David Lebovitz worked for 13 years at Alice Water's legendary Chez Panisse restaurant and was named one of the Top Five Pastry Chefs in the Bay Area by the San Francisco Chronicle. His writing has been featured inBon Appétit, Chocolatier, Cooking Light, Food+Wine, Cook’s Illustrated, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, The New York Times, People, Saveur, Sunset, and USA Today.
In addition to his excellent blog Living the Sweet Life, David's books includeReady for Dessert, the Perfect Scoop, The Great Book of Chocolate, Room for Desert, and The Sweet Life in Paris which was a finalist in the Best Literary Writing category, in the 2010 Cuisinart/International Association of Culinary Professionals awards.
Laurel Zuckerman: For you, which came first, writing or cooking?
David Lebovitz: Cooking. I started working in restaurants when I was sixteen years old. Even though I learned to write a little earlier than that, I was a professional cook before I started writing, like I do now.
LZ: Do they compete for your attention? If so, who wins?
DL: Nowadays it’s kind of a wrestling match between the two, with me in the middle. I prefer to be in the kitchen, but writing takes a lot of concentration and I need to buckle down to do it, so my time it divided. The best part about writing is there’s no dishes to wash. But when I’m cooking, at the end of the day, dinner’s ready. So I’m not sure which wins, but anything that involves less dishes may have the edge.
LZ: What brought you to Paris, and why do you stay?
DL: It’s funny because that’s my number-one asked question by visitors. I used to just stand in the middle of the street, throw my arms up, and say “Look around you!” but I got too many looks from people passing by, wondering what the crazy American with the croissant crumbs on his jacket was doing standing in the middle of the street, twirling around shouting, with his arms in the air.
I wrote a bit about some of my reasons for moving to Paris in The Sweet Life in Paris, but they’re still vague and undefined. Perhaps that’s another book?
So why do I stay: I like the quality of life in Paris. In spite of some of the difficulties of life in France, it’s a pretty nice place and the city of Paris actually feels like a very large, urban village. I like knowing people in my neighborhood - the baker, the people at my market, the people standing over the griddles at my crêperie - I like that small-town interaction and folks tend to think of cities as big, impersonal places. But even New Yorkers know people in their neighborhoods. I lived in San Francisco for nearly twenty years but spent so much time in the car that I just missed walking around, too. I like living in a place where I don’t have to drive, especially because the wine flows so plentifully. Which, come to think of it, is another reason I stay.
DL: I never really learned to write, at least professionally. I just write like I talk, which some say is a skill. But I think writing recipes is good practice for most writing other kinds because it teaches you to be descriptive without being overly wordy. And writing is all about editing and recipe-writing is the ultimate editing exercise because no one wants a 5 page recipe for brownies. But you do need to include certain key information without scaring people from the recipes.
LZ: Which writers have influenced you the most?
DL: To be honest, I wish I was more influenced by other writers. Favorite food writers like Roy Andries De Groot, Richard Olney and Jane Grigson are amazing, and whenever I read anything by contemporaries like Alec Lobrano and John Thorne, I use them as models for how wonderful someone can write about food. But I’m not any one of them and I don’t think people should try to emulate other writers at all. Just be yourself.
LZ: How did you discover and develop your own voice?
DL: Blogging is a great way to develop as a writer. The trap is to avoid being too conversational. For example, I say “like” as every third word...but readers would probably tire of that. When I write a book, it’s more permanent and I know that people are paying for the book, so I spend more time laboring over the words. Also I always have an editor who helps out and gives me the red pencil if I’ve gone too far off the deep end.
LZ: How do you keep in shape for writing ? Are there any special foods that sharpen or enhance your ability to write ? (Or on the contrary, things you actively avoid when facing a deadline ?)
DL: Depending on how you look at it, my apartment is well-fortified with lots of chocolates, caramels, and candies, squirreled away all over the place. (For“research.”) And unfortunately, I snack a little too much, which is also my preferred method of procrastination. I do yoga three times a week and walk or ride a bike as much as possible because writing can get a little lonely; it’s just you and the computer.
And if I find myself staring at a screen for more then eleven hours straight, I start to get a little batty and vow to get outside later that week.
