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Interview with a French Dining Expert

This is the full-length version of an article I wrote for Paris Life Magazine, “Secrets of a Paris Food Writer”.

Alec Lobrano’s latest book, Hungry for France (author photo by Steven Rothfeld).

The contributing editor of Saveur magazine reveals how he continues to love Paris, the Parisians, and French cuisine after almost 30 years in the City of Light.

Alexander Lobrano, “Alec” to his friends, is an American-born food writer who grew up in Connecticut and lived in Boston, New York City and London before making Paris his home in 1986. He is an award-winning correspondent for some of the greatest culinary and travel publications in the US and UK, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Saveur, Travel & Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, and Gourmet magazine from 1999 until it closed in 2009. He is also the author of Hungry for Paris: The Ultimate Guide to the City’s 102 Best Restaurants and Hungry for France: Adventures for the Cook & Food Lover, which highlights the best restaurants, inns, and food producers in France, with gorgeous photography and seventy-five recipes. He lives with his partner Bruno in a rooftop apartment in the Nouvelle Athènes district, a typically Parisian neighborhood in the 9th arrondissement just a few steps from the Eglise de la Sainte-Trinité and the Rue des Martyrs.

Why did you come to Paris?

I had been living in London where I did part of my university, and when I was offered a job here and thought “I want that experience.” I first visited Paris on a family trip to Europe when I was 15, and ever since then I’ve been absolutely smitten by the elegance of the city, its food, the romance, the glamour. I grew up in the suburbs, there wasn’t that heaving pageant of life, the interesting random encounter of daily life that there was in Paris.

What do you love most about Paris now that it’s your home?

One of my great pleasures in Paris is walking in the city at night. I love walking, and I don’t need a map, I always know where I am. And the relentless beauty of Paris for daily life never abates. Daily life is daily life; you have to go to the post office and supermarket and the bank and whatever, but that backdrop brings on such exaltation, I can be in a vile mood knowing I have to go out on the street and get window cleaner at Monoprix for example and I always find something – a doorway, a handle, something different – the beauty of the city has not changed at all. Paris is also a brilliant place to be alone. the first few times I went to a café I had to screw up my courage to sit by myself, but after you do something like that for a few times it becomes second nature Coming from a casual city, I was entranced by the fact that there was a right way and a wrong way of doing everything. I was attracted to the manners.

It’s interesting you mention manners. I feel the same way, but everyone seems to think Parisians are rude.

There are different codes here and they’re constructed differently. The English speaking world puts enormous importance on friendliness. In France you win friendship. In Paris it’s cordial; everything is built into ways of processing every situation. When people complain about the service here I say “You don’t go into a shop without saying bonjour” and if you’re not buying anything it doesn’t make a difference, you say “Au revoire” or “Merci” when you’re leaving. The French daily life is codified in a way so that you’re always acknowledging one another, and there isn’t the pretense that you’re going to chat because as far as they’re concerned you don’t know each other, so why would you? There might be a pleasant exchange or something, but it’s a psychological distance that’s greater than it is in English speaking countries In Paris it’s still very reserved, people don’t want to know a lot about your stuff, and I found that comfortable. I love the United States. I didn’t leave American because I didn’t like it, I left because I’m curious about other places and people, but having lived away for a long time I have lost habits…and that chattiness…Americans just chatter away!

How do you think Paris has changed, for better or worse?

It has changed a lot since 1986. Paris is more cosmopolitan and much more international than it used to be. When I first moved here its main role was to be the capital of France and the French-speaking world. Now a lot of the particularities of Paris have eroded. That said, it still is profoundly French and first and foremost Parisian.

The arrival of international brand names is a blight. For example, remember the store Old England near the Opera that Proust wrote about? It was a boutique that had a beautiful oak front with curved glass windows. Now it’s a luxury watch boutique. A lot of the special one-off places are closing because it’s getting harder and harder for small businesses to pay the rent. Look at how much the Marais has changed. And now the proliferation of luxury boutiques, they’re doing it in the Marais, Givenchy and a couple of others are going to open up. It’s awful. And look at St-Germain-des-Prés. Luxury brands killed St-Germain-des-Prés. And I don’t know what the answer to that is. I’m protective of Paris that way.

I’m guessing that the Place de la Trinité (Alec’s neighborhood), which is still a neighborhood, will in ten year’s time will be luxury shops because of Chinese tourism. They have already changed the character of the Rue Chausée d’Antin, because before there was nothing on that street, it was all junk shops, now there’s so much money walking down that street (to the department stores) that the real estate has become valuable again. This commercial gentrification that is affecting all major cities is starting to affect Paris. Even the Rue des Martyrs is getting really fancy, like the Rue du Bac, it’s turning into a luxury street, and before the Rue du Martyrs was a street for people who lived in this neighborhood and it’s where you went to buy your fish and your stuff

And your start as a food writer?

