On this week’s Special Sauce, seminal food blogger, pastry chef, and author David Lebovitz and I took a trip back into the past. And we had a blast.
David worked in the Chez Panisse kitchen for 13 years before he realized it was time to leave. “I left because I was getting older, and when your body hits a certain age,” David explained. “It’s hard to stand up for eight and a half hours. It’s like, I need to listen to my body, I need to go to the bathroom when I have to go to the bathroom without someone knocking on the door asking where the desserts are.”
How was his first cookbook Room for Dessert conceived? “I was kind of burnt out, and I’d had all these dessert recipes in my repertoire, and I had spoken to Alice Waters [about writing a book]. Lindsey Shere wrote the first Chez Panisse dessert book, and I said, ‘Well, maybe I should write the second one. Would that be interesting?’ And, she said, ‘Write your own.'” And so David’s first book was born.
That book was the reason why David started his eponymous food blog in 1999; David wanted to give readers an opportunity to ask him about his recipes, which made him one of the first food blogging pioneers. “I had thought my first book’s coming out, and I should use this internet thing, and if people have problems with recipes they can contact me. Because, often you make something from a book and you think, ‘Oh, well, this recipe, I don’t understand what the author means,’ or something.”
Around the same time, David decided to leave the Bay Area for Paris. He explained that in part it was because his life partner died, which, combined with his leaving Chez Panisse, left him feeling unmoored. Or, as he said, “It gave me the moment to say, ‘You know what? I don’t have anything here left.’ I pretty much lost everything, and it was like, ‘What do I do now?'” David continued, “I just realized this recently, that the reason I moved to France was because it was sort of a horizontal move, it is very similar to Northern California, the climate, the food was similar—goat cheese, garlic, wine—and it seemed like a horizontal move to go to Paris.”
From Chez Panisse to early food blogger to best-selling author, David’s story is full of twists and turns. Which of course makes for an excellent episode of Special Sauce.
You Could Be on Special Sauce
Want to chat with me and our unbelievably talented recipe developers? We’re accepting questions for Special Sauce call-in episodes now. Do you have a recurring argument with your spouse over the best way to maintain a cast iron skillet? Have you been working on your mac and cheese recipe for the past five years, but can’t quite get it right? Does your brother-in-law make the worst lasagna, and you want to figure out how to give him tips? We want to get to know you and solve all your food-related problems. Send us the whole story at [email protected].
EL: Welcome to Special Sauce, a Serious Eats podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, or in this case maybe I should say Parisian culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
DL: The thing about Chez Panisse is when you work there it’s hard to go somewhere else, because people don’t have those standards. You go work for somebody and they’re like, “Oh, you know, we can’t use that ingredient, it’s too expensive.” At Chez Panisse, with Alice, nothing was too expensive. We were using organic butter, this was 25 years ago when it was $7.00 a pound.
EL: This week we are thrilled to have with us the author, pastry chef, and seminal food blogger, David Lebovitz. David founded one of the first food blogs that anyone can remember, davidlebovitz.com, in 1999, and it’s now bigger and better than ever. He’s also the author of eight books, including the just released, updated and revised for the 10th anniversary of the original publication of, The Perfect Scoop, which is widely recognized to be one of the definitive books on ice cream. Because he doesn’t have enough to do, he’s also recently published L’appart. How did I do with pronunciation?
EL: All right. A hilarious eye-opening account of his insane adventure renovating his apartment in Paris. Welcome to Special Sauce, David Lebovitz. Such a pleasure to have you here.
DL: Thanks, Ed. It’s really great to be here with you.
EL: Let’s jump in right at the beginning. Tell us about life at the Lebovitz family table growing up.
DL: Wow, that’s a long time ago. It’s funny, because people say as you get older you start losing your memory. I’m like, “No, it’s just a lot more stuff to remember.”
EL: It’s true, you just need a bigger hard drive.
DL: Yeah, exactly. My hard drive’s full. Yeah, I was fortunate, my mother was a good cook. When I went to college I actually found out from people-
EL: That other people had bad cooks for mothers.
