Food blogger and cookbook author David Lebovitz is an American renter in Paris who inherited a narrow kitchen with a motley assortment of appliances stuffed under the slanted roof of his 650-square-foot top-floor apartment near the Bastille. "In America, if you don't like your kitchen, you bulldoze it," he says in his kitchen on a recent afternoon. "But renters don't really spend a lot of money to do that in France."
David started his culinary training in the pastry kitchen of Chez Panisse in the 80s, left after 13 years to write cookbooks, and moved to Paris five years ago. Since he makes his living as a cookbook writer and the space functions as his test kitchen, David has dealt with his constraints by basically turning his whole apartment into a kitchen -- ice cream maker in the bedroom, casserole dishes nestled in the bookcase, improvised chocolate drying rack on the window ledge in the bathroom.
His long apartment is divided into a bedroom with a splendid view of the Eiffel Tower and the Pompidou Center in the distance, and a main space that includes a "cuisine américaine" (the French term for an open kitchen) where he spends most of his time. "In a small kitchen, you learn to go vertical," he says, pointing to a high shelf where he stores often-used ingredients and an inherited Champagne bucket filled with utensils that sits on top of the refrigerator. He likes to leave things out where he can see them, and what he doesn't leave on the counters he keeps at arm's length, he says, opening up a drawer stuffed with favorite tools like his mini ice-cream scooper, smuggled back from the US.
His counter top is strewn with seaweed-infused sea salt from a stall at the Sunday market on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, bottles of olive oil, homemade croutons in a plastic bag, and prunes macerating in a Mason jar filled with Armagnac for his prune and Armagnac ice cream, which he promptly removes from the freezer, scooping some out for a mid-interview snack. Next to his dining room table, he has cooking supplies stacked on open wire shelving. "People are always saying 'that's horrible, put that stuff away,'" he says. "But I need to see everything. It inspires me, as queer as that sounds!"
Across the room, his bookshelf is crammed with cookbooks as well as gratin pans and his prized orange Raymond Loewy lidded casserole. On top of the shelf the word pâtissier is spelled out in three-dimensional letters from an old bakery that he bought secondhand in Paris. "I have a small apartment, so I don't have 10,000 cookbooks, like I did in San Francisco," he says. "I don't really make a lot of recipes from other people's books, but I use them for reference. I don't really know about cooking meat, so I might look up how to cook a pork roast or something."
He said he rarely has people over for dinner, since his table can really only seat four. But he enjoys cooking things like carnitas and barbecued ribs (done in the oven) followed by homemade ice cream for French people who don't get that kind of fare at the corner bistro or cook it at home. And while he likes the open kitchen, he says he's not the kind of cook who starts work when company arrives. "People start talking to me," he says, "and they don't understand that I need to concentrate! So that's why I think advance planning is important." He points to how an opened cupboard door can act as a de-facto gate in the narrow space, to keep the boyfriend out. "I dislike having people in my kitchen when I'm cooking," he says.
David has recently finished the first draft of his fifth book, which will be out in spring of 2009. His last two books were about ice cream and chocolate. So what's this one about? "It's about Paris," he says, "with recipes, of course."
How would you define your cooking style?
Simple. Because in France cooking is really ingredient-driven. And since food is expensive here, if you buy radicchio, then you just make a radicchio salad. It's super-cliché but when you have good food, you don't need to do a lot to it.
My KitchenAid mixer. I got the up-and-down kind, not the newer tilt-head kind, because I like it better.
Favorite cooking utensil?
Spatulas! I buy Le Creuset silicone spatulas on sale in the U.S. Because they're made in China, it's cheaper than buying them in France!
Biggest challenge in your kitchen?
The lack of space. When I make a cake, there's no place to put the bowls!
My Cuisinart ice cream maker with a built-in freezer. I figured when I was writing my ice cream book, that it was worth it.
What are you cooking this week?
Ice cream! And crackers. A lot of ice cream and crackers.
Dream for your kitchen?
I'd like to buy this place and put in a whole new kitchen.
Originally published March 12, 2008
(All images by Kristin Hohenadel)