Alec Lobrano: the American food writer whose palate became French
Alec Lobrano talks to Patrice Bertrand about his favorite chefs, his love of cooking, and why French cuisine is the best in the world…and that’s just the start.
“When I tell people that I have lived in France for more than 30 years, many ask me if I consider myself French”, says Alexander Lobrano, France today gastronomic writer, who, because of the Covid and the confinement in Paris, temporarily withdrew with his French wife in the Gard department. There they live in a small village between Nîmes and Uzès where they have restored a set of 17th century stone houses.
“The answer is no,” he continues. “My upbringing and imagination were nurtured by the English language and American values of egalitarianism, politeness, skepticism of official authority, and modesty. But a vital part of me became French: my palate. I find the subtlety of a sauce such as, for example, a hollandaise or a béarnaise magnificent. I think that this subtlety is very French. It gave me a much more sensitive and subtle palate than when I arrived in France years ago.
Alec, as he is called, describes this slow metamorphosis of his palate and taste buds in his latest book, My place at the table. A gripping memoir full of insights into French food culture, it tells how a shy teenager from suburban Connecticut, who discovered his passion for restaurants on his first trip to Europe in 1972, became one of the critics France’s most influential gourmets and food writers.
“Now that the book is about to hit the world, I’m starting to think, ‘Oh my God, what have I done? “, Alec says. “It’s very personal and very tender. On the other hand, when you hide something, it creates shame. When you talk about something, it dulls its power when exposed to the great What Alec has delivered is a detailed and intimate portrait of himself and a poignant account of his complicated rise: his arrival in Paris in 1986 to work for an American fashion magazine, his first culinary article (about a famous cheese maker), his daily struggles as a rope access technician, his experiences with French culinary culture and the French, his discovery of Paris and its restaurants, his loves, his failures, his successes, his ten years as a European correspondent of the iconic, now defunct Gourmet magazine…
EVERY RESTAURANT IS A THEATER
My place at the table concludes with his work for the French financial daily The echoes, for which, until the end of the 1990s, he wrote articles in French. At this point, Alec ceased to be the simple “American in Paris” he had been when he first arrived. He did it: he is recognized by the French themselves, they know that he knows their cuisine and their culinary culture from the inside and that he is capable of judging them. This is also the feeling that any Frenchman who reads his book will probably have.
Asked about himself and his profession (he cautiously says ‘food writer’ rather than ‘food critic‘), the warm and gregarious Alexandre Lobrano, a burly sixty-year-old, expresses himself with passion. “I love restaurants,” he says, “for the food, of course; but I like conviviality, and I like drama… I think that restaurants are like Romanesque theaters where people perform. A meal in a restaurant is like a play. Some performances are better than others. »
Alec points out that this love of togetherness comes from growing up in Westport, Connecticut, an upscale and conservative suburb of New York, where his father was a textile executive. “I grew up in a family where the table was very important,” says Alec, who has not set foot in his native country for two years because of the pandemic. “Not just for the food but because we sat, we waited, we all had dinner together every night at the table and I couldn’t leave if I didn’t have a good excuse. At the table, my mother was like a kind of orchestra conductor: she felt like that’s where you learn conversation. I have two siblings. We all had our turn. She asked about something and we talked about it. You learn conversation. Conversation is an art like cooking is an art.
According to INSEE, France has 175,000 restaurants, including 18,000 in Paris and its region, a vast field of investigation for the hundred or so renowned food critics operating in France. In the French capital, Alec admits that he dines at the restaurant four or five times a week – but not at all times: preferably in the evening and never on weekends because the places are too crowded.
“I think the best day to go out in France is Thursday. The chefs have already made all the broths, the kitchen is well stocked, everything is working well, they have everything they need to cook well and they cook for a local clientele, whether in Avignon, Paris, Strasbourg”, says Alec, whose previous book, Hungry for Parisreviews the 109 best restaurants in the capital.
THE INVISIBLE MAN
Like many of his colleagues, Alec prefers to go to restaurants incognito, often with friends. For him, this is the best way to form the most accurate opinion of the establishments and dishes that he will later present in his articles.