DL: Yeah, people were like, “My mother never cooked.” I’m like, “Whoa!”
EL: Where was this?
DL: In Connecticut. I do remember my best friend, when I went to his house, I think I was eight-years-old, his mother made chicken coated with corn flakes, and I was like, “What is this amazing food?” Because my mother never made anything like that. She wasn’t fancy at all, but she was just a good cook, so I was very fortunate to have that in my life.
EL: Were you always curious? Were you one of these kids that gets on top of the chair to watch your mother cooking, or?
DL: No, but when my parents used to leave us alone or with a babysitter we had TV dinners, it was the era of TV dinners. I loved frozen fried chicken-
EL: Who doesn’t? Swanson Hungry Man frozen fried chicken.
DL: Well, once I learned you could just buy the chicken without the mashed potatoes, and the mixed vegetables, and the little dessert you’d peel the thing back, I was like, “I’m just buying the box of chicken,” so I ate that sometimes. But, once my mother and father went out, and I pulled my mother’s cookbook off the shelf, and I was kind of looking at it, and going, “Oh, well, I want to make a chocolate souffle,” so, of course-
EL: Wait a minute, how old were you?
DL: How old are kids … Once again, it’s a long time ago.
EL: Maybe 10 or 11?
DL: Yeah, so I looked at this recipe, and, of course, we didn’t have a souffle dish, we lived in Connecticut, so I used a Pyrex measuring cup, and my mother had, of course, Baker’s unsweetened chocolate. She had everything there. Souffle’s not a challenging thing, and I made one, it was really good.
EL: It didn’t collapse?
DL: No. Souffles are pretty foolproof in a lot of ways, and then I graduated to Good Seasons salad dressing. That was where I got my pastry … measuring everything precisely up to the line. After Good Seasons salad dressing where do you go from there?
EL: That’s funny. What was she really good at? What were your favorite meals?
DL: It’s hard to … she made a lot of ribs. She loved ribs.
EL: Baked, not on the grill.
DL: Yeah, yeah. We had a grill, but it was kind of those days in America where people didn’t grill so much, so she made really good ribs. I remember she just marinated them in soy sauce, and … It was probably some recipe out of Woman’s Day, or something, but it was the real deal-
DL: So they were delicious.
EL: Were you born with a sweet tooth?
DL: No, and it’s funny, because I was doing a demo recently, and I said, “Well, I don’t really like sweets,” and everyone started laughing, and I’m like, “What?” Then I realized I like desserts, I don’t like things that are heavily sugary, so I-
EL: You don’t like Chuckles?
DL: I love Chuckles. Once again, they’re not-
EL: That’s sugary!
DL: But there’s a tanginess to them, they’re umami.
EL: Umami of Chuckles.
DL: Yeah, there’s certain … I don’t like things with a lot of cream and sugar-
EL: Got it.
DL: And pastry cream is too much for me, so I like chocolate, which is bitter, I like coffee, I like fruit, rhubarb, raspberries, you know, all those things.
EL: It’s funny about pastry chefs and not liking sweets, because … Actually, one of the things I was gonna ask you about was, you managed to betray your enthusiasm for chocolate and croissants even now throughout your books, and I know a lot of pastry chefs, like Nancy Silverton, she stopped eating bread, right?
EL: One of the great seminal bread bakers in America. Right?
EL: Other than Steve Sullivan maybe, but Acme in Berkeley, and she doesn’t eat bread anymore. When I’m reading your books, even L’appart and My Sweet Life in Paris, you still are very enthusiastic about really good caramels, or really good-
DL: Also, it’s part of life in Paris, and it sounds a little … Some people will go, “Oh, you’re so lucky,” but it’s actually how people live in Paris. Eating a croissant is not a luxury in France, it’s part of everyday life. It’s kind of like going to Starbucks and getting a coffee here, it’s just, you go by the bakery and you get a croissant. It’s not considered something chic or luxurious, it’s just an everyday thing.
