Travel literature review: The Sweet Life in Paris

The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz

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Rating: 4 out of 5

Reviewed by Sasha Baskett

When American pastry chef David Lebovitz moves to Paris, he finds himself in an unfamiliar world. What is this strange city where you must get dressed up to take out the garbage and eating a banana requires a knife and a fork?

Lebovitz, long-time chef at Alice Waters’ Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, left the USA behind to try life in Paris. He details his efforts negotiating his new city in a mostly sweet, sometimes acerbic memoir, The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City.

From understanding the importance of personally greeting every employee when entering a shop to discovering that even the simplest of errand is likely to take the best part of a day, Lebovitz finds himself with lots to learn.

While there could have been temptation for his early frustrations to channel themselves into nothing more than a long litany of complaints, Lebovitz manages to transform his confusion into genuine fondness for the city’s eccentricities.

Some of the solutions he finds when trying to adapt are charming. His apartment is tiny, so he scrubs pots and pans in the bathtub, turns his bedroom into an ice-creamery and cools his freshly baked cookies on a rooftop that has views of the Eiffel Tower.

His cooking clout opens doors for him not available to the regular traveller, and so through Lebovitz we experience the early-morning start of a fish boy at the poissonnerie and get to step behind the counter of a chocolatier while he samples every sweet for sale.

This book is not just a memoir. Among his tales of Parisian life there are dozens of recipes, an eclectic mix of French favourites (crepe, soufflé, mousse) and less-likely inclusions (absinthe cake, chicken mole, peanut slaw). He introduces each recipe with cooking tips and snippets of food history. An appendix at the end of the book has a list of Lebovitz’s favourite shops that would benefit any food-lover’s trip to Paris.

The bemused foreigner has long been a popular topic for travelogues and Paris is a well-used set on to which to stage that story. But by focussing on culinary life, and including favourite recipes and the stories behind them, Lebovitz’s The Sweet Life in Paris manages to serve up something different.

Sasha Baskett works at Lonely Planet’s Melbourne office and would like to see more books include a recipe for brownies a la confiture de lait (dulce de leche brownies).

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