Alec Lobrano

3rd February 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

3rd February 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

An American food writer in Paris, Alec Lobrano lives at the top of a grand 19th-century apartment building in the ninth. He moved into the attic five years ago with his partner Bruno, a business consultant, and they did it up from scratch. It’s pretty miserable outside when we visit – a dull, wet evening addled by rush-hour traffic – but up here it’s like floating on a cloud. Jazz plays over the stereo, rain patters on the skylights; you sink into the sofa with a glass of wine in your hand and you never want to get up again.

Born in Connecticut, Alec lived in New York and London before moving to Paris in the mid-80s. He started out as a book editor, working at Random House, but switched to journalism and now writes about food for a variety of publications including the New York Times and Saveur. After nearly 30 years in France, he’s amassed serious knowledge about his adoptive country’s food (you get a good sense of it in his cookbooks Hungry for Paris and Hungry for France, which came out last year). He’s also amassed a fantastic larder: in his kitchen you’ll find lots of wine, smoked salts, amazing chocolate, a dozen or so olive oils and the best spice drawer we’ve ever seen.

First we head out into the rain to buy dessert at Alec’s local market street, rue des Martyrs1, but his favourite patisserie is closed so we buy a cake further up the street. Then we settle in for the evening. The main course, a fish dish from his new book, requires a bit of preparation but once it goes into the oven he can sit back and regale us with stories – about his piratical Italian ancestor, about the worst thing he’s ever eaten. He’s a warm and generous host as well as a great raconteur. “Food is about the pleasure of sharing,” he says. “I can’t imagine making something nice to eat and then sitting behind a locked door by yourself – you’d have to be a real freak.”

Continued below...

What’s your most important meal of the day?

My life is dinner-centred. I love breakfast but never have much time for it – you get up, turn on a computer, make a cup of coffee. Same issue with lunch. But [it’s different] with dinner… Either I’m out in a restaurant to write about it or we’ll go to the market and cook.

How often do you eat out?

Depending on the week, four or five times. I don’t go to restaurants at the weekend – it’s my time off and I just don’t want to. In Paris, like any big city, the weekend is a terrible time to go to a restaurant – it’s tense, crowded, and it’s a different clientele so the kitchen reacts to that too. The best nights to go out in Paris are Wednesday and Thursday, because the kitchen knows it’s cooking for a Parisian clientele. The atmosphere’s completely different.

Is it an exciting time to be eating in Paris?

We’re having a really brilliant season this autumn, some amazingly good new restaurants have opened2. The French, even though people don’t think so, are actually very modest about their food and Paris has been renewing itself quietly for a really long time. The talent pool has now become international and many of the best working chefs in Paris are now Japanese. The love of food between Japan and Paris, it just never ends. Three or four new restaurants headed by Japanese chefs have opened this autumn [see Address Book].

You also review restaurants outside Paris?

I go everywhere in France. I’d say maybe 70% is Paris. But I’m also in Milan, Vienna, anywhere there’s good food. People think Paris, they think fancy restaurants, but that’s not where I live in food terms. It’s fun occasionally to go to those places, but I like bistros, I like food that’s lower to the ground.

Do you still get excited to discover somewhere new?

Oh, always. In America, during university summers, I worked in hotel kitchens and as a waiter, so I know what goes on behind the kitchen door. And I know how hard their work is…

The best nights to go out in Paris are Wednesday and Thursday, because the kitchen knows it’s cooking for a Parisian clientele. The atmosphere’s completely different

That’s important to know when you’re writing criticism.

Hugely. I’m never gratuitous. There are ways of being critical, and because of the rise of the internet a lot of people are shying away from being critical – because a lot of bloggers depend on free invitations to restaurants, so you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Criticism is legitimate when it’s honest and balanced, and it should say something useful without being gratuitous. France still has a culture of expertise, but in a lot of English-speaking countries people have sacked the idea of the expert. And it’s dangerous for anybody who’s investing in a restaurant, because they need the criticism… Anyway, I’m out a lot.

Is cooking at home a pleasure?

Oh I love it. Also, what kind of a food writer would I be if I wasn’t handling a fish or going to markets? You need that direct contact with the kitchen; you also need to screw things up – you need to have your own experience as a chef, in other words.

