May 29, 2017

Book Review: The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz

Like so many others, David Lebovitz dreamed about living in Paris ever since he first visited the city in the 1980s. Finally, after a nearly two-decade career as a pastry chef and cookbook author, he moved to Paris to start a new life. Having crammed all his worldly belongings into three suitcases, he arrived, hopes high, at his new apartment in the lively Bastille neighborhood.

But he soon discovered it’s a different world en France.

From learning the ironclad rules of social conduct to the mysteries of men’s footwear, from shopkeepers who work so hard not to sell you anything to the etiquette of working the right way around the cheese plate, here is David’s story of how he came to fall in love with—and even understand—this glorious, yet sometimes maddening, city.

When did he realize he had morphed into un vrai parisien? It might have been when he found himself considering a purchase of men’s dress socks with cartoon characters on them. Or perhaps the time he went to a bank with 135 euros in hand to make a 134-euro payment, was told the bank had no change that day, and thought it was completely normal. Or when he found himself dressing up to take out the garbage because he had come to accept that in Paris appearances and image mean everything.

The more than fifty original recipes, for dishes both savory and sweet, such as Pork Loin with Brown Sugar–Bourbon Glaze, Braised Turkey in Beaujolais Nouveau with Prunes, Bacon and Bleu Cheese Cake, Chocolate-Coconut Marshmallows, Chocolate Spice Bread, Lemon-Glazed Madeleines, and Mocha–Crème Fraîche Cake, will have readers running to the kitchen once they stop laughing.

Paris – from the point of view of a former San Francisco chef – with recipes? Of course I had to read this book.  Food and Paris, two of my favorite subjects, go so well together that I knew I would have a pleasurable reading experience. Lebovitz writes in an engaging style that kept me chuckling over his unique observations about Parisian life.  Some were truly eye-opening – but others gave me pause , such as his statement that French coffee was the worst.  Coming from a lauded chef, one would assume he knew what he was talking about.  However, I happen to adore coffee in France, which I rank right up there with Italian coffee. In fact one of my souvenirs from my first trip was a bag of ground coffee for 3 euros, which my guests raved about when I served it after a dinner. So does that mean that I (and my friends) have terrible taste?

The recipes are the true treasures of this book. My copy is bulging with bookmarks. I haven’t tried any yet, but I am dreaming of the bacon and blue cheese cake and fromage blanc soufflé. The placement of certain recipes, though eclectic, was somewhat baffling. There are Mexican recipes that seem to show up out of nowhere and don’t correlate to the preceding chapter, unless I’m too dim to pick up on a subtle nuance.

Overall, the sense I got from The Sweet Life is that living in Paris isn’t as sweet as some of my daydreams. It’s more complicated, difficult and impenetrable than I could imagine.  Oddly, Lebovitz’s experience actually made me not want to move to Paris.

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