People always say to me, “Don’t you go to this place on the other side of town and get the croissant. They won best croissant of the year,” and it’s like telling a New Yorker, if you live in the Lower East Side, “Oh, don’t you go to the Upper West Side and buy coffee from that place.”-
DL: It’s like, “No. I’m going to my corner coffee place.”
EL: Exactly. Exactly. No, it’s true-
DL: So I do like all that stuff and it excites me. I’m a baker and I love being in Paris, and I love seeing the bakeries, and chocolate shops, and it’s exciting to me. The less fancy, as I get older, or as I get more mature, I tend to like less fancy though. Like, Eric Kayser, who’s now in New York … I like his pastries because they’re very simple, they’re the kind of things I want to eat. I don’t want to eat a thing with three sorts of cream, and caramelized out-of-season fruit, and all that.
EL: His baguette is really delicious. He’s clearly got some serious backing, because he’s opening Eric Kayser bakeries at a feverish pace. I think not just in New York, all over America.
DL: When he was a young man he wrote these really amazing baking books … bread baking books in French, and they were translated in English, it was a series of six. Really great textbooks on baking, for anybody, you don’t have to be a professional to understand them, and so he really knows what he’s doing.
In France they don’t like the fact the something’s a chain, but, on the other hand, in France, if something’s called a boulangerie, the bread has to be made on the premises. He has, and I’m just taking a guess, 15 bakeries in Paris. All the breads are made in those bakeries.
EL: Not here.
EL: I don’t think, although it’s interesting, I think he has a separate baking facility.
DL: He’d be better off making all the bread in one place in the middle of Paris … You know, it’s not like they’re shipping it to Hawaii.
EL: Right, and there’s one oven.
DL: Right. Well, they actually did open up-
EL: Oh, they did.
DL: A facility outside of the city of Paris, and they have eight ovens, I believe, that are in a circle that replicate the way that they make the bread, so the bread you buy at the supermarket, Poilâne, is very good.
EL: Right, and we should say that Poilâne is this legendary, famous, Parisian bread bakery, and they also bake sweets, they also make a phenomenal apple tart.
DL: Yeah, the apple tart’s really good.
EL: Back in America. What was your first career plan after you started making chocolate souffles?
DL: Gosh, well, I … I was always kind of drawn to things that were creative, and so I went to film school.
EL: You did?
DL: I went to film school in New York, and after I graduated my grandmother, who is very … She grew up in the Depression Era-
DL: Practical, well, heavily practical, and very frugal, you know, that kind of thing. She said to me, she goes, “You should travel, because you’re never gonna get another chance in your life to do it.” And, she goes, “I really wish I had done that.” So when I graduated from college, instead of going into a career, I took a year, and I hitchhiked around Europe.
DL: And I could never do that now. It would be like, “Could someone carry my backpack?” Or, “Does this have wheels, or something?” I did that for a year, and I ended up … I met a woman … I actually met a group of people, I was in Turkey, and one of the people, a woman was from San Francisco. I said, “I always wanted to go to San Francisco.”
EL: How old were you? 22?
DL: Oh, 22.
DL: Or something like that, maybe 23. She goes, “Why don’t you come visit?” I’d been working at a restaurant in college, it was a really good restaurant, actually, it was a vegetarian restaurant-
EL: In New York?
EL: What was it called?
DL: It was called Cabbagetown Cafe in upstate New York. Most of the stuff we got was … We didn’t have any machines in the kitchen, except for a blender, but we bought all the stuff from the farmers, because that was what people did back then-
EL: Way ahead of your time. Now, what town was this in?
DL: In Ithaca, New York.
EL: In Ithaca, got it.
DL: We had Cornell dairy products, and all that, and so I had that education behind me. I was like, “Well, I guess I should work in a restaurant then. If I’m gonna work in a restaurant I may as well work in a really good restaurant.”
EL: So, you get out to San Francisco … Come on! You can’t leave us with just that.
DL: Oh, you want me to keep going? Okay, okay. I thought, “Well, if I’m gonna work in a restaurant I may as well work in the best restaurant I can work at.” It was the time when Chez Panisse, Fourth Street Grill, that whole thing was just starting to explode. People don’t realize now, they’re very spoiled, they think, “Oh, Whole Foods is terrible. Starbucks is terrible,” but in the ’80s a dream would be to have something like Whole Foods. You couldn’t imagine a supermarket being like that-
DL: Chez Panisse … I was so attracted to the Chez Panisse menu book … menu cookbook?