DL: It’s funny to see the whole chef thing glamorized, because for the most part, we’re people in the back of the kitchen toiling away and some of the people I’ve worked with were best kept far, far away from the public. A lot of us are really marginal and obsessive and it’s weird to see the whole thing put in front of the public in such a polished way.
Chefs tend to be analytical and to-the-point. There’s no time to dawdle or worry about hurting someone’s feelings; if you’re discussing a dish, you say how you feel, you don’t take offense, and you move on if you make a mistake since if you get hung up on things, you’re going to get behind when the next rush comes in. But baking and being a pastry chef, you do a lot of thinking because you’re measuring and so forth, rather than heating up pastas and grilling meat, which are more physical skills.
LZ: Of all the books you’ve written, which one is your favorite—and why?
DL: Well, my first one, Room for Dessert, was really le top du top because I distilled much of what I learned from baking professionally for decades into all those recipes. But I also love my ice cream book, The Perfect Scoop, because it was fun to make ice cream every day for two years. My last book, Ready for Dessert, was an interesting exercise for me because rarely as an author do you get a chance to go back and change and improve things. At first I thought I would just cut and paste recipes from my previous books. But as I started to read through them, I realized that I had changed the way I’d done things over the years, as ingredients changed or I figured out improvements. So I was able to re-visit my all-time favorite recipes, and rethink and update them. And I also had to re-write the headnotes for each and every one which was especially fun because re-reading the old ones, it was funny to see how much I changed in the last twelve years as a writer.
DL: Adapting to foreign ingredients. French flour and butter are very different than their American counterparts and I’ve gotten a few too many SOS calls from friends who’ve just moved to France and were flipping out because their carefully shaped chocolate chip cookies have formed a big puddle on the baking sheet.
The Sweet Life in Paris was written not so long after I arrived in Paris. As you know, the longer you live here, the more some of the perplexing things become ‘normal.’ Even though books are printed in indelible ink, life isn’t frozen in time and things move on. So it’s funny to see how green I was about so many things here in France. (Although I still avoid my bank like the plague...)
DL: Your blog is widely read and commented. How did you hone your skills in blogging?
I like to feel like I’m bringing readers along with me as I discover things in Paris, like restaurants, bakeries and chocolate shops. And I cook as if they were in my kitchen making recipes with me because with my laptop, basically they are.
Blogging is unlike other forms of writing since it’s meant to be a web-log (ie: blog)...an online diary, so to speak. When I started, there were around five food blogs and it was a lot more casual when few people were reading what we had to say. Then as the spotlight shifted and got brighter and more people were reading what I was writing, I had to be more careful about typos and grammar. So that was (and still is) hard because some of that stuff takes the joy out of writing and I’ve sat on a post a couple of days, afraid to hit the “Publish” button, because I probably made a goof somewhere in there.
The hardest thing to do when blogging about France is not to complain. Since you live in France too, Laurel, you know that the French love to complain and it’s not really considered a fault here. They’re also into intense discussions and don’t shy away from controversial topics, which we American tend to be more reluctant to do. (Plus the French are more laissez-faire with things like sex and nudity: I once put a picture of a news stand that had a racy image on the cover of one of the magazines, and a reader got very testy about that. But in reality, it’s nothing you wouldn’t see in a Lady Gaga video. I keep forgetting that cultural difference.)
But we as Paris writers have to be careful about complaining too much or bursting people’s bubbles. Paris is a real city and like all cities, it has problems; people get mugged, there are homeless people, and there are parts of the city where you feel pretty far removed from Paris and most people wouldn’t feel comfortable walking around in them, even during daylight. But most people who read my blog are pretty much interested in the food and the culture, and not the political or social problems. Plus I’m not a journalist, so I’m not really equipped to do full-scale reporting. So I try to balance it all; food, social commentary, and, of course, a bit of complaining.
DL: I wrote that post because I think food bloggers are kind of at a crossroads right now, where so many people have jumped into it, that I wanted to tell everyone - “Calm down.” With so many things like Twitter and Facebook, as well as the blogs, things have reached a bit of a frenzied pitch and I was hoping to say, “Look, it’s just food. Use your blog to find out what you love about food and cooking, and make that the focal point of your writing.” I’ve seen too many discussions over search engine optimization and while it’s great to have search engines find your site, people shouldn’t be writing for algorithms. They should be writing for other people.
