulder with some butter-braised spring vegetables: tiny peas, spring onions, parsnips, artichokes and a handful of fragrant tarragon leaves.
What ingredient(s) do you look forward to the most every year?
Peaches and nectarines. I can never get enough of either.
What do you eat when you’re alone?
I usually make a big salad in a wooden bowl with lettuce, raw carrots cut into matchsticks, bits of leftover chicken or a hard-cooked egg, shredded cabbage (for crunch), minced shallots, chopped flat-leaf parsley, and whatever else I have odds and ends of. I make a dressing fortified with a good dose of Dijon mustard and sometimes some minced fresh garlic to give it a kick. I eat it with bread and cheese on the side. Hopefully there is a little wine leftover since I don’t like to open a whole bottle when it’s just me (because you never know where that will lead…!) But I might just start with a little aperitif made with Dolin red vermouth on the rocks with a twist of orange, or something bitter, like Suze (made from gentian root) or Campari.
Who’s your ideal dinner guest?
Anyone who offers to stay afterward and help clean up!
What’s on your dinner playlist?
I use a music streaming service online so I don’t have to fiddle with what’s playing while I’m cooking and enjoying dinner with friends. Everyone seems to like Amy Winehouse (and the related music that is played) as it’s mellow, sexy, and not intrusive while you’re eating. Esquivel sometimes is the choice when there are cocktails on tap, since it helps gets people in the right mood.
What’s the first food blog you look at every day, besides your own?
I read a variety of food blogs, and it’s hard to narrow it down to one or two. I really like 101 Cookbooks for the gorgeous, inspiring photography; Smitten Kitchen for her sharp wit; and Luisa at Wednesday Chef, who is such a thoughtful, introspective writer. I click over to Adam at Amateur Gourmet for something fun and to my pal Matt at MattBites for a combination of stunning photography and his goofy (and utterly charming) sense of humor about food.
What do you love about the food in Paris?
People are open to a wide variety of foods. They’re not necessarily adventurous eaters when it comes to exploring other cuisines, but they don’t turn their noses up at things like boudin noir, game birds, fragrant (or stinky, depending on how you look at it) cheeses. They just eat what is on their plates. I also like that wine isn’t considered fancy, or high fallutin’ — it’s simply a part of life and of most meals, and it’s served without pretense.
In spite of what some say, French people have become a lot of more conscious about what they eat in terms of la régime (diet), so folks do try to wave away cheese or another rich indulgence. But in 99% of the cases, they eventually give in. And dessert is never an option, it’s obligatory.
What foods do you miss most from the US?
I miss pecans, dried sour cherries, fresh pea shoots from Chinese markets, and chunky, natural peanut butter. Although it doesn’t count as food, I miss heavy-duty aluminum foil, since the French stuff is as thin as tissue paper and rips as soon as you pull it off the roll. So I stockpile that on trips back to the states.
What’s your ideal Valentine’s Day meal?
Anything that’s meant to be shared is always appropriate for a dinner with someone you love. But, since I’m not a fan of sharing food (which probably explains why I was single for so long), I would make something in individual casseroles, something rich and savory, to give me that warm and fuzzy feeling. It may not sound romantic, but I like the idea of macaroni and cheese (perhaps “kissed” with a bit of smoked bacon). Coq au Vin with a lusty red wine reduction and tangle of homemade noodles to soak up the sauce is my idea of a meal that warms my heart — and hopefully the heart of someone special.
What are the best desserts for Valentine’s Day?
I am a huge fan of passion fruit, so anything that includes that just seems right. I would use them as part of a vacherin, topping a crisp disk of meringue with icy-cold tangerine sorbet, adding a dollop of whipped cream, then spooning fresh passion fruit pulp and seeds all over the top. A glass of Champagne would be the appropriate accompaniment, bien sûr!
How are you celebrating this year?
Photo of David Lebovitz courtesy of Elise Bauer. All other images courtesy of David Lebovitz.