EL: Oh, it’s funny, a lot of chef friends love that book. My friend, Tom Douglas, who I wrote a cookbook with, it was this sort of seminal chef in Seattle, loves that menu/cookbook.
DL: It was a great … It was also a statement, and cookbooks don’t necessarily have to be just a collection of recipes, it’s a statement, “This is Chez Panisse, here’s what we do,” and it was told through menus. It was a lovely book, lovely story, I loved everything about it, and so I said, “Well, I’m gonna go work at Chez Panisse,” so I went into Chez Panisse-
EL: You just knocked?
DL: Yeah, well I went in, and the chef looked at me, and she told me to get out. She said, “You just walk in here, I don’t know who you are, and you can’t just walk…,” and so I left. I was dejected, so I went and worked somewhere else-
EL: I think appropriately so, you should’ve been dejected.
EL: You were rejected.
DL: Yeah, but I was a good hire.
DL: I got my first restaurant job … the guy was a chef, and he goes, “You know how to move in the kitchen, you’re hired.” Anyhow, I went back six months later, I worked somewhere else, and I had heard that there was a changeover in the command, and so, of course, I ran over there, and I got hired. I was so excited, working as a line cook upstairs in the café. Back in those days the café was open from 5:00 PM to 11:30. At 5:00 PM there was a line out the door and down the sidewalk, because they didn’t take reservations. It was when Chez Panisse … People are coming from all over the world. People just … We were busy from the moment the doors opened until 11:30.
EL: I love the café. I’ve actually never eaten at the downstairs at the fancier restaurant. The first time we went to the café I ordered … It just said pluot, $7.00 for dessert. I was like, “What are they doing to this pluot? It’s just a pluot, it can’t possibly be worth $7.00.” They brought out a pluot with a knife, and then I just took a slice of it, and I was like, “God damn, that’s the best pluot I’ve ever had in my whole life.”
DL: Yeah. I go back to Chez Panisse every once in a while, and I had a salad last time I was there, green salad, and it was so good. You forget, if you don’t eat that kind of food, or if you don’t have access to those kind of ingredients. The salad … the lettuce is picked that afternoon, and it sounds ethereal, it’s actually delicious-
EL: It is actually.
DL: Really fresh, like the $7.00 pluot you had. That’s something I really learned at Chez Panisse was the value of ingredients, and how to make simple food taste good.
EL: Right, and that’s, of course, those have become cliches, but people don’t … A lot of people don’t understand is, that all, that whole ethos emanated from Chez Panisse.
DL: Right, right. That didn’t exist. You go to McDonald’s, or you get on the airplane, and it’s radicchio in your salad now. That was because of Chez Panisse.
DL: When I started there customers were like, “Is that cabbage?” They thought the goat cheese … We had gotten fresh goat cheese from Laura Chenel. They’re like, “Oh, is this tofu?” I’m like, “No. It’s goat cheese.” “Why are the oranges red?” It was like your blood oranges-
EL: The first goat cheese maker in Sonoma County, I believe, and she’s sold fairly recently, I know-
DL: Okay, oh, did she?
EL: To a big company.
DL: Oh, there is a big company that buys a lot of small cheese companies-
EL: Exactly, they are, and I don’t know if it’s the same company, but the people who own Ocean’s-
DL: Cowgirl Creamery.
EL: They sold, too.
EL: I don’t know if it’s to the same person. But you ended up staying for 13 years.
DL: I know, you make it sound so final.
EL: That’s because the only place I’ve ever stayed 13 years at is Serious Eats.
