I am super excited and honoured to feature an interview with David Lebovitz in On Life As A Picky Foodie.
David Lebovitz is a world-famous pastry chef, chocolate lover, food-blogger and Paris-dweller. I don't know how I first came across his writing, but I've been hooked on his blog davidlebovitz.com for years. His honest, no-nonsense style is hilarious and sharp at the same time; David doesn't beat around the bush, and that's part of what makes his writing so appealing.
When I reached out to him a few months ago with the request for an interview about dessert and food restrictions, I was delighted when he immediately agreed. I can't tell you how much it means to me to be able to share this with you all and how grateful I am to David.
So at the risk of cheesing this intro. up even more: merci, David, merci mille fois.
Interview with David Lebovitz
The Picky Foodie: There seem to be increasing numbers of people with allergies to everyday staples like gluten and dairy – any theories as to why this is?
David Lebovitz: There are some people who theorize that it's because we've strayed so far from what and how we're supposed to be eating, that our bodies haven't adjusted properly. Another is that it's genetic, such as in Italy, it's believed many are predisposed to be gluten intolerant. And there's also the feeling that many people are fantasizing about their food allergies, doing it to get attention, or that it's all in their heads. Living in France, where food allergies rarely seem to exist (I don't know anyone in France who is allergic to anything, except for Americans who live here), it's a curious paradox. On one hand, do these people have allergies and they're not aware of them? Or are they somehow genetically different?
I'm lactose intolerant and had a lot of problems as a teenager, until I learned what it was, and stopped chugging glasses of milk. My problems never reappeared, and I eat fermented products like cheese and yogurt freely. I also eat ice cream, but don't have the copious overload that one might see in the states, instead I have one intense scoop, no larger than a golf ball, and I'm perfectly content, and healthy.
TPF: How has this affected your work?
DL: I do what I do, and figure that people who have food allergies and intolerances are better equipped than I am about substitutions, especially the gluten-free folks. I have a number of friends who are gluten-intolerant so I am sensitive to their needs, but I don't know all the formulations for replicating wheat flour like they do. Same with vegans, who know what works for swapping out eggs and butter, better than I do. I am sensitive to various diets and when I write books, such as my ice cream book, I have a whole chapter on sorbet and sherbets, which have little-to-no dairy, and granitas, which only have a sprinkling of sugar. But I have to assume that people buying my ice cream book aren't really allergic to many things, and it's nice to know that a variety of books exist which address food intolerances specifically.
With the website, I can be looser, as space isn't an issue. Plus readers contribute tips in the comments, which are a great help to me and others.
TPF: In your experience, how does the French attitude towards health and diet differ from the US?
DL: There is much less consciousness in France about what is "good" for you, versus "bad." It's hard to generalize, but people don't feel guilty eating cheese and chocolate like they do in America. Although Americans eat a lot of bad foods (including fast food) or those high-calorie energy bars, but freak out if there are carbohydrates in their orange juice. The French are getting wider: somewhere around one-quarter of the women in France are considered overweight, in spite of what best-selling books might have us believe. And people are starting to watch what they eat a lot more. Parisians especially are obsessed with thinness, and the percentage of people with eating disorders appears to equal those of the United States.
TPF: Do you know of any chocolate or dessert businesses in Paris that cater to people with food allergies?
DL: Unfortunately, I don't. But most (although probably all) places that make Parisian macarons, make them without any flour. Every ice cream shop has fruit-based sorbets. Health food stores, while not the most exciting places for toursits to shop, carry a larger and larger selection of things, like gluten-free financiers (almond tea cakes), breads, and French-style snacks.
What's interesting, though, is that in spite of the lack of attention food allergies get in France, there are two widely-read French food bloggers (www.cannelle-vanille.blogspot.com and www.latartinegourmande.com) who have gluten-free blogs. Both live in America and are written in English. (There are a few French gluten-free blogs, but they don't have nearly the readership.)
TPF: Can you share any tips that might help people with food restrictions deal with the adventure of ordering from Parisian waiters?
DL: The most important thing is to realize that going into a French restaurant is like visiting someone's home. You get what they're serving, and more importantly, the customer isn't always right in France. So you should make friends with the waiter, and make sure they like you so you'll get better service. Food allergies are considered uncommon in France and asking them to diverge from the norm just means more work for them. Since they're under no obligation to help you (unlike America, where they might get fired), you have to get them on your side. Plus like anywhere in the world, oftentimes the waiters have to deal with a less-than-eager to help kitchen staff, too.
