David Lebovitz On The French Breakfast

After a decade in Paris, the New England native has come around to the simple pleasures of the petit déjeuner

Breakfast in France is a simple affair: a bowl of milky café au lait, a simple tartine—a toasted length of baguette spread with jam, butter or honey—and not much else. The country's restrained petit déjeuner can come as a bit of a shock to travelers familiar with the French reverence for good food, ones who might expect piles of warm crepes or platters of eggy quiche. But for David Lebovitz, the acclaimed American pastry chef and food writer who decamped to Paris in 2004, France's first meal of the day is perfect just as it is—foreigners' expectations be damned.

It's no exaggeration to say that Lebovitz—who solidified his formidable pastry expertise at Berkeley, California's Chez Panisse between 1986 and 1999—was one of the Internet's first food bloggers, launching his award-winning site in 1999. For the past decade, his musings on expat life in France—as well as his chronicling of his adoptive city's tempting bread, pastry and chocolate offerings—have been essential reading for Francophiles and dessert lovers alike. And while Lebovitz doesn't hesitate to point out French customs that don't jive with him—streetside avalanches of cigarette butts and brusque customer service are among his pet peeves—he's quick to defend France's coffee-and-toast habit. Over pastries and juice at Maison Landemaine, a café near his home in the 11th arrondissement, he explains why.

"I like that it's simple and relatively neutral," Lebovitz says. "It's basically toast, coffee and OJ." A reformed breakfast skipper, he says he appreciates a morning meal that's not too heavy.

"I used to not eat breakfast. But then I started working in San Francisco kitchens, where we got yelled at if we didn't eat. So I made a concerted effort to start eating breakfast." Previously accustomed to an empty stomach in the morning, Lebovitz says that graduating to coffee and a bit of toast was about all that he could handle.

Today, Lebovitz is a full-fledged convert to the French-style petit—emphasis on petit—déjeuner.

"My absolute favorite breakfast is to come here," he says, gesturing to the clean, modern bakery around us—"grab a baguette, and then head home, where I slather it with the amazing French butter that's so easy to find here. In France, you leave butter out at room temperature, so it's super easy to spread across your tartine. That and a café au lait, and I'm set."

As an expat, Lebovitz has firsthand knowledge of Americans' expectations of a heartier breakfast. So when he hosts his frequent visitors from the U.S., he prepares accordingly.

"When friends stay with me, I get way too much stuff," he says. "Different breads, all kinds of pastries, and that way we can just nibble on things." 

But when left to his own devices, the almost-certified Parisian quickly reverts to his French breakfasting ways. These days, he's even warming to the très European idea of tippling at breakfast. 

"When I first started visiting Paris, I would always pass these old guys at the bars, pounding down wine or pastis at an hour when I was about to eat breakfast," he recalls. "And I would wonder what was up with that. Then I learned this old French expression, 'killing the worm,' which is some weird, very French thing about how a worm grows in your stomach overnight and you have to kill it at breakfast by drinking some alcohol."

Lebovitz continues, "Now, clearly, that's crazy. But, recently, when I was on vacation down south and the mornings were blazing hot, I found myself thinking, 'Hm, maybe it would be nice to crack open a cold bottle of rosé.'"