DL: Well, you didn’t have a choice, you’re a founder. Well, the thing about … I was gonna say the problem with Chez Panisse, but the thing about Chez Panisse is, when you work there it’s hard to go somewhere else, because people don’t have those standards. You know, you go work for somebody, and they’re like, “Oh, you know, we can’t use that ingredient. It’s too expensive.” At Chez Panisse, with Alice, nothing was too expensive. We were using organic butter, this was 25 years ago, and it was $7.00 a pound, and she was committed to using this organic local butter that this company that was just starting out, called Straus Creamery. We used all their dairy products.
EL: Which now makes the best soft serve I’ve ever had-
DL: Oh, they do?
EL: Oh my god.
DL: Where can we get some? Where is the green room here?
EL: We gotta take the plane to San Francisco, man. So, you lasted 13 years, and you eventually moved into pastry-
EL: And worked for Lindsey Shere, who a lot of people don’t know about-
EL: What an important figure she was, not just in baking, but in American food, in general.
DL: I’m getting chills. I’m actually gonna cry.
EL: No, it’s-
DL: I get really emotional-
EL: It’s true, you know? I think I’ve only met her once, but I was so taken, in reading your book, and other books, like … Lindsey Shere, nobody remembers her.
DL: But she was from a different era. You know?
DL: Was sort of the Claudia Fleming era. People in the baking business know who she is.
EL: Yeah, yeah.
DL: She was always a behind-the-scenes person, she wasn’t … Everyone thinks, Alex Waters, Chez Panisse, they don’t think about the other … There was several other owners. Lindsey Shere was one of the founders. Lindsey really … She didn’t work shifts so much when I was there, she had done that, but she was really … She’d come in with these beautiful fruits from the countryside, she’s like, “Oh, I got these … I picked these wild grapes. Can you do something with them?” I’m like, “Oh my god.”
Everything was beautiful and lovely, and she really set that tone, and she also taught me a lot about simplicity. I remember once saying to her, “I really wish we did more fancy things, because I’d like to learn more technique,” and she said, “Well, why, because that stuff doesn’t taste very good.”
EL: Yeah. That’s funny, because I remember getting … I called Nancy Silverton on her cell phone once, and she said, “Oh, I’m at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market, and I just bought these incredible” … I forgot what they were … “strawberries,” or … something … you know … “gooseberries.” I said, “What are you gonna do with them? She said, “I’m going to eat them, and I’m gonna serve them, because I can’t improve upon them.” It is a sort of first cousin of that pluot story.
DL: Right, although gooseberries are hard to eat raw, they’re pretty tart-
EL: I think they must’ve been strawberries.
DL: Yeah. Well, I bought some strawberries at the market here in New York the other day, and they were so beautiful-
EL: Yeah, yeah, well, the day-neutral strawberries have really changed the game here.
DL: Yeah, but people keep writing me like, “Oh, I can’t…” … Whenever I put up anything about strawberries on my blog in France, they go, “Why can’t we get strawberries?” I’m like, “You can get beautiful fruit here, it’s spectacular.”
EL: Yeah, the day-neutral strawberries, which were developed, I think by a food scientist at Cornell, means that you … The strawberry season here is very long, because, day-neutral means they don’t need the same amount of sunlight.
EL: You can get good ones now.
DL: Okay, and they last long.
DL: They don’t rot like after two days.
EL: Yeah, so … Think about it, if it’s day-neutral, it doesn’t matter, as more sunlight, you’re still gonna have them, and then even when the sunlight starts to fade you’re gonna have them.
DL: I’m actually gonna … I’m gonna cop that phrase someday, day-neutral-
EL: Yeah, you don’t have to … You don’t even have to attribute it to me.
DL: Okay. Is that your-
EL: No, it wasn’t mine. How long did you work there before you became head pastry chef?
DL: Well, I was never the head pastry chef.
EL: You weren’t?
DL: Lindsey Shere was the head pastry chef-
EL: Got it.
DL: She was the owner, and that was her role, and there was four of us that worked together … or maybe five. We should’ve been seven, but there was four or five of us. We all worked together, we didn’t really have a hierarchy when I was there until Lindsey started. She opened a bakery in Healdsburg, California-
EL: Yes, I’ve been-
DL: And, she was taking a less active role-
EL: Was that Model Bakery?
