THE INTERVIEW: DORIE GREENSPAN
In the pantheon of enviable lives, I think my friend Dorie Greenspan has a secure position. Greenspan has not only managed to combine two of her life’s passions, pastry and Paris, authoring such best sellers as Baking: From My Home to Yours, Paris Sweets, Baking with Julia, The Café Boulud Cookbook (with Daniel Boulud), and Desserts by Pierre Herme, which won the IACP Cookbook of the Year Award. The sweetest words in her author’s bio are contained in the immortal line, "she divides her time between Paris and New York." I caught up with her on this side of the pond.
Where are you right now?
It’s the weekend, so I’m in Westbrook, CT, population about 4,000 during the week and 4,002 when we show up on Friday.
It certainly isn’t a lifestyle I, a very mere mortal, ever expected to have. We ended up being tri-residential by accident. The stories are long and, in the end, they all have to do with what a fortune-teller once called my "lucky real estate gene".
We found our New York apartment by chance. It was 8 o’clock at night and we were late for dinner when I asked an apartment-house doorman if there was an apartment available in the building. We moved in one month later. We found our house in Connecticut because we were visiting a cousin — the first time we’d ever gone to see him in the 35 years we’d all been in the same family – and I mentioned that I felt very calm in his house. He said that the house across the street was abandoned and suggested we buy it: we moved in three months later (we would have moved in sooner, but it took a while to track down the owner, who must have gotten out of town quickly because he left behind several pairs of patent leather shoes, all magenta, and a gross of chopsticks). As for the Paris apartment, it was a friend who found our first apartment for us. A year’s sublet in Paris was to be my "big" birthday present for a "big" birthday. He said he’d look around for something for us and wrote that he’d found a charming apartment across the street from the Saint-Germain-des-Pres church at a price that was within our range. As it turned out, the apartment was in demand — no surprise — but we couldn’t leave New York. So we ended up renting the apartment, sight unseen, en absentia. Best thing we ever did. It was perfect for us!
The Paris apartment we now have is right across the landing from our first sublet and we got it – I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s true – by accident. Our sublet was coming to an end, we had contacted real estate agents and no one had gotten back to us (kind of typical) and we had no prospects. I had just gotten to Paris when I bumped into our neighbor, the one across the landing from us. It was the first time I’d seen her in the 10 months that we’d had the apartment. We introduced ourselves and she invited me to a party she was having that night. I was going to be out with friends, so I thanked her and said I’d love to see her some other time. Well, she said, there wouldn’t be another time: This was her going away party. Not for nothing was I born and raised in New York. The first words out of my mouth were: Has anyone rented the apartment? When she answered no, I just about pushed my way through the door saying I knew she was busy getting ready for the party, but … That Monday, I was at the real estate agent’s door signing papers. This is the apartment we now own.
Getting three places was a lot easier for me than figuring out how to live in those places. My husband can get on a plane to Paris with nothing but his iPod and computer. Moi? I’m still checking in a big suitcase and carrying on as much as the law allows.
And let’s not even discuss what I drag up to Connecticut every weekend
But the best thing about living in three different places is having three sets of terrific friends.
We’ve all heard stories about how notoriously difficult it is to navigate the property market in Paris. Is that true?
Anything that’s new and in a foreign language isn’t a cinch to navigate. There’s a whole set of courtesies to learn in addition to the nuts and bolts of negotiating, finding a mortgage and getting all those insurances and assurances lined up.
Thank goodness for friends! We could never have rented our apartment without friends or a lot more money than we had: the first "real" lease required either the co-signature of someone earning money in France or an escrow account with three year’s worth of rent. A friend signed for us and kept teasing that he hoped we’d miss our rent so that he could take over the apartment. Never happened.
Then, when the apartment went up for sale, about seven years after we signed our first lease, we again depended on our friends to help us find a bank, a notaire (the person who vets the sales agreement and handles the closing French law requires that this be handled by a notaire, who receives a percentage of the property’s cost) and the courage to get through the process.
However, for those who are friendless in France, there are several Americans-in-Paris who, for a fee, will do everything from contacting real estate agents and setting up appointments for you to see property, to arranging financing when you’ve found your dream place.
