The Chez Panisse alum speaks on the evolution of blogs, his most important kitchen tool and his favorite food haunts
David Lebovitz was a food blogger before the term even existed. He launched his popular website in 1999, long before the advent of Facebook, Yelp or WordPress.
The longtime cook steadily made a name for himself over the years. Starting as a pastry chef at Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse in 1983, he then worked for years in the kitchen of San Francisco’s renowned Zuni Cafe. Lebovitz later left the industry in 1999 to write cookbooks and eventually, live in Paris. He still runs the eponymous website himself, regularly posting recipes interwoven with narratives about food and life in France. He shoots his own food photos, and has no copy editor, he warns.
The ex-pat returns to the Bay Area this week to speak about his latest book, L’appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, which documents the trials and tribulations of remodeling his kitchen in a foreign country.
Ahead of his event at Draeger’s Market in San Mateo this week, The Six Fifty spoke with Lebovitz about his latest book, the early days of Chez Panisse and the evolution of the food blogging world (Hint: He thinks it’s gotten oversaturated.)
Why did you write this latest book?
It’s not a cookbook. It’s a memoir. Actually, it’s sort of a prequel to my last book, My Paris Kitchen and a sequel to Living the Sweet Life in Paris, which I wrote shortly after arriving in Paris.
When you blog, you tend to be telling the story of your life. Blogs have changed over the last few years but I like mine to be a running commentary about my life, and my books I consider adjuncts to that, for lack of a better word. When I bought an apartment I thought, ‘Wow, this is great; I’m going to write about it on my blog,’ … and it didn’t quite work out that way. It just became a comedy of errors.
How does it incorporate recipes?
People expect recipes these days in books. But recipes aren’t just recipes. Recipes tell a story. In my book … the recipes naturally tell a part of the story but through food. While food isn’t the main subject of the book , it’s the main subject of my life so it’s definitely a big part of the book. Food is one of the reasons I live in France so I wanted that to be very present in the book.
Can you give an example of a recipe in the book that stands out to you?
There’s a plum frangipane gratin, made in little tiny dishes. You can make them in a toaster oven. It’s a very typically French dessert but also something — anyone who’s remodeled knows all you want to do is cook something … you want to eat something homemade.
There’s also a cocktail in the book that was very important, because everyone needs a good cocktail recipe when they’re remodeling. It’s called the “Truth Serum.” There’s a big jolt of Chartreuse in it, which is a French liqueur [as well as lime juice and tequila]. It’s made of 110 different herbs that are gathered up in the French alps. I’ve been there and smelled the herbs. One of them smells strongly of cannabis to me. I was like, ‘What’s in there?’ Nobody knows except two people.
What was it like working in the early days of Chez Panisse?
It was incredibly exciting. When I started at Chez Panisse it was in the early 80s. We would open the doors at 5 o’ clock and there was a line down the front of the building and down the sidewalk because they didn’t take reservations. We were busy until 11:30 p.m., like nonstop.
But it was also very exciting because we were part of this movement that was starting; a lot of people would say we started it. When I say ‘we,’ I give a lot of credit to Alice Waters and the founders, but we were all a part of it. It was really exciting because nobody knew what goat cheese was. … People were coming in and saying, ‘Is that tofu?’ ‘No, it’s goat cheese. Is that red cabbage? No, its radicchio.’ Now you get on a plane and there’s goat cheese and radicchio salad in economy class.
The stuff that’s become so commonplace, especially in the Bay Area where it’s such a rich culinary environment, to me it’s a very special part of my life and it’s the history of the Bay Area. Even people in New York have to concede: California is pretty great for food.
You were food blogging before it was even a thing. How has that world evolved over the years?
The internet gave everybody a voice. When I started my blog in 1999 and then moved to France … in France, people said, ‘No, not everybody should have a voice.’ Now I realize looking at what’s happening today, maybe they were right.
When I started there was nobody else, just a few other people writing about food. Nobody really knew what a blog was. There were these other bloggers I heard about … we interacted, and then there was seven [bloggers] and then 12 and now there’s a lot. Part of it is it got a little bit out of hand in the last few years. People were so overly concerned with monetizing and getting search engine traffic, which is fine but that’s a different perspective. That’s not why I blog.
Is the online food world — recipes, blogs and the like — oversaturated at this point?
I think it is. One of the most frequently asked questions I get from new food bloggers is, ‘How do I get people to read my blog?’ I look at them and say, ‘You can’t.’ I hate to be harsh to them but there are very few phenomenons left, people who are going to break out. In the old days if you had great photos, useful content, great recipes and good writing, you would stand out.
What are some food blogs that you follow?
101 Cookbooks by Heidi Swanson, a Bay Area blogger who’s vegetarian. She always presents a very interesting take on vegetables and herbs and spices and cooking.
I like SheSimmers quite a bit. Leela Punyaratabandhu is doing Thai food in a nonjudgmental way. You don’t feel intimidated by it.
What advice do you have for aspiring food writers?
Write a lot. Expect to spend a lot more time editing than writing. As any writer will tell you, you can throw all the stuff on page but making it into something that is attractive to people to read… people spend three minutes reading a blog post, maybe two minutes. … so I try to get to the point. I tell people: You don’t want to waste people’s time. You want to make sure when they come to your site or reading your recipes or even a book, that you’ve got their interest, and that’s really hard to do.
Also, don’t quit your day job. Especially these days where things have moved online … it’s harder to make money than it used it to be. But on the other hand, there are a lot more niches.
I wrote my blog for six, eight years before the advent of advertising or monetization. I just did it because I loved it and it became something because i worked at it, worked at it, worked at it. Don’t give up if that’s your passion.
What was your first big writing break?
It’s hard to say. I was the first person they let in the KitchenAid factory in Ohio [in 2006]. … They had never let anybody in the factory. I said, ‘Can I take pictures and do a story on my blog?’ They kind of looked at each other and said, ‘Sure.’ It got a lot of interest…people shared it, people linked to it, major news sources linked to it.
[Read the post: https://www.davidlebovitz.com/inside-kitchena/ ]
Where are you planning to eat while you’re in the Bay Area?
There are a couple Asian restaurants I have to go to. It’s funny — when I travel, people either tell me about a French bakery or a farm-to-table restaurant. I’m like, ‘No, I want all the stuff I can’t get in France’ — really good Chinese, Thai, Mexican.
That said, I do love going to B. Patisserie [in San Francisco]. I love going to The Mill [in San Francisco]. I go in there and see Josey Baker, the owner … he just gives me a big hug and I feel like I’m finally back in San Francisco.
If you had to eat one dessert for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Probably chocolate sorbet. To me, that’s the best expression of chocolate because there isn’t even any milk or dairy to get in the way of the chocolate flavor.
What is the most important tool in your kitchen?
I’m very into my chef’s knife. I use that for pretty much everything. I have three of them. I bought a new one recently, I hadn’t bought one for 35 years. I was using my old one from when I started at Chez Panisse. I bought a French one. Runner up is my mortar and pestle.
Lebovitz will be signing books at Draeger’s Market in San Mateo on Wednesday, Nov. 15, at 7 p.m.