A Conversation with Alec Lobrano, the author of Hungry For Paris
Terrance Gelenter, PARIS THROUGH EXPATRIATE EYES
Alec Lobrano is the European Correspondent for Gourmet Magazine and has been a Paris resident for over twenty years. I’ve been reading his work almost from the beginning, including his brand new HUNGRY FOR PARIS: THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO THE CITY’S BEST 102 RESTAURANTS and intuitively knew that we would enjoy having a conversation about Paris. No café crème for us but rather a fabulous blanquete de veau at one of my favorites, La Manège de L’Ecuyer. The following is extracted from a 3-hour conversation.
TG: When did you first go to Paris?
AL: My first visit was in August 1972, en famille, with my parents, two brothers and sister. We stayed at a now-vanished hotel just off the Champs Elysees and everyday began with a glass of warm TANG, which my late father mixed up in the bathroom water glasses, as a bit of thrift.
AL: After 1972, I visited Paris a number of times, but it was my first solo trips to the city when I was a student in London in 1975 that made me fall head-over-heels for the place. On my own, I could eat all of the strange or expensive things that had been off limits during that first family trip—eating a kidney figured high on my list because I was besotted with “Ulysses” by James Joyce, and in terms of things that were expensive, all it took was one quick sniff for me to know that I had a hopeless, life-long love of truffles.
TG: Where do you live (arrondissement?
AL: The 9th arrondissement, between Place Saint Georges and La Trinitee. I moved here in 2000 after 15 years on the Left Bank, including ten years in a tiny flat on the rue du Bac, and I’ve never looked back.
AL: The 9th is one of the most confidential parts of the city. After being the epicenter of fashionable Parisian life during the mid-19th century, it feel asleep for a century, and is only now waking up again. It was wonderful little restaurants, a real vie-de-quartier (neighborhood life), gorgeous architecture, a diverse population, a pleasantly bohemian atmosphere reminiscent of the West Village when I lived there 25 years ago, and it’s incredibly convenient.
TG: What’s your favorite café?
AL: Cafe de la Mairie on a warm summer night, Cafe de Flore on any Indian summer day, and Cafe Select when friends comes from out of town.
TG: What’s your favorite wine?
AL: I have a certified weakness for white Mersault and Chateauneuf du Pape, and my knees quake before a bottle of Cote Rotie
TG: What do you drink when just kicking back at home?
AL : Domaine de l’Oratoire Cairanne, a superb Rhone valley red. I also love serving Gallo Turning Leaf Chardonnay to French guests, because they invariably assume that it’s a good lesser Burgundy!
TG: What’s your favorite starred restaurant?
AL: I don’t pay very much attention to stars, but if stars are the qualification, I suppose I’d go with Pierre Gagnaire and L’Astrance, since both of these restaurants always stun and delight with their ever evolving genius.
TG: What’s your favorite bistro du coin?
AL: In terms of a real bistro du coin, I like the very ordinary place just down the road from where I live—La Rotonde, Place Estienne d’Orves, which overlooks the Trinitée Church, has decent food and wine, and cheeky service. If I lived near the Gare du Nord, my bistro du coin would be Chez Michel, which is a superb bistro—incredibly hardworking and very modest, chef Thierry Breton just gets better and better.
TG: What’s your favorite market?
AL: I love the organic market in the Batignolles on Saturday morning—it has almost all of the same vendors as the Boulevard Raspail, but it’s less expensive, friendlier, more Parisian.
TG: What’s your favorite park or garden?
AL: Scatter my ashes in the Luxembourg Gardens, which will always be the apotheosis of French civilization for me.
TG: What’s your favorite time of the year?
AL: As a New Englander, I have a fatal attraction to the sensual melancholia of Fall, and if I like it in Massachusetts, I like it even better in Paris, where the tristesse has a sensual edge.
TG: How or do you stay connected to America?
AL: I read the NY Times, LA Times and Washington Post every morning as soon as I turn on my computer. Otherwise, American culture is so lavishly present in France that there’s no possibility that I’d ever fall out of step. The only thing that I occasionally notice when I go home is some new casual connivance in terms of speaking English—general American usage of the language is relentlessly informal and unselfconscious.
People often ask me if I miss America, and I say, sure, they’re moments when I miss the U.S., specifically during summer in the Northeast, which despite being such a heavily urbanized area has gorgeous beaches and wonderful summer food—farm-stand corn and tomatoes, lobster, everything barbecued, which is why I always make sure to get back for a week or two in August.
TG: In your new book, HUNGRY FOR PARIS you chose to write about 102 restaurants. What criteria did you use for inclusion?
AL: I chose restaurants that represent a variety of moods, cuisines and atmospheres, and which are places that I go to regularly myself. My main thought was to put myself in the shoes of anyone visiting the city—to wit, I don’t want gourmet food every night, and once in a very, very blue moon, they’re even times when I’d rather be somewhere that’s a good time than anything else.
TG: When reviewing a restaurant what elements are always considered irrespective of price?
AL: I have to admit that I am generally indifferent to decor. This doesn’t’ mean that I want to eat in an ugly dining room, but for me the important thing is always, always what I find on my plate. After the quality of the food, the welcome, service and atmosphere are extremely important.
TG: Were you influenced by the historical writers of Paris gastronomy likeWaverly Root and A.J. Liebling and/or more contemporary critics?
AL: Coming from a family and an American cultural context that always deemed food as being unworthy of serious effort of interest, I didn’t notice any writing about food until I lived in London during the late 70s. Befriended by a kindly librarian at the Fulham branch of the London library system, I worked in the black as a page, a job I’d done in my hometown of Weston, Connecticut, and often had tea, or a sort of light supper, with her after the library closed. Elizabeth David was one of her favorite writers, and I quickly fell in love with her work, along with the brilliant writing of M.F.K. Fisher—I think “How to Cook a Wolf” is still some of the first flight American food writing. Later, when I moved to Paris, I used Patricia Well’s “Food-lover’s Guide to Paris,” as my first compass, and very much appreciated its companionable style. In terms of contemporary American food writing, I’m troubled by its seriousness, even sanctimoniousness—as A.J Lieibling knew, food is an inherently happy, friendly and often hilarious subject, and this is the tone that I hope I’ve captured in my book.
TG: How has Paris affected your work?
AL: n my writing, as in almost everything else, Paris set me free by offering a non-judgmental, sensual, magnificent backdrop against which to discover who I am.
TG: How has Paris affected your life?
AL: Paris has mothered me in a way that no other place I’ve ever lived (New York, Boston, London, Connecticut, Nantucket, etc.) ever has, so I’d have to say that I really am very much a child of this city.
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