First, apologize to them for the inconvenience. Second, explain what you can't eat, and then explain what you can. You can't go into a restaurant in France and start making demands.
TPF: Are there any sugar, gluten and dairy-free desserts that you enjoy?
DL: I love sorbets, especially citrus ones, which are so refreshing after dinner.
TPF: What are some of your favourite ingredients that don’t involve gluten or dairy?
DL: I'm very partial to dark chocolate, which doesn't contain any dairy, and is better for you than milk chocolate, because it has less sugar and fat. Fruit is another thing I'm obsessed with. I love going to the market and seeing what's in season, which is when it's not only cheaper, but when it tastes best. I bake a simple fruit crisp or make a fruit salad and eat it with the divine French yogurt and homemade granola.
TPF: Have you worked with gluten-free flours? If so, how do you they differ from flours that contain gluten? Do you have any tips for people just starting to experiment with them?
DL: I haven't, simply because I don't have to and others know how to make conversions better than me. I love buckwheat and mesquite flour, but you can't just swap those out with wheat flour as they don't behave the same. I know a lot of Italians are gluten-intolerant and I've seen recipes for biscotti that use cornstarch in place of flour, which sounds like a great swap. And King Arthur just came out with a line of gluten-free mixes, including a gluten-free flour, which will likely be a boon to folks wanting to convert standard recipes.
TPF: What do you think about dairy alternatives – soy, coconut, etc? Are there any specific ones you work with? How do they differ from using regular milk, butter, etc.?
DL: I'm a big fan of coconut milk, since you can add a lot of flavor to something when you use it, much more so than if you're using milk or cream. It's also good in things like ice cream, where the relatively high fat keeps ice creams smoother and more scoopable. As someone who is lactose intolerant, I do like soy and rice milks for eating with cereal, but I don't bake with them. Butter is hard to substitute for, although there are probably some organic or high-quality margarines for people who can't eat dairy. If using them, I'd increase the vanilla in a recipe, or add a bit if it's not called for, to make up for the flavor.
TPF: What about sweeteners, are there any that you enjoy working with that aren’t sugar – like honey, maple syrup, etc? In what instances do these work best?
DL: Maple syrup is one of the best things in the world. It's flavor, however, does tend to get lost if you dilute it. So I only use it in places where it'll shine, because of the price. I like agave, although it's become just as controversial as some of the other sweeteners. (See link in next question.) I use a lot of honey because I like the flavor and the French are really into honey, and you can find a lot of wonderfully-flavored ones. Like coconut milk, adding honey is a good way to add flavor without adding more ingredients. The liquid sweeteners work better in recipes that aren't cakes or cookies, as they add quite a bit of moisture and will affect texture.
TPF: If a person can not eat sugar, what would you recommend replacing it with in terms of sweeteners when it comes to items like ice cream (or jam)?
DL: I, personally, don't like telling people what to eat or what not to eat, because I don't like it when people do the same to me. But it seems logical to me, that if you're seeking a healthy lifestyle, one should use the healthiest ingredients. And to me, those mean using those as close to nature as possible. (As mentioned in the previous question, sometimes these 'natural' alternatives turn out to be not quite what we think they are.)
I have a strong aversion to artificial sweeteners so advise against them, and suggest natural ones, such as agave, stevia, and rice syrup, depending on personal tolerances and allergies.
There are places when alternative natural sweeteners are effective and can be easily swapped out, like in fruit salads and sorbets, and others where they can't, like cakes and cookies.
TPF: What would you do if you were told that you could no longer eat gluten and dairy?
DL: I would try to learn as much as I can about substitutions and build a pantry stocked with those ingredients, so I wouldn't have to go on a wild goose chase every time I wanted to bake something. I would also network with people online, since those communities have pretty strong connections there, and get advice and tips. Plus I would follow food blogs, since they offer opportunities for interaction and discussion with others.
TPF: Can you offer any words of wisdom for people trying to see the bright side of adopting this kind of lifestyle?
DL: I was a vegetarian for about eight years, and it really taught me how to get away from a meat-centered diet. I eat meat now, but am very conscious of it when I do. So folks can use intolerances to explore new foods and too often people make a big deal about their food issues without thinking how it's a chance to learn about new and sometimes exciting alternatives. I also think that it's best to adopt not be aggressive and confrontational so that people will help you, and be receptive to any challenges your diet might pose.