I always loved to eat and cook, but I never thought of writing about food until I was working for W Magazine. I started doing the food subjects, and I loved them, and everyone said “Alec you do a great job with these”, so I found that vocation here. 

What’s the role of a food critic today when everyone’s a critic (ie Trip Advisor, Yelp)?

In the age of “everyone’s a critic” on the internet, there’s something that people don’t understand: the things that a critic is actually there to do is to transcend personal taste and be able to say “I don’t particularly like (whatever this dish might be), but I see that it was made with great art and beautiful produce.” Criticism the way that it’s done on the internet or people mouthing off is indignant, it’s not informed, and it’s completely subjective, there’s no objectivity whatsoever, and it’s sort of self entitled. I feel sorry for the chefs because I think they suffer at the hands of these people. Everyone has a right to their own opinion. When I write I’m really humble and think really carefully about what I’m going to say before I criticize someone who has been on their feet 16 hours a day. Being critical should not be gratuitous, and it’s not a sport. it’s a craft, like any writing.

Whether you’re a butcher or a baker or a chocolate maker or pastry chef…this is hard work! The education is really hard, the daily life is really hard; you’re putting in a massive amount of hours. Culinary professions have been glamorized by television as it being all about creativity, and there is some creativity, but it’s mostly hard physical work. That’s what people are forgetting, that’s why I’m respectful towards the people I write about or review…YOU go spend time in the kitchen! How many thousands of pounds of onions will you have chopped by the time you’re fifty, and you do it all by hand, and that’s what your work is about every single day.

To someone who has no idea what French cuisine is, how would you define it?

The real genius in French cuisine is making tough things tender, mostly meat and fish, and learning how to build flavor through sauces. A lot of the techniques here were perfected centuries ago; deglazing cooking juices with wine or vinegar or whatever, as the basis of a sauce, and building it out with dairy, although or there are other things you can use today, we’ve moved away from dairy.

A lot of people still think of French food as being heavy, unhealthy, drowning in sauce.

That’s something the French have been working on. The past 40 years has been a quiet, brilliant revolution in French kitchens to lighten the calorie content of the sauces by finding other ways to make them by using vegetable purées or herbal jus, keeping the flavor but losing the calories. That’s what Nouveau Cuisine was all about. French food has been modernizing in a good sense since 1945. But in a negative sense it’s also been industrializing because the French decided – in their besotted love for the United States – to follow a lot of American lifestyle habits, whether it’s shopping in great big supermarkets in the suburbs or wanting a car or convenience food…cooking is time consuming and we don’t think we have the time, which is nonsense.

How often do you cook at home?

I love to cook, it relaxes me hugely, and it’s one of my favorite things to do because it’s physical. I probably go out 3-4 nights a week, which is a lot. On the weekends I never go out, I won’t go to a restaurant on the weekends because it’s a terrible time to go, the restaurants are under too much pressure, it’s not the same crowd. We go to the market on Saturday morning and do a great big shop, and we have friends over or we cook for ourselves.

Is French cuisine the best in the world?

I think French gastronomic supremacy has been questioned with some violence for the past twenty years. You eat well everywhere now, that’s what’s changed. But France remains the ultimate gastronomic reference because of its history, its produce, the exigency of the French culinary education and the French general public having a huge body of knowledge that they bring to the table. When you mention that you’re going to Agen in France, they say, “Ah, les pruneaux!” (One of the regional specialties). There’s also the exultant connoisseurship of following chefs like we follow baseball players in America. This mad national passion for gastronomy is unique in the world. It’s true the French food chain has been damaged as I think food chains have been damaged in most western countries. It is more difficult to eat well at the middle of the food chain in France as it is in Italy and Spain and in American

Isn’t it also a question of taste? There are a lot of Americans who are disappointed in the steaks here, for example.

It’s interesting that you should say that because the French taste in meat is totally different than what it is in the US. They’re different breeds of cattle, raised differently, there’s not the feedlot system there is in the US so they’re not fattened by eating grain like they are in Iowa or places like that. They’re bred in the way that reflects the taste of the market. They want meat with character in France, and in America we want meat that “slices like butter”. We prize tenderness and they prize taste, so Americans do find the meat here tough.

So that’s actually the way the French like it. That probably applies to much of their cooking that Americans find…bland.