DL: No, it was called The Down-
EL: The Downtown-
DL: … It is called … The Downtown Bakery and Creamery-
EL: The Downtown Bakery, that’s right, yeah.
DL: She opened that with Kathleen Stewart, who was a waitress in the downstairs restaurant, and Kathleen Stewart, who’s wonderful, one day somebody … I don’t know how somebody found this out, but she was one of Dean Martin’s golden girls, and somebody found a picture somewhere, and printed it out and put it on the kitchen wall. She came in and looked at us, and she used an expletive-
EL: You can use it, it’s just a podcast.
DL: No, no. I don’t like to swear in front of the public, because people think I’m a nice person.
DL: But, she’s like, “F you, guys,” because we were all just on the floor.
EL: That’s hilarious. What’s the best piece of advice you ever got from Lindsey Shere about baking pastry, or cooking?
DL: Gosh. I don’t know if it’s any piece of advice, but it was just keeping it simple. Once again, letting the ingredient shine, and sometimes I feel like I’m not keeping up my end of the bargain in the pastry world, because I don’t do all this fancy stuff. I was recently on a TV show, and it was one of those competition shows, and I was like, “Oh, someone’s gonna make something really fancy, and I’m gonna make lemon tart.” You know? I was kind of-
EL: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
DL: I would rather have a really good lemon tart-
EL: Sure, me too! What’s the one piece of advice you offer aspiring pastry chefs?
DL: Nowadays, I tell people actually to leave cities. People who are in New York or San Francisco, I’m like, “Go somewhere else,” because it’s so expensive to live in these places. Now, in America there’s so many great food cities.
EL: There’s great food cultures all over the country. You can go to Portland, Maine, Portland, Oregon, Denver, Colorado-
DL: Des Moines, yeah. I mean, there’s just really good food everywhere now, and it’s really lovely, and you don’t need to be in New York or San Francisco.
EL: Do you have pastry heroes?
DL: I do.
EL: What do you admire about each of them?
DL: They’re people like Alice Medrich.
EL: Alice Medrich had a shop in-
EL: Berkeley called-
EL: Cocolat, and has written many great … books.
DL: Right, she introduced what was the French truffle to America. She called it the American truffle, because they were sort of the size of small golf balls-
DL: If that makes sense. I used to go there before my pastry shift and have dessert, because it was such a … It was like, “Wow! Flourless chocolate…” … and no one knew what a flourless chocolate cake was-
DL: She was doing all this stuff, and we became friends later in life-
DL: I was always … I still am in awe whenever I see her, I’m like … Nancy Silverton is sort of somebody who I just-
EL: The greatest-
DL: I remember her when she was just the pastry chef at Spago with her hair pulled up at the top of her head, and she’s been able to persevere, and change, and she changed the culture of baking in Los Angeles, and in America.
EL: Mm-hmm. I agree. I agree. How did you go from being a line cook to being in the pastry department?
DL: Well, I kept going down to the pastry department, and watching the people, and talking, and they were cutting up fruit and making tarts, and I was like, “Oh, I want to do that.” Rather than making steaks, or opening oysters upstairs … in the café. Finally, an opening showed up … an opening opened up. You can tell I’ve been writing too much. I go, “I can’t use the same word in one sentence. An opening opened up here.” You know, my editor will cross that out, or some reader will tell me, “You used that word already.” Anybody that is listening to the podcast you can send Ed an email at [email protected] … about my overuse of the word. Anyhow, a position opened up and it was between me and somebody else, and once again, I’m not competitive, and then I actually somehow got the job, and I became the pastry person.
EL: That’s great.
DL: I worked at night, and it was tough. It was very hard work. We worked really hard, and whenever people ask me nowadays if I’m speaking at an event or a conference, people will go, “What do you attribute your success to?” And, I’m like, “I work really hard.”
DL: And, yeah-
EL: It’s like, yeah, that’s the kind of not so deep and dark secret about everyone’s success.
DL: Yeah, nobody just arrives. Restaurant work is really hard work. That’s why nobody over 40 does it.
EL: It’s true. What did you do when you finally left, and why did you leave?
