The American culinary writer whose palate has become 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 beginning.
“When I tell people that I have lived in France for over 30 years, many people ask me if I consider myself French”, explains Alexander Lobrano, France today culinary writer, who, because of the Covid and the confinement in Paris, has temporarily retired 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 education and imagination were nurtured by the English language and the American values of egalitarianism, politeness, skepticism of official authority and modesty. But a vital part of me has become French – my palace. I find the subtlety of a sauce such as a hollandaise or a béarnaise magnificent. I think 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 captivating memoir full of insights into French culinary 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. Foodies and France’s most influential food writers.
“Now that the book is about to hit the world, I’m starting to think to myself, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done? ”, Says Alec. “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. What Alec has brought to light 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 food article. (on a famous cheese maker), his daily stringer fights, 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 for the ‘iconic, now disappeared Gourmet magazine…
EACH 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 was when he arrived. He did it: he is recognized by the French themselves, they know he knows their cuisine and their culinary culture from the inside out and is able to judge it. This is also the feeling that any Frenchman who reads his book will probably have.
Asked about himself and his profession (he cautiously says “gastronomic writer” rather than “restaurant critic”), the warm and sociable Alexander Lobrano, 60 years old, robust, expresses himself with passion. “I love restaurants,” he says, “for the food, of course; but I like the conviviality, and I like the drama… I think that the restaurants are like theaters of novels where there is a representation. A meal in a restaurant is like a play. Some performance is better than others.
Alec points out that this love of conviviality comes from his childhood, spent in Westport, Connecticut, a chic and conservative suburb of New York, where his father was an executive in the textile industry. “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 down, 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 sort of conductor: she felt that this is where you learn conversation. I have two siblings. We’ve all had a ride. She asked about something and we talked about it. You learn the conversation. Conversation is an art like cooking is an art.
According to INSEE, the French National Statistics Office, France has 175,000 restaurants, including 18,000 in Paris and its surroundings, a vast field of investigation for the hundred or so leading food critics who operate in France. When he is in the French capital, Alec admits that he dines at a restaurant four or five times a week – but not all the time: preferably in the evening and never on weekends because the places are too busy.
“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 works well, they have everything to cook well and they cook for a local clientele, whether in Avignon, Paris, Strasbourg ”, specifies Alec, whose previous book , Want to Paris, reviews the 109 best restaurants in the capital.
THE INVISIBLE MAN
Like many of his colleagues, Alec prefers to eat out incognito, often with friends. For him, this is the best way to form the fairest opinion on the establishments and dishes that he will present later in his articles.
“I like to be invisible. I always want the people who read what I write to have a wonderful meal and a happy experience. The only way I can do this is to be completely anonymous so that I can be completely objective and have the same experience as anyone else.
This invisibility also allows him to appreciate another dimension of the restaurant: the reception of his staff. “Food, of course, is important, but so is hospitality because if you feel that people care and are happy that you are there, you relax and when you relax you start to have fun. . I think good hospitality is usually a sign of a well-run restaurant, ”says Alec.
This method has paid off and has given him a few favorite restaurants that he visits regularly. In Paris we are Septime, in the 11th arrondissement. “It’s hard to get a reservation,” he says. “But every time I go back there, I have to say that Bertrand Grébaut, the chef, keeps growing. Her imagination is so exquisite and her food is like edible poetry. It’s just great food. It’s so elegant, so exciting. I like to follow young chefs like that.
If Alec likes to follow these young chefs, it is precisely because he is excited by the current creative energy in France. He does not share the common idea that French cuisine is overrated or in decline. “If we are talking about the Western world, I would say that France is the best country for gastronomy,” says Alec, who has accumulated his experience in countless restaurants, from the humblest bistros to the greatest tables. “The codes and cooking techniques have been 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 passionate about food and who really knows it, the level of gastronomic culture in France is unique in Western countries.
He makes a good point on these “fabulous wines”. Indeed, French cuisine is inseparable from its wines and, in this regard, it is hard not to think of Curnonsky, perhaps the most famous of French gastronomic writers, who, more than 80 years ago, put them side by side in its immense compilation of French recipes, French cuisine and wines.
“My wine education took place entirely in France,” explains Alec. “I can’t imagine having a meal without wine and it doesn’t have to be expensive. What is wonderful in the south of France is being able to buy fine 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 eager to share what they know.
AT HOME IN THE KITCHEN
Unlike Curnonsky, who had neither a kitchen nor a 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 like to cook because it changes my relationship with food. Instead of being the one sitting at a table I’m the one standing in the kitchen and that gives you respect for chefs and how hard this work is.
“Now that we have migrated south to our house in Gard department, we don’t go out often, although there are some wonderful restaurants there. Instead, we cook and cook. I find myself constantly looking for new tastes, recipes and inspirations in cooking, ”says Alec, who the very morning of our conversation had gone to the Uzès market.
“He has a wonderful, wonderful market,” he says. “I bought everything that was beautiful – chicken, asparagus, new garlic (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 cookbooks. I buy the best food and say, okay, I’ll roast the chicken and maybe we’ll have asparagus with it. Sorry, however, foodies: don’t expect Alec to succumb to the temptation to open his own restaurant.
“The idea occurred to me from time to time but, luckily, my sanity came back and I said to myself: ‘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 US and… stay in France for good.
“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 have chosen. And I love them both dearly.
“I would never be able to return to America for good and say goodbye to France. I think I grew up here and the comfort and fun 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.
From France Today magazine