David Lebovitz snaps a photo of a practically perfect croissant before taking a bite, then smiling slightly.
He’ll probably be asked for the recipe later, though he did not bake the croissant, nor was it made in his kitchen. But after six cookbooks, more than 27,000 tweets and a food website dating to the early years of html, readers expect recipes to go with the photos of Parisian food most can only crave from a distance.
Lebovitz spent 13 years as a chef at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, quit to write books in 1999, then like many an American author before him moved to Paris in 2004 without a plan.
“I thought, maybe I’ll move to Paris because I can write there,” he said in a recent interview after ruefully acknowledging his lack of a dramatic backstory.
A decade later, he has no intention of opening his own restaurant or bakery — France’s bureaucracy is daunting even for natives.
“All the rumors you hear about French paperwork are true. I love cooking and I love baking but owning a business it’s probably 10 percent cooking and baking and 90 percent paperwork and bureaucracy,” he said. “I decided to take a pass.”
His latest book, My Paris Kitchen, feeds into the desire to cook, shop and eat in the city that prides itself on being the culinary center of the world. Half cookbook, half musings on everything from line etiquette (watch out for unexpectedly tough little old ladies) to the acronym-filled documentation that floods every French household (going paperless is a distant dream).
Though practically none of Lebovitz’s readers have tasted his food, he has a vicarious following all his own. And his readers — more than a third are from outside the U.S. — don’t hesitate to tell him when they think a photo is blurry, a recipe seems off or his take on barbecue is out of line.
“One of the reasons I started my website in 1999 was I wanted people to be able to get in touch with me after my first cookbook. From that ‘What was I thinking?’ file,” he said. “It’s what the web is all about. It’s an interaction of ideas.”
Being a cookbook author is something of a strange calling, especially in a city where the average apartment is roughly one-third the size of an American home. It meant that the renovation of Lebovitz’s kitchen — the room he considers his office — took on outsized drama, especially when his manuscript disappeared in the disorder.
“I have two ovens. I have the largest refrigerator in Paris — that’s my desk,” he said, seated at a cafe table outside a favorite bakery. Every few minutes someone would stop to greet him, a sign of neighborhood integration hard-won in reserved Paris.
France has changed his cooking in surprising ways.
“I started relying on things you can buy. Americans are into this whole DIY thing, but in France if you want a pate you go to the charcuterie and there are like 15 kinds of amazing pate,” he said.
And, though My Paris Kitchen is filled with accessible recipes that reflect how Lebovitz cooks at home, he said when he cooks for French friends, he tends toward Mexican — and he tries to counter his native country’s reputation for indifference toward food.
“The image of that is changing,” he said. “People used to think all Americans ate at McDonalds because that’s all they saw.”