There’s a heckuva lot of voices out there and it’s hard to differentiate oneself and get readers. But I wanted to suggest to others that cultivating hoards of readers isn’t necessarily what it’s all about. Like any other kind of writing, you need to write something that people want to read. Something that they’ll not only like, but want to come back for more.
A number of people have had a lot of success blogging, including financially, and I think it makes people think that unless they have hundreds of thousands of readers a week, they’re a failure. But unless people are blogging as their full-time job, it’s like any other hobby -- stamp or coin collecting, perhaps; some people do generate income from their hobbies, but most do it out of personal enjoyment.
LZ: Are you a fast or slow writer? How do you reread, proofread?
DL: I am fast, then slow. I will race over and write a short essay really quickly, then take ages to edit and proof it. I am going through a metamorphoses right now with my blog, gearing to write shorter pieces that require less proofing. I wrote a piece about the new book of letters between Julia Child when she was living in France, and a friend in America, and someone sent me a point-by-point message, cutting and pasting phrases, asking for clarification. And of course, there’s the grammar people. And since on the blog, I write very conversationally, I tend to be more flip with the English language and not everyone understands that.
Then one day a few weeks ago, I was looking at my computer screen and realized I was spending so much time proofreading and making sure I didn’t let anything slip, that it wasn’t becoming fun anymore. It felt like homework. So I wrote a Spring Cleaning post, and decided to veer the blog into another direction.
LZ: How do you find your subjects?
DL: I think I have a psychological problem because I find inspiration in the oddest things. I had a sandwich the other day and spun it into a story about how French people traditionally frowned upon eating on the street, and in the same story touched on how things have changed in France in the last few decades. In a few paragraphs, I think I managed to hit on at least forty various topics. Needless to say, finding subjects isn’t a problem for me. It’s not finding them that’s hard because living in Paris, there’s just so much to write about.
LZ: How are new technologies such as POD and ebooks influencing you—if at all?
DL: As someone who works and writes online, I’ve very interested in e-publishing. However as Seth Godin wrote, traditional publishers don’t quite know how to deal with it. They’re still following the model of buy a book, and read it. And as a book buyer and reader myself, I hope that never goes away. But on the other hand, we’re staring at an amazing frontier and I’m excited about what can be done with it. I had a few thoughts and ideas about digital publishing but they were waved away. I’m not sure where this is going, or if it can happen without the participation of the traditional publishing industry. But I think the capability to reach a lot of people inexpensively, and offer video, and other adjuncts, is incredibly exciting.
LZ: Is your view, is food political?
DL: No, and I find it annoying that it’s become so. Regular food is what humankind has been eating for thousands of years and only in our lifetime do you hear people say, “I don’t have time to feed myself.” I find that so unusual since we really only have a few reasons to be alive; to eat and to reproduce.
Most of us live in places where good food is relatively inexpensive and plentiful, however as shopping and cooking have become commercialized, people have become distanced from the concept of eating well. Agribusiness has told people that regular cooking is too hard, takes too much time, costs too much, and it’s much easier (and cheaper) to pile the family into the car and head to McDonald’s. That part of food for me is political, because I resent corporate intrusion into something that’s just so basic to humanity. Instead they’re put fast, cheap, nutritionally poor foods within easy reach, which have changed people’s perception of what food actually costs. When you see a chicken selling for $1.99 you wonder how they can do that. And there’s a lot of poor people, even in rich countries like France and America, who can’t afford regular food and buy cheap, nutritionally deficient foods because they’re more affordable. So the solution is to figure out how to get good-quality, healthful food to people at a reasonable cost yet pay the people that produce it what they’re worth.
It’s really odd to me when people think that eating fresh foods is somehow “trendy” or elitist. My grandmother worked a full-time job and raised four kids, yet she managed to cook meals using fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and fish. That said, I think we all have to be careful preaching because everyone has different circumstances.
LZ: What really makes you mad?
DL: Americans who speak French really well. I’m insanely jealous.
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For complete interview please see: http://www.laurelzuckerman.com/2011/03/laurel-zuckerman-talks-with-david-lebovitz-about-writing-cooking-eating-and-paris.html