Docent Profile: David Lebovitz

Paris docent, David Lebovitz On ice cream, chocolate and eating in Paris…

CP: We hear that you’ve just turned in the first draft of your new book on ice cream. Congratulations. Researching ice cream doesn’t sound like too painful a task. What did the process entail?
D: Basically, it involved turning my little Paris apartment into a petit ice cream factory for a year, churning out all sorts of ice creams, sorbets, granitas, and gelati all day (and sometimes all night). I’m sure my neighbors were curious about all those churning noises! I wanted to write a complete book of recipes for all my favorite flavors of ice cream, and include all the gooey sauces, caramel swirls, and crunchy mix-ins that everyone loves along with their ice cream. I visited, and re-visited, many of the top ice cream places in France, Italy, and the US for recipes and inspiration. It was tough work but someone had to do it.

CP: With The Great Book of Chocolate (Ten Speed, 2005), you’ve sort of built a reputation as a chocolate expert, your Paris Chocolate Walks are booked solid! What prompted the move to ice cream, as a topic?
D: When I was a pastry chef, one of my specialties was ice cream and sorbets. I loved making them, and people loved eating them, too! So when choosing a topic for my next book, I looked around and noticed that there were very, very few books on ice cream that covered the simple basics of making ice cream. And this year, several top manufacturers have introduced ice cream makers that are really reasonably-priced, homemade ice cream is within the reach of anyone, no matter what their budget is. So it was a perfect fit.

CP: We have an ongoing battle with our Italian colleagues in the Rome office, who insist that no ice cream or glace will ever beat a proper Italian gelato. Where would you weigh in on that?
D: One thing I’ve learned about living in a Latin country: Never argue with the locals about the superiority of their cuisine. You’ll never win. If you want to see Italians all riled up, sit a few of them down and ask them who makes that best gelato in their particular city. Then stand back. I tend not to think any one kind of ice cream is better than another. I like them all! You simply can’t compare lapping up a dish of gelato cioccolato from Giolliti in Rome with diving into a Hot Fudge Sundae from Graeters in Cinncinati, or savoring a cornet of glace chocolat from Berthillon in Paris. All are great, but are different and have their own appeal.

CP: From what we can remember, you were slaving away in the kitchen making ice cream during the July heatwave this summer.
D: Yes, I worked through the heatwave and thankfully I had no shortage of people willing to take all the excess ice cream and sorbets I churned off my hands.

CP: So, with your newfound expertise on la glace, do you have any favorite places to go for a cone in Paris? Everyone always talks about Berthillon as being the best in the city. Did you make any new discoveries that you’d be willing to share?
D: There are two places in Paris that are quite interesting: Dammans and Raimo. Both seem to fly under the radar. Dammans in the 5th makes unusual flavors, including an ice cream made from Argan oil, which are nuts, picked by Moroccan goats which climb trees to eat them. When the goats come down, the nuts are expectorated, then pressed into a fruity, nutty oil. If you can get past where they come from, the ice cream’s absolutely delicious. Raimo is like a throwback in time. The classic 60’s decor has been polished and shined, with undulating ceilings and stainless steel-and-leather chairs. They make all their own ice creams and seasonal fruit sorbets and, unlike Berthillon, they’re open all summer. It’s a bit out of the way, but sitting on their terrace in the 12th arrondisement, you’ll really experience the true Paris. It’s a fabulous place.

CP: Your book The Great Book of Chocolate has been doing spectacularly. Paris, though, seems a bit overlooked as a chocolate city, we always hear about Belgian or Swiss chocolates. Would you say that Paris is a city for chocolate-lovers?
D: Yes, The Great Book of Chocolate, has been a big hit and I’m so happy people have embraced the book as they have. I wanted to write a book that easily explained everything that people want to know about all the terrific chocolates that are now available, from how they’re fabricated to what all those terms mean, like ‘percentages’ and ‘origins’. Of course, I’ve included my favorite chocolate recipes too. It’s the complete guide to the world of chocolate, and everything you need to know is in that book! But I can’t say I agree with you that Paris is overlooked as a chocolate city. In fact, I’d say Paris is the world’s top destination for chocolate lovers. Both Belgium and Switzerland make very good chocolate couvertures, the blocks of chocolate that are made into tablets or melted down by chocolatiers and used for dipping. But there are very few artisan chocolatiers, people who make individual dipped chocolates, in Belgium and Switzerland that one hears about. In Paris, I can name a great chocolatier in just about every arrondisement.