And why Paris (as opposed to Rome or Barcelona or …)?
I know this sounds school-girl romantic, but the instant I set foot in Paris for the first time – it was 1971 – I had the feeling that I was meant to be there. From then on I was convinced that my mother had made a mistake, that she really wanted to have me in Paris not Brooklyn; it was just a question of a slight wrong turn on the way to the hospital.
I’m sure you could speak volumes about this, but what are the main differences — for you in daily life in New York and Paris?
For me, the biggest differences involve the rhythm of life in each place. New York is so much faster than Paris, which can often feel like a small town, but somehow days in Paris seem longer and, at the end of them, I feel like they’ve been fuller.
New York seems all about work. Sometimes even social events in New York seem all about work, with the first question anyone asking you being: What do you do? In Paris, work is just part of life (I’ve spent long evenings with people and never found out what they "do") and "pleasure," a word you hear several times a day, is every other part. I see my Paris friends much more and much more often than I see my New York friends. Everyone in Paris seems more available. Sometimes I think it has to do with there being cafes on every corner. It’s so easy to meet someone for coffee or a drink. There’s always a place, it’s never a hassle, it’s never a scene and it can be spur-of-the-moment. Also, everyone stays up later in Paris – including me – even on school nights! It’s not unusual for weeknight dinners at home to go until midnight or a lot later. And on weekends 2 am is often when we’re saying goodnight.
Pleasure is easy in Paris, work not so much. When I was doing the research for my book "Paris Sweets", I learned to expect that it would take three tries to get an interview with a pastry chef and a lot of calls and visits after that to get the recipes. The expression "sense of urgency" and the word "deadline" don’t carry the same punch in Paris as they do in New York.
If you’re as inpatient as I am, getting work done in Paris can be frustrating. But, if you can learn to slow down and accept that everything is going to take longer than you thought it would, it can be such fun.
How does living part time in Paris inform your work as a food writer?
French food and pastry has been my baseline ever since I started working as a food writer. For me, French cuisine is the foundation. Living in Paris has given me the chance to study every aspect of the cuisine more closely. It’s also become the focus of my books.
I think it was my interest in French pastry that landed me the honor of working with Julia Child on "Baking with Julia" and it was certainly the reason I was able to collaborate with the Parisian pastry chef, Pierre Herme, and the French-American chef, Daniel Boulud. My latest book, "Baking from My Home to Yours", has many recipes and lessons I learned working with French chefs and my next book, to be called "Around the French Table", will give me the chance to really delve into French food and culinary customs.
And is there any point in comparing the relative merits of chefs in Paris and New York at this point in time? Is the playing field level or does one culinary culture hold the competitive and creative edge?
This is a hard question because, of course, there are fabulous chefs and restaurants in both cities. My inclination is to say that New York holds the edge when it comes to creativity, but it’s just an inclination, not a deeply held belief. I think that what’s happening in food today is very exciting and that it’s a great time to be eating in either city.
Tell us, if you will, about a few of your current favorites in Paris. And why. A café, for example?
I go to three different cafes for three different reasons:
My everyday-meet-my-friends-there café is the Chai de l’Abbaye, right down the street from my apartment on the corner of rue de Bourbon le Chateau and rue de Buci. I know everyone there, love the tartine de viande de Grisons (open-faced air-dried beef sandwich) and like that if I smile at the waiter I can get another chocolate-coated walnut with my coffee.
I head for the Café Bonaparte, also a few steps from my apartment (it’s on rue Guillaume Appollinaire, a street that runs only long enough to hold the cafe, a movie house and part of a restaurant), when the sun is shining because the café ‘s terrace has the best light, best sun, best view of Place Saint-Germain-des-Pres (I think the view’s better here than at Les Deux Magots) and best perspective on the square for people-watching.
When I want to read, edit or write, I go to the famous Café de Flore on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It’s crowded, noisy and smoky (although soon the no-smoking law will kick in and that will change), but that just seems to make it a better place for me. The Flore is also where I meet friends for drinks at l’heure de l’apero (the cocktail hour).