DL: I left because I was getting older, and when your body hits a certain age you just say, “Oh.” It’s hard to stand up for eight and a half hours. It’s like, I need to listen to my body, I need to go to the bathroom when I have to go to the bathroom without someone knocking on the door asking where the desserts are. Or, I need to eat … You just sit down … I want to sit down and have a meal. I don’t want to shove food in my mouth. I was kind of burnt out, and I’d had all these dessert recipes in my repertoire, and I had spoken to Alice Waters, I said, “Well…” … Also, we had a lot … Lindsey Shere wrote the first Chez Panisse dessert book, and I said, “Well, maybe I should write the second one. Would that be interesting?” And, she said, “Write your own.” Which is actually-
EL: But, she said it in a very nice way.
DL: Well, I remember it being nice, and maybe not. No. She said … She … Alice is wonderful, but she said to me, “You’re different than we are. You have a different style, and you should do your own thing.” I think I looked at her and I said, “Well, will you write the introduction to a book if I do it?” She goes, “Yes.”
EL: That’s like … Kenji’s writing the introduction to the Serious Eats’ book that I’m writing, so it’s-
DL: He wrote the intro to Stella’s book, too.
EL: Yes, yeah.
DL: Anyhow, that was good advice. She’s seen people come and see people go, and Chez Panisse is a huge family, and it was time for me to go. It was time for me to do something else, and so I wrote a couple of books, and it was very interesting, because I’d never written a cookbook before-
EL: Yeah, so the year you left you published the first book, which has the longest subtitle in book history.
DL: Oh, really?
EL: Because, it’s called Room For Dessert: 110 Recipes for Cakes, Custards, Souffles, Tarts, Pies, Cobblers, Sorbets, Sherbets, Ice Creams, Cookies, Candies, and Cordials, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
DL: And, that was the days before keywords on the internet. I guess that makes up for my last book, My Paris Kitchen. The subtitle was: Recipes and Stories.
EL: You began blogging in 1999.
EL: People call me one of the OG food bloggers, but you were blogging about food six years before I even knew what a blog was.
DL: I’m just gonna tell you this once, and I want you never to forget this, but you exist because of me. Interview over, he’s kicking me out the door. He’s like…
EL: Why did you start blogging? What were you blogging about? How did you do it? There wasn’t even any blogging software then.
DL: Right. Well, I had thought, you know, I’m writing my first book. My first book’s coming out, and I should use this internet thing, and if people have problems with recipes they can contact me. Because, often you make something from a book and you think, “Oh, well, this recipe, I don’t understand what the author means,” or something. I thought–this is in that be careful what you wish for category of the show.
DL: I thought, “Oh, I’ll do a website and I’ll share things. I’ll share recipes, and stories,” and I had a forum on my site, which was, “agh!”
EL: Right, that’s always scary. Forums are old-school-
DL: Well, back in those days nobody was on the internet so much. The word trolls didn’t … You know, there wasn’t … It was all my friends leaving stuff just to fill space on my blog.
EL: You were writing your own code-
EL: As rudimentary as it must’ve been, but still … Like, when I started Ed Levine Eats, which was the precursor to Serious Eats, I used Blogger.
DL: Blogger, yeah. Blogger didn’t exist in those days.
EL: Yeah. The word blog-
DL: Didn’t exist.
EL: Didn’t really exist, except just super techie/freak/nerd words.
DL: Yeah. I just remember I was updating my site … For a while I had somebody doing it for me, because he … I didn’t know how to publish a web page, so I would write things and send them to him. Then, there was a new … blogging software came out, it was something called Movable Type.
DL: You remember that?
EL: Serious Eats was on Movable Type.
DL: I remember I was from San Francisco-
EL: We just moved. We just migrated last year, David.
DL: Aye aye aye. Well, I know some big sites had just migrated, because they didn’t … Everything had been hacked, and it was such a challenge. One thing I learned … You had Elise Bauer on as your guest a few weeks ago, and I love Elise, she’s … If she’s listening I love her more than anything. She always said something really good, she was like, “Do something sooner than later, because it’s not gonna get any easier.”