“I like to be invisible. I always want people who read what I write to have a wonderful meal and a happy experience. The only way for me to do this is to be completely anonymous so I can be completely objective and have the same experience as anyone else can.
This invisibility also allows him to appreciate another dimension of restaurants: the welcome of his staff. “Food, of course, is important, but so is hospitality because if you feel people care about you and are happy that you’re there, you relax and when you relax, you start to relax. to amuse you. I think good hospitality is usually a sign of a well-run restaurant,” says Alec.
This method has paid off and given him some favorite restaurants he regularly visits. In Paris we are Septime, in the 11th arrondissement. “It’s hard to get a reservation,” he says. “But every time I go back, I have to say that Bertrand Grébaut, the chef, never stops growing. Her imagination is so exquisite and her food is like edible poetry. It’s just beautiful food. It’s so elegant, so exciting. I like following young chefs like that.
If Alec likes to follow these young chefs, it is precisely because he is enthusiastic about the current creative energy in France. He does not share the widespread idea that French cuisine is overrated or in decline. “If we talk about the Western world, I would say that France is the best country gastronomically,” says Alec, who has accumulated his experience in countless restaurants, from the most humble bistros to the finest tables. “Cooking codes and techniques were codified and created in French kitchens and French culinary education is the best in the world. Thus, between the best products in the world, fabulous wines, an amazing culinary education and a general public who are passionate about food and who really know it, the level of gastronomic culture in France is unique in Western countries.
He makes a good point about these “fabulous wines”. Indeed, French cuisine is inseparable from its wines and, on this subject, it is difficult not to think of Curnonsky, perhaps the most famous of French gastronomic writers, who, more than 80 years ago, put them side by side side in his immense compilation of French recipes, Food and wines of France.
“My wine education took place entirely in France,” says Alec. “I can’t imagine having a meal without wine and it doesn’t have to be expensive. What is wonderful about being in the south of France is being able to buy beautiful wines and they cost €5 a bottle. Wine flatters food, food flatters wine. Wine pairing is a great art, so a good sommelier can add a lot to a meal. I find it interesting that more and more women are working as sommeliers. They do the job differently and are more willing to share what they know.
AT HOME IN THE KITCHEN
Unlike Curnonsky, who had no kitchen or dining room in his apartment, Alec is an avid cook. “During the first confinement, I was in Paris and everything stopped,” he recalls.
“It was quite shocking and strange not to go to a restaurant. So I had to cook a lot. I love cooking because it changes my relationship with food. Instead of being the one who sits at a table, I’m the one standing in the kitchen and that gives you respect for the chefs and how hard this job is.
“Now that we have migrated south to our home in the Gard department, we don’t go out often, although there are wonderful restaurants there. Instead, we cook and cook. I find myself constantly looking for new tastes, new recipes and inspiration in the kitchen,” says Alec, who the very morning we spoke had gone to the Uzès market.
“There is a wonderful, wonderful market,” he says. “I bought everything that looked good – chicken, asparagus, brand new (young garlic). But I don’t really know what I’m going to cook tonight. In the countryside, it’s the products that tell you what to cook, so I don’t open the cookbooks. I buy the prettiest food and say, okay, I’ll roast the chicken and maybe we’ll have some asparagus with it. Sorry, foodies: don’t expect Alec to succumb to the temptation to open his own restaurant.
“The idea has come to me from time to time but luckily my sanity is coming back and I’m like, ‘Are you crazy?’
“Cooking for five or six people is one thing, but can you imagine cooking for 60 people? When I was in college, I worked in restaurants and beachfront hotels in New England. I know how difficult it is.
So what are his plans for the future? The answer is simple: write more books, keep working (“I’m busier than ever,” he says), travel, visit family in the United States, and…stay permanently in France.
“I don’t think I’ll ever leave,” he told me. ” I could not. I have two houses. I have a country where I was born and I have a country that I chose. And I love them both dearly.
“I could never go back to America for good and say goodbye to France. I think I have developed roots here and the comfort and pleasure of everyday life here, life has meaning for me here. I am extremely happy. Another thing is also certain: Alec knows how to hold his place at the table.
Excerpt from France Today magazine