Chef and author David Lebovitz is staying digitally active during the coronavirus lockdown in Paris, where he lives. Posting vibrant photos of food and drink on his Instagram feed, sharing recipes on his blog, and mixing cocktails live on camera, Lebovitz is in good spirits, which is, of course, the subject of his new cookbook, Drinking French, The Iconic Cocktails, Aperitifs, and Café Traditions of France (Ten Speed Press).
Lebovitz was scheduled to come to the East Bay this spring as part of his book tour. Due to the spread of COVID-19 and restricted travel, however, he had to cancel all his trips. He said it hasn’t affected the reception of his book, however, because of the strong following he has built from his blog, which he has run for 20 years. Lebovitz is the author of several bestselling cookbooks like The Perfect Scoop and My Paris Kitchen. He’s a household name for every foodie, which explains his robust social media presence with, at the time of publication, 228K followers on Instagram.
While he now lives in Paris, Lebovitz has a lasting connection to the East Bay. As a college student in New York in the early ‘80s, he worked at a natural foods restaurant. Around this time, he first read about the food at Chez Panisse. After he moved to San Francisco, Lebovitz had his sights set on working at the restaurant, but he was kicked out when he walked in to ask for a job.
“I didn’t have an interview or an appointment and I walked in to see if they had openings, and was expelled,” he said, laughing. “It’s a lesson that you don’t go into a restaurant to apply for a job during service.”
He came back at a better time and interviewed with Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters, who hired him when he professed his love of making salad. “Those were the golden words,” he said. “I was hired to make salads upstairs and then one year later, I became the pastry chef.”
He was hired at Chez Panisse in 1983 and worked there for 13 years, though he left for a few years to work as a pastry chef in San Francisco, before moving to Paris in 2004. During his tenure at the Berkeley institution, he cultivated his love for fresh and high-quality ingredients. “Being a California chef, I am very ingredients, rather than techniques-based. I don’t need to make a very technical French dessert. I’m more into finding good peaches and figuring out how to highlight them in a dish,” he said.
The idea for Drinking French came from this love of ingredients. While watching a bartender make a cocktail, Lebovitz had the epiphany that mixing drinks is kind of like baking. “Bartenders take different flavors and mix them in a glass and make something new, but you also taste the supporting ingredients. Brownies taste like butter, chocolate and eggs, which all come together to make something different,” said Lebovitz. “I started buying liquor and making cocktails at home.”
Lebovitz was new to the world of wine, cocktails and liqueurs, and he went into the book project with a beginner’s mind. To conduct research, he traveled across France, went to liquor shows and liquor stores, and most importantly, he talked to the French people who were making and consuming drinks. His accessible and educational cookbook aims to help readers cut through any anxiety about not knowing about alcohol.
“I wanted to learn more about the culture of French drinking. I wasn’t the person who knew about wine. I asked stupid questions, like what is Cognac? What is Vermouth? Is it something you add to chicken? What is Chartreuse? What is that green beer? I wanted to explain it all and categorize it,” he said.
Drinking French offers 160 recipes, with photographs by Ed Anderson, that cover French drinks and snacks to suit every hour of the day. The cookbook begins, like a typical French day, with a cup of coffee. The first chapter on café drinks also includes recipes for hot chocolate, infusions and tisanes (the French terms for tea), frappés, and limonade and citronnade (lemonade with and without carbonation, respectively).
Lebovitz describes in the next chapter that apéritifs are drinks consumed before or after meals. They are typically bitter in order to stimulate your stomach before a meal and to calm your stomach after a meal if you overate. He gives a thorough list of digestive beverages from Grapefruit Rosé and a Twinkle (vodka and elderflower stirred into champagne) to Vermouth and Martinis.
The chef also provides snacks to accompany the drinks, like fontina and seed crisps, a recipe he adapted from Market Hall Foods in Oakland, and baked camembert with walnut, figs, and whiskey gastrique.
For the time of coronavirus, Lebovitz suggested his favorite alcoholic drink recipe from his book, though he gives a disclaimer: “I don’t like to say to have a drink [in response to stress] because it’s not a solution. You can have a drink, just don’t have 12.” A usual Manhattan-sipper, Lebovitz recommends The French Manhattan, which is made with cognac, sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier or Cointreau, orange bitters and a cherry for garnish.
Lebovitz said the most important thing for everyone right now is self-care, which can include comfort food and cocktails. He said, “To deal with this anxiety, you really need to take care of yourself, but we often feel guilty for doing it. You can go on that diet later. This is the time to take care of yourself and eat cookies.”
Makes 1 cocktail
1 1/2 ounces (45ml) cognac
1 1/2 ounces (45ml) sweet vermouth
1/4 ounce (8ml) Grand Marnier or Cointreau
1 dash orange bitters or Angostura aromatic bitters
Candied amarena cherry or maraschino cherry, for garnish
Add the cognac, sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier, and bitters to a cocktail mixing glass. Add ice and stir until well chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with the cherry.
Recipe and photographs reprinted with permission from Drinking French: The Iconic Cocktails, Aperitifs, and Café Traditions of France, with 160 recipes by David Lebovitz © 2020. Photographs © 2020 by Ed Anderson. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.