EL: It’s true. It’s true.
DL: I switched to WordPress when … You know, it was a challenge. I had a lot of stuff, and the guy who designed my site designed Simply Recipes’ site, and he had a lot of work ahead of him. It was very expensive, but, once again, he was the best at what he did, he did a great job.
EL: Yeah, so 1999 you start blogging.
EL: I assume you were not making any money from the blog?
DL: There was no … any-
EL: There was no way to monetize in those days-
DL: No, there was nothing. Yeah.
EL: Right, and so you were making your money from your book advances pretty much, right?
EL: Or, were you still doing some kitchen work?
EL: Got it.
DL: I was out of the kitchen, I was writing books. Books are not like a … It’s not a very lucrative thing-
EL: No, it’s not.
DL: I moved from San Francisco to a little tiny apartment in Paris.
EL: Right, so in 2000-
DL: How can I save money? I need to move to Paris-
EL: Right, you moved to Paris, and you also published The Great Book of Chocolate that year.
EL: What were the circumstances of your departure from the States?
DL: Well, that’s probably another book, which I’m not gonna write, but, I didn’t really have anything to do in America. I’d been living in San Francisco for a long time. I didn’t have a job. I was writing books, but that was it, and I was like, “Well, you know, I can write anywhere.”-
EL: You wrote about your … I don’t know if you want to talk about this, but you wrote about your partner-
EL: And, you lost your partner.
DL: Right, so-
EL: Was that also added impetus to needing to start a new life somewhere else?
DL: Not necessarily, but, once again, it gave me the moment to say, “You know what? I don’t have anything here left.” I pretty much lost everything, and it was like, “Oh, okay. What do I do now?” I had a couple of very difficult years, and I didn’t know what to do with my life. People would always say to me, “Well, didn’t you move to Paris because you were a Francophile, and you wanted to…,” and I was like, “No.” just realized this recently, that the reason I moved to France was because it was sort of a horizontal move, it is very similar to Northern California, the climate, I was very into food, the food was as similar, goat cheese, garlic, wine, and it seemed like a horizontal move to go to Paris.
EL: You just packed up and left. Did you know anyone in Paris?
DL: No, I didn’t know … I knew David Tanis, who-
EL: Oh, David Tanis, who is on Special Sauce, and is now cooking at The Monkey Bar for some reason.
DL: I don’t know if he’s cooking there, but he’s running … he’s organizing it-
EL: Doing something, yeah.
DL: But, he was living in Paris, and I knew him, because he was the chef at Chez Panisse-
EL: Got it.
DL: He was probably the only person I knew.
EL: Wow! So, the plane lands in Paris, you talk about in one of your books, they lost all your cookbooks.
DL: Well, those were shipped. I mean-
EL: Right, but I mean … So, what did you do? Did you stay at David’s? Where did you stay?
DL: I had my three suitcases … I think three … This was the old days when you could have three suitcases, and they were pretty full, and I arrived in this apartment … the door opened … I had found the apartment on the internet, and it looked kind of nothing like the apartment-
EL: I’m shocked! That never happens.
EL: As you say in your book, L’appart, “the joy of wide angle lenses.”
DL: Yeah, well now … Yeah that people shoot. You know, once again, this is like 2002. In those days someone had a point-and-shoot camera and they took a picture of the apartment, but the person wasn’t living there, and it was not in very … Like, the ceiling was collapsing and everything, so I was like, “Oh, okay.” So much stuff had happened to me in my life, like the last … Those three to five years before that … I was like, “You know what? I kind of experienced the worst thing that can happen to anybody, so I’m just gonna go with this.”
DL: I was like … I’m living in this country now with all my stuff, I don’t speak French, I don’t know anyone-
EL: Good move there, David. Don’t speak French. That’s the key.
DL: I know, people write to me, they’re like, “I want to move to Paris, but I don’t speak French.” I’m like … People do it, that’s okay.
EL: Right. Thanks, David, for sharing your journey with us.
DL: Thanks, Ed.
EL: And we’ll see you next time, serious eaters.