French are keener to subtlety than we are. We like things to be big flavor bombs; the French still like things really, really subtle. The French are geniuses at nuance and the whole society is nuanced; the kitchen is nuanced, the fashion is nuanced, the perfume is nuanced. I love that subtlety, and I’ve learned to appreciate it. I didn’t know that when I arrived all those years ago and I went through a lot of traumas to learn things about French cuisine. There were so many things I wouldn’t eat, I’ve written about this in some of my books, about the salad with the little bird foot sticking out…oh mother of god! I love quail, now. But back then I didn’t know any of that stuff; they didn’t sell quail in the A&P when I was growing up.

Are Paris restaurants better or worse than when you arrived?

The category of restaurants that has gone underwater is the brasserie. I loved the brasseries when I first moved to Paris because they were so glamorous. Every once in awhile I would get the Sunday night blues and a posse of us would all go out to a brasserie and it was fun. They were never cheap and the food was never brilliant, but it was meant to be lively and fun, with French comfort food. Then during the 1990s they were all bought by the Frères Blanc or the Flo Group, and the food was industrialized. Now there’s no conviviality, no quality, and they have the worst rapport qualité-prix in Paris.

The happy story is the old-fashioned bistros which were disappearing aren’t disappearing anymore. Not only are young chefs cooking excellent, contemporary bistro food, now a bunch of them have decided to start cooking traditional bistro food, so we’re spoiled for choice in Paris. I think the food is better than when I got here. There are so many different choices, and there’s the passion for produce that didn’t exist in the late 1980s. The great temples of gastronomy — the Michelin-star restaurants — are all still there, and there’s better street food in Paris than there used to be.

The arrival of so many foreign chefs in Paris, is that a good thing? Do you think they’re coming here to show Parisians “how it’s done”?

I think it’s a great thing; foreign chefs are flocking here like mad. They come from Japan most of all but also America, Australia, England, Italy…people from all over the world are inspired to come and cook in Paris. When you ask why they’re here it’s always for the same reason, France is the ultimate gastronomic reference because of its produce, culinary history, the exigency of the Parisian public…this is the big time. They want the experience.

Your favorite local restaurant (five-minute walk)?

There’s a new place that’s open near me called the Bon George, on the Rue St George. It’s a delightful neighborhood bistro run by an utterly charming man named Benoit and it’s become a neighborhood institution in like 15 minutes. He’s a consummate host, bilingual, passionate about wine and good food. And for Bruno…imagine living with a food writer…Bruno gets sick of having to go to new places. Every once in awhile he’ll say “Can we just go to a place where you’re not writing about it or taking pi ctures of your food, where we’re just having a meal because we’re having a meal?” so we can go to the Bon George and he knows us, the food is delicious, it’s a no-brainer, a rare unplugged meal. 

You’ve always said you love Boeuf Bourguignon. Do you still?

Oui, aujourd’hui et pour toujours! I just love it. It’s so much the essence of what delicious French food is, a great example of extracting flavor and building sauces and layering flavor…that’s what I love. I would go to Joséphine Chez Dumonet. It’s really expensive but it’s so good and you can order half portions or share it.

What are the tips for a newcomer to have a good dining experience?

I’m always pushing people to try things they haven’t eaten before. Don’t come to Paris to eat a chicken breast. Come to Paris to eat something different . That’s part of the adventure. No one travels if they’re not curious, so I’m just coaching them to indulge their curiosity in a gastronomic way.

Always make a reservation. The French consider the reservation as a sign of respect, so you know that you’ll be well-received and they’ll be waiting for you. Also, if you know you’re not going to go the restaurant, have the courtesy to cancel the reservation. English-speaking people have a very bad reputation for standing people up. No shows can really harm the bottom line of a small restaurant.

The other thing is that in the English-speaking world people go in and they re-write the menu. The French will respect your dietary considerations if you are gluten free or whatever it might be; find those French words tell them when you make the reservation. Don’t spring that on the kitchen of a small restaurant before you show up if you’re vegetarian or if you’re gluten free, or whatever. But then from that point on don’t expect to rewrite the menu. Americans feel entitled to have it their way, but in France the balance of power lies behind the kitchen door. A dish has been very carefully planned out, there’s a reason why each ingredient has been used in such a way. So unless you’re physically unable to eat that food, try to have the experience. If you’re going to a teeny restaurant with six tables and a bistro chef serving a single menu, which is happening more and more in Paris, that can be a problem for Americans. If there are food allergy issues or things you can’t eat, don’t go to one of those restaurants, go to one with a bigger, traditional menu where there’s a larger amount of choice. It’s important for YOU to do the research and find out about this before you show up. As a rule of thumb I always look at the website menu before I go to a restaurant.