My first-night-in-Paris dinner is always at Fish (69 rue de Seine, Paris 6) because the ambiance is the friendliest in town. My husband thinks of it as the Cheers of Paris — the food is great and the wine list is amazing.
Like the rest of the world, I love Le Comptoir, Yves Camdeborde’s bistro near the Odeon. It’s almost impossible to get a table for a weeknight dinner, when there’s a set five-course menu, but that’s fine with me because I love the hearty, inventive bistro food he serves at lunch. I go late to avoid the crowds.
High on my list of current favorites these days is the Bistro Paul-Bert, a noisy, cramped, casual place with a warm welcome, the kind of food you’d like to have every day and a wine list that some chi-chi-er places would kill to have. Oh, and there’s their Paris-Brest and those wonderful oeufs a la niege, two simple, old-fashioned desserts that are classics for a reason.
And a place for an absolute, damn-the-Euros, over-the-top celebratory dinner?
I know you said dinner, but I love Le Grand Vefour for lunch, especially in the non-winter months. The restaurant is in the Palais Royale, so the view out to the gardens is spectacular and I love that you can walk the gardens after lunch. Each of the seats in the restaurant, which is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Paris , has a small plaque engraved with the name of a famous habitue and I don’t think it hurts my esteem for the restaurant that the first time I was there I was tucked into a spot marked with Colette’s name.
And if I wanted to buy kitchenware in Paris, where should I go?
The most picturesque spot to buy kitchenware is at Dehillerin near Les Halles. It’s where lots of chefs buy their stuff and it’s where Julia Child bought the cookware for her Paris kitchen and cooking school. I also like to shop at M.O.R.A., also in the neighborhood. But for everyday kitchenware, I usually shop in the department stores: Galeries Lafayette, Au Printemps and BHV all have good housewares floors.
How has Paris changed your life?
Paris has changed me in more ways than I have time to write or you have time to read. I don’t think there’s any part of my life that hasn’t been affected by my love of Paris, my life in the city, the work I’ve done there and my friends.
What is your current book project?
I’m about to start work on a big book to be called Around the French Table, which will include stories and recipes from kitchens all over France. It won’t come out until 2010, but already I’m feeling like I’m short on time.
You’ve started a blog, Dorie Greenspan.com. Tell us why.
When Baking, From My Home to Yours, came out in the fall of ’06, it was quickly "adopted" by a group of bloggers who were passionate about baking. The bloggers, as well as participants in several food websites, most notably egullet.org, started baking from the book and posting pictures of their triumphs. I was excited by their enthusiasm, talent and spirit and touched beyond measure when my new "virtual friends" turned up at events I was doing on my book tour. It was the group’s generosity and support that made me want to be part of their community and so that’s what compelled me to start a blog.
Now I know how demanding the care and feeding of a blog is, I’m not just touched by the blogging community’s support, I’m in awe of their energy and commitment.
When you’re traveling between your various abodes, what essentials do you bring and I’m guessing you always do carry on?
Well, as I mentioned, I’m not organized enough to do carry on all the time, although I always think that the next trip is the one when I’ll waltz onto the plane with nothing more than a purse the size of Queen Elizabeth’s. Well, maybe that purse and another little bag for all my electronics computer, iPod, phone, digital camera, noise-canceling headphones. Oh, and something to hold my squishy travel pillow, my books, my work, my work, my work, the new sweater that I think would look great with the pants that are wherever I’m heading, the one pair of shoes that I’m convinced I can’t live without, and, of course, my stash of travel chocolate. Then there’s the kitchen scale I found in Zabar’s that I want in Paris. Or the serving platter that I found in Paris that I want for New York. Or the weathervane from the Clignancourt flea market that’s perfect for Connecticut. You can see the problem.
On a lighter note, I only bring my laptop and my to-do work up to Connecticut, a vast improvement over the years when I brought bread, cheese, coffee and any ingredients more exotic than citrus fruit. Now, no matter what I plan to cook over the weekend, I can find what I need here. Hallelujah.
And where are you off to next?
Read more Dorie Greenspan at DorieGreenspan.com.