Are you always learning?

Constantly. I’m so curious. It’s not just from talking to chefs. When I was in Brittany doing a story not so long ago, I loved talking to the fishermen when the boats came in and eating where they ate. One came over to me and said, “We’ve seen you skulking around with a notebook for a couple of days, are you from the tax authority?” I said, “God no”, and they opened up and started talking to me. They said, “What do you know about fish? You’re from Paris, you wouldn’t know a fish if you stepped on it.” I said, “So tell me a few things I should know”. Some of what they told me I did know, some were things I had no idea about. You learn about food your whole life long – as long as you have teeth.

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What do you enjoy about cooking, aside from the end product?

I like the manual aspect of it – since I have such a cerebral life, it’s the only thing I do on a regular basis that isn’t verbal. I like handling the produce. When you’re smelling produce and chopping things up, there’s a nice cooking trance you go into. And then, assuming everything works out – it doesn’t always – there’s the pleasure of making something and sharing with other people. I read a great quote by Paul Bocuse recently. It’s an obvious thing, but he said cooking is not about good recipes, cooking is about generosity and love. Most really great cooks are cooking with those compass points.

That said, do you refer to recipes often?

My office is stuffed with cookbooks – James Beard, Marcella Hazan, Julia Child, Elizabeth David – and I buy them every once in a while, but at this stage of the game it’s like being a painter. You think okay, I’ve bought cep mushrooms, loin pork, apples, how is this all going to come together? There’s a battery of skills that, once you’ve mastered, you can apply to a load of different things.

I’m from Connecticut where an interest in food was not even appropriate, it was considered eccentric

Have you always been interested in food?

Yes, I have. I come from a peculiar background. My Italian surname notwithstanding, I’m about one-sixteenth Italian. My father’s family is from New Orleans and they’ve been there since the man on my wall3. He ran away from Genoa in 1774 and ended up in the Gulf of Mexico, became a pirate and then married the daughter of the last French governor of Louisiana, so he ended his life with a big house in the French Quarter, an enormous plantation, a beautiful wife and seven sons. That’s one part of America where people have always cared hugely about food. I didn’t grow up down there, however. I’m from Connecticut, which is the other side of the coin. An interest in food was not even appropriate, it was considered eccentric.

So where did your interest come from?

My grandfather’s sisters lived in a big house in New Orleans and my brother and I were sent for a couple of weeks every summer to visit them. The great aunts were nice but they were little perfumed powdery china dolls who spoke French between themselves, so we’d go in the kitchen because they had a great big black cook who was very funny. She would always say, “You little white rats, if you’re going to be in here you’ve got to do something”. So she taught us to cook. She’d take us to the market. She knew how to cook real Cajun food – Cajun and Creole are different. That food for me, growing up in a suburban American background, was so full of flavour, and dinner was the only time of day when the old ladies got lit up because the food was so delicious.

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We’d have those two gastronomic weeks every year and then go back to Connecticut where everything was wrapped in plastic and overcooked. My Boston grandmother was formal and fussy and everything really was cooked within an inch of its life. She would serve white meals. We still joke about it. The long Sunday lunches with the radiators hissing and the windows very carefully closed in case we catch a chill, even in May, and my grandmother dressed in rustling black velvet gabardine as if she were mourning.
One day we were served lunch by her cook who was from Nova Scotia, not famous for its food. I’m looking at a white plate of cod, potatoes and cauliflower – white food – and I say, “Grandmother, could we have some ketchup or mustard or Worcester sauce or lemon or something to put on this dish?” She didn’t look up. Then the neck cocks: “First of all children don’t talk unless they’re spoken to. Second of all, certainly not, because condiments excite children.” So my food background was completely torn between two different poles, with the midpoint being stodgy American suburban food from the late 60s early 70s.

You eat the whole bird, the bones, the intestines, so when you bite into it, it’s like being hit over the head with a hammer

I had a kind of epiphany when my father sent me away on a two-month camping trip across America, then down into Mexico and Guatemala. It was meant to make me more outgoing and confident, because I was a very shy and bookish 12-year-old, but it didn’t work at all the way it was meant to. I folded even more deeply in on myself, but I was fascinated by the food. I kept a diary and was constantly writing down what we were eating: Mexican corn fungus, things like that. When I got home, my father asked, “How was the trip, what did you write in the diary I gave you?” I remember him saying, “How bizarre that a little boy would have been taking notes of all his food”.