You mentioned you learned to love dining alone in Paris. How do Parisians eat by themselves in a restaurant? There are a lot of solo travelers who are mortified at the idea.

They don’t do the thing of having the book or smartphone open at the table; they realize every restaurant service is like a play, you become part of the play. It’s something I’ve learned through observation. I think Parisians know that because there’s no reluctance whatsoever to din alone, for a man of course, but also for women. The dignity of being single in a public setting is a deep part of French public life and I think it’s wonderful. Once I finally cottoned onto that, after all those sad little café meals … and I was on expense account, I finally bought a book and started systematically eating my way through it. I thought, if I’m going to be here I might as well take advantage of it….duh! And was so surprised that as long as I had a reservation, and I’d walk through the door and the great big heavy curtains, and when they ask “Combien?” and say “Juste pour moi”.

And you don’t think the restaurants put solo diners in the back or in a bad spot?

A lot of it is how you present yourself; if you come in cowering and expect to be seated between the two swinging doors, that’s where you’ll go. If you’re confident, and come in with a smile and looking forward to a nice meal, they’ll suddenly think, “We’ll put her over here.” There are clues we’re sending out about ourselves all the time. Different things are picked up by different people, in different cultures as well. And that confidence and that pride in making the effort to look nice, that’s one of the things I really like about France, I like the formality. I like the fact that a certain degree of vanity is part of public life. It’s civilizing and it’s attractive and it’s just nice. And that extends to restaurants too. How you present yourself in a restaurant has a huge impact in how you’re going to be served.

They must think you’re one of them by now…

French people often ask me the first time we meet, “Are you Belgian or are you Swiss?” because they can hear a faint accent, but they assume that I’m Francophone, which I’m very flattered by because I love the language and I’ve worked very hard at it over the years. Implicit in that also is that they’re registering you aesthetically as someone who is part of the European landscape. Over the years I’ve imbibed, or ingested and made these codes my own. I think it’s also that flutter when I come back into the city from the airport and I see the Eiffel Tower on the horizon or the Sacré Coeur and there’s that very magical moment where I have the thought, “I’m home, this is my home”. Feelings of tenderness and belonging. That being said, the French can be pretty hard. This culture does not absorb people into itself the way American culture does. We’ll always be foreign.

Do you think you’ll ever go back?

My mother is always asking me that, and people say to me “Do you miss the United States?” and I say “No, I don’t miss the United States.” America is everywhere in the world, American products, American culture, American everything is everywhere. The only time I miss America is occasionally during the summer because the summer in the Northeast is so beautiful. I love the food and I love the lushness of an American summer. There are certain smells that are particular, the flowers of the privet hedge or the beach at low tide…I don’t rule out the idea of living in America, but there are so many other places I’d like to live in first, I’ve already done that!

What do you do in Paris when you’re not eating?

My favorite park is Jardin de Luxembourg, it’s the best lesson in Parisian life you can possibly get, you just sit on a park bench and watch people. it’s like the peaceable kingdom, and that park is brilliantly designed because there’s the park for mothers with children, the park for the chess table, the pony rides, the quiet shady corners for people to sit along reading books. I also like the Buttes Chaumont, that’s very romantic and interesting. I’m an avid museum-goer, I like the small museums. I’m very much looking forward to the reopening of the Musée Henner, he’s a very interesting painter. I like the Musée Carnavalet. That’s one place I always send people because it’s a great lesson in Paris, a fascinating museum. Every once in awhile I’ll just walk through the Louvre for five minutes, which is a luxury we have living here. But in general I do prefer the smaller ones like the Guimet or the Marmatton, or the Orangerie. I’m also an art movie guy. We always have this joke when I say I want to go to the movies with Bruno. “So, have you found a movie about a one-legged Puerto-Rican lesbian who has cancer?” I don’t do action films. The other thing I really love here is dance. It was something I developed a passion for when I was a student in London. I go as often as I can but it’s not easy because the ballet, you have to buy those tickets so far in advance and I travel so much and I never know when I’m going to be around.

You can read Alec Lobrano’s latest reviews, articles and news on his website: www.alexanderlobrano.com

2 Comments

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  • Thanks for this enjoyable read! My frustration with planning our upcoming trip is not being able to find English menus as you suggested to investigate prior.

  • Thanks, Heather, for the full article. You asked good questions and Lobrano's answers were interesting and informative. I liked the details that included his impressions of changes in the City, and his candid observations on behavior (both Parisians and Americans), and since I so often see well-meaning Am tourists stumbling around aggravating the patient locals I hope your article is widely read.