CP: Paris is very much a food-lover’s city. Was your own move to Paris prompted by your foodie activities? What would you say are a few of the biggest differences in food and food culture between France and the States?
D: I’ve loved Paris since I went to school here, at the Ecole Lenotre, a school for professionals, as well as attending chocolate school at Callebaut College in Belgium. It was always my dream to live in Paris full-time and a few years ago I was walking home across a bridge at night, after dinner with some friends. I looked up at the lights twinkling over the Seine, the boats gently rocking in the water, and the sheer elegance that is so quintessentially Paris and at that moment, I decided to move here. Of course, the copious amount of red wine we had during dinner probably had something to do with it, too. But when I got home, I packed my bags. The biggest different between the US and France is if you offer someone a chocolate in Paris, they ‘ooh-la-la’ in anticipation and delight, whereas in America, people start complaining about their diets. One question I get asked almost daily is, “Why are French people so thin?” Mostly it’s because they don’t deny themselves the important things in life, like chocolate, but eat in it in moderation and eat the best quality. You don’t see scores of sugary candy bars at the supermarket check-out counters like you do in the states. A good example is that the French adore Lindt bars (from Switzerland); tablets of dark, bittersweet chocolate. You get much more ‘bang for your buck’ with one of those than a candy bar with a pale, thin, sweet milk chocolate coating. French people prefer dark chocolate whereas Americans often go for milk chocolate. That’s changing though, and Americans are getting really saavy about chocolate and some of the best chocolate in the world is being made in America these days.

CP: Because Paris is so saturated with markets and specialty shops, visiting foodies sometimes find it intimidating and hard to get a handle on. What piece of advice, if any, would you give someone coming to Paris who wants a real taste of the Paris culinary scene?
D: The reason I love leading my Paris Market Tours is I like to show people things they can’t get ‘back home’, and what makes Paris the quintessential food destination. Parisians love to eat and discuss food, so when I take guests into my favorite food shops, people get to meet the shopkeepers and learn more about regional wines, hand-harvested salts, buttery pastries, extraordinary cheeses, and the sublime chocolates of France. Parisians treat their foods with much respect, and I hope my guests walk away with the same appreciation after meeting some of the purveyors. To get a taste of the “real Paris” I advise guests to avoid the big name restaurants. If you do go, you’ll often find yourselves surrounded by other out-of-towners and you didn’t really come to Paris to dine on Tuna Towers with other Americans, did you? I advise going to a real, old Parisian bistro where you’ll find hearty fare, like duck confit and cassoulet. Many are big, bustling places and a helluva lot of fun once you sit back and just enjoy yourself. In the old restaurants, like Chez Denise at Les Halles or newer places like Le Severo, you’ll find yourselves eating elbow-to-elbow with the locals. I like places like that, where you won’t be surprised when neighbors offer you a pour from their carafe of Beaujolais. And don’t be put off by crusty waiters in Paris: many of them have been doing their job for years and having a brusque attitude comes with the turf. You’ll notice there’s rarely busboys or hosts milling around, so the waiters have a lot of work to do and not much time for small talk. The speedy metro makes it easy to visit other restaurants outside the center of Paris. Places like Cave de l’Os à Moelle in the 15th, where you grab a bottle of wine off the shelf, help yourself to the food in casseroles simmering on the big stove, then pull up a seat at one of the communal tables. Don’t be intimidated. Most Parisians are friendly and like to chat and it’s a good way to meet the locals. Remember that every meal doesn’t have to be a big to-do. Go to a neighborhood cafe for steak frites or a salade nicoise, and a carafe of house red. The food may not be Michelin-worthy, but you’ll really get to experience what life in Paris is all about. I’ve listed some other favorite places on my web site as well. And most important: If you find a place you like, go back during your stay. French people value relationships very much, and the second time, you’ll find yourself no longer a stranger, but a guest.

CP: Do you have any big projects coming up? Should we start looking for a third installment on, say, caramel?
D: I can’t really talk about it right now, since we’re still in the planning stages, but I’m thinking of doing a book based on Paris. I recently shot a television show on Paris chocolate for Canadian Public Television which will be shown worldwide during the early spring of 2007, where we get to visit my favorite chocolatiers here in Paris for an in-depth look at their laboratories and how they create their superlative chocolates.

David Lebovitz is the author of a Room For Dessert and Ripe For Dessert (HarperCollins), as well as The Great Book of Chocolate (Ten Speed). His latest book, The Perfect Scoop (Ten Speed), will be released in the spring of 2007. You can read David’s Paris-based food blog at DavidLebovitz.com.

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