So you were an adventurous eater even then?

I was actually quite fussy when I was little. One of my grandmothers in her dotage used to have these lobster feasts in New England, but I wouldn’t eat them, these crimson, hard-shelled things; I’d sit there with a hamburger instead. I think to myself now, I can’t believe for all those years there were lobsters piled high on the table and now they’re beyond-hope expensive – and I was the idiot at the far end of the table with the hamburger.

What about now? Is there anything you don’t eat?

I loathe the conceit that food writers eat everything, of course they don’t. I think my worst moment ever was, a long time ago, I was in south-west France doing a story about truffles and I was invited to eat ortolan4. It was a hugely traumatic thing. They brought in the platter, they did the whole thing with the hoods5, it was rough going.

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Rough how?

It wasn’t the thought of it that bothered me. It’s that they’re not gutted, you eat the whole bird, the bones, the intestines, so when you bite into it – the sharp things, the faecal tastes – your head just spins. It’s like being hit over the head with a hammer.

You mentioned earlier that you like food that’s lower to the ground. How low do you go?

There are certain trashy things that are nice to eat. I happily, shamelessly eat at all levels of the food chain. The idea of people who say they’ve never eaten at a fast-food restaurant – please! Have you never been on a road trip? Or have you never been at that weird intersection point of exhaustion and hangover and whatever, and you’re suddenly thinking, I am going to go to Burger King, for homeopathic reasons?

Never wash fish – the French would put you in an asylum for it. You’re washing away the taste

Tell me about your kitchen.

When we got here it was just an empty space – we did everything ourselves. This is a huge kitchen by Parisian standards, but we had to be inventive because of the sloping ceilings. My partner, who is much better at these things than I am, figured out that we should have two small fridges instead of one big one. It’s great to cook in. For years I lived in a hovel, so every time I come back home it’s a revelation.
One of the best things we did here was put in a filtering system in the tap, so we don’t buy bottled water anymore, which is great – I’m obsessively ecological, and also, being a cheap New Englander, I hate spending money on water.

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How do you and Bruno divide up kitchen duties?

I’m good with roasts and everything meat, whereas he’s a wonderful pastry chef – he has the patience for pastry, I just don’t. He’s also a very fastidious cook, I’m more instinctive. He’s currently in the middle of making a stock of verbena tea for the winter…

So he does more long-term projects like this?

Bruno has a job that allows for it. I’m always behind, like anybody who’s self-employed and lives in a big city is always time and a few pennies short.

On The Menu

Dinner with Alec Lobrano
Paris, October 2014

To eat:

Roasted sea bass with tomatoes, olives and herbs (recipe)
A simple green salad
Prune and armagnac cake (bought in from Arnaud Delmontel)

To drink:

A Saint Pourcain white from the Auvergne

Do you have any kitchen wisdom you could share?

Never wash fish. Some recipes tell you to rinse fish, but the French would put you in an asylum. They say that all the microorganisms on the skin of the fish have so much flavour, so if you wash them, you’re washing away a whole bunch of the taste.
On a more philosophical note, there was a wonderful chef in Brittany who once said to me, “Alec, if you calm your mind down, the product always tells you how to cook it”, and I think that’s really true. Recipe culture has terrified people into thinking, Oh no, how many cups did it say? It’s become more scientific and mathematical as time’s gone by – which is good in a way I suppose, but real cooking isn’t about measurements.

For more on Alec, visit his website

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  1. They’ve lived in the area for 15 years and have watched this “forgotten part of Paris” slowly become desirable again. “The food shopping is getting a lot better,” he says, “but I miss the mix of people. It’s becoming really rich and all the edges are being knocked off.”
  2. We visited Alec in October 2014
  3. Alec is referring to a painting in his living room, which you’ll see in one of our photos
  4. A tiny songbird that is considered a delicacy in France, though the practice of eating them – roasted whole and consumed bones and all – is currently illegal
  5. Ortolan eaters cover their heads with a linen napkin to preserve the aromas and, some believe, to hide the shameful act from God

Posted 3rd February 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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