From café au lait to cocktails, David Lebovitz offers a master class in French drinking culture

Did you know the most misunderstood drink outside of Paris is the café au lait? You're about to find out why

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published August 9, 2020 9:55PM (EDT)

David pouring Curaçao, from Drinking French (Penguin Random House)
David pouring Curaçao, from Drinking French (Penguin Random House)

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

From café express in the morning to a Suze & Tonic at apéro, the beverage prospects in France are not only endless but also legendary. Perhaps more important than the beverage itself is whom you grab it with. Good friends grab a drink at cafés, which the esteemed chef David Lebovitz more fondly refers to as the living rooms of Paris. Since moving to France in 2004, Lebovitz has come to love the café culture in France, which he chronicles in his ninth cookbook.

"Drinking French" is what the world needs right now. In a time when most of us aren't able to travel far from home, the recipes in this witty and downright fun cookbook immediately transport readers to a street side café in Paris. Though you may not be able to hop the next flight to the City of Light right now, your wildest fantasies of dipping pastries into café au lait can come true in the comfort of your own home. 

"My book came out during lockdown. And a lot of people sort of took to the book. It was very interesting. I started doing these Instagram Live apéro hours," Lebovitz told Salon Food in a recent interview. "And I realized that people still wanted to travel, and they wanted to feel like they were somewhere else."

"You know, a lot of people were buying different spirits from my book, ordering online, having them delivered," he continued. "And once again, I realized people are traveling. They're traveling in their mind — and that's what cookbooks do. And also, that would be my tip for coffee. Get a French coffee cup or some coffee bowls."

If you appreciate a good cocktail, you'll want to snag a cocktail shaker, too. In addition to serving up fun, Lebovitz shares a comprehensive overview of French drinking culture. Did you know, for example, that the Bloody Mary was actually invented in France? Read our Q&A below for that story, as well as a true master class in French drinking. From coffee to cocktails, we cover everything you need to up your beverage game at home.

First, I wanted to check in and see how you are doing. I was actually recently in Europe. I was in Italy right when the lockdown started. So, it was quite the experience, visiting Florence and Milan. You're in Paris. What has it been like over there?

Well, apparently right now is the time to go to Italy, because there's no tourists and all the cities are remarkably open, and they're very calm and everything. So, maybe you should have stayed. But you look happy where you're at.

You know, in Paris, we're out of lockdown. We've been out for about a month. All the cafés are open. Everybody's partying and drinking. Optimistically, the virus is under control, as the French government has said. So we are hoping for that. And it is nice, because it's spring, and we all want to be outside. We all want to have a drink with our friends, and we're allowed to now, which is great.

RELATED: A sip of David Lebovitz's L'embrassadeur is the next best thing to being embraced by the warm sun

That's one thing I wanted to ask you about. I know so much of the social life in Paris, which I've never actually been to myself, is centered around cafés and that idea of eating or grabbing a drink out with friends. What was the impact of the shut down?

Well, it was really interesting, because a lot of my French friends were saying, "I need to go to a café. I need to have a drink with my friends." And they were starting to freak out about that — big time. And they were all closed, of course.

But people started having secret parties and stuff, and somebody had one across the street from me. There was like a hundred people there. They just could not resist having a drink with their friends. It's such an integral part of the French way of socializing — there's always a drink involved. And you mentioned you were just in Italy, and Italy is similar to France in that respect. But France really holds these traditions so dear and close to them, whereas the Italians just kind of do it.

RELATED: How the signature cocktail at Paris' Combat bar got its name

I'm in New York right now, and you're in Paris. So we're in a little different time zones. I still haven't had my coffee yet, because it's been a busy morning. The very first drink in your book is actually a café au lait, and I wanted to let everybody know that you cover all sorts of beverages in your new book, whether you drink alcohol or not. What's the difference between having an espresso, for example, in France versus in Italy?

Well, that's an interesting question to start with! Basically, an espresso in Italy is a café express in France. And I can't tell you how many times I've been corrected online for saying café express. And people don't think I know what I'm talking about, but in French, it's an express.

The difference is in Italy, coffee is really an art. You go to a café, you go to a train station, you go to a library — wherever it has coffee. And you get a little espresso, and it's amazing. It's delicious. It's only meant to be drunk within 20 seconds. And then, boom. You're out the door.

In France, they put a lot more coffee in the cup. Historically, the coffee in France has been — to be polite — of lesser quality beans and so forth. Robuster beans than the quality used in Italy. So the quality of the coffee in France was not always a concern. It was just more something to socialize around a bigger cup, having caffeine and cheap.

RELATED: Click here to buy a copy of "Drinking French" by David Lebovitz

And you say the most misunderstood drink outside of Paris is the café au lait. Why is that?

Well, a lot of Americans have this fantasy about France, and that's fine. I have fantasies about a lot of countries, too. Like right now, all I want to do is go to the beach. I'm like, "I want to go to Thailand." But we can't go yet.

This whole café au lait thing — it rolls off the tongue so easy, and it sounds very French. But what a lot of people don't realize is: Café au lait is something served in a bowl at home. It's not a drink you get in a café. Once again, it's kind of a ritual. You know, you have coffee in a bowl. You dip your pastry in it. It gets all soggy, and you shove it in your mouth.

And the first time I saw my partner doing that was about 18 years ago. I was like, "Oh, my God. I live in France." And we were having café au lait and dipping pastries. I still don't dip my pastry in my coffee.

Do you have any tips for making coffee at home? Because over here, for example, we're still pretty much under lock and key, as far as things with the quarantine go. Some places we're able to eat outside, but a lot of people really are missing their favorite coffee shops right now. So what are some easy tips to get things going at home?

Well, you know, I was thinking about this the other day, because my book came out during lockdown. And a lot of people sort of took to the book. It was very interesting. I started doing these Instagram Live apéro hours. And I realized that people still wanted to travel, and they wanted to feel like they were somewhere else. So my tip would be — you can probably order these — but maybe get some coffee bowls. It makes you feel like you're somewhere else.

You know, a lot of people were buying different spirits from my book, ordering online, having them delivered. And once again, I realized people are traveling. They're traveling in their mind — and that's what cookbooks do. And also, that would be my tip for coffee. Get a French coffee cup or some coffee bowls.

One thing that's come to prominence amid the lock downs are Zoom happy hours. We're on Zoom right now having a chat. Have you attended any of those?

I have attended a few. The problem with them is you tend to drink a lot, because you're at home. You're a little nervous. You know — is the Zoom going to work? Is it going to cut off? Oh, I forgot! I scratched my backside, and everyone's watching on camera. It's this whole stressful thing: being on Zoom. So I think people tend to drink more. At least I do.

So I've been to a few apéro with friends. I'm sort of a person that doesn't mind being alone, because I grew up working in restaurants around a lot of people. You know what? I just want to lie on the couch and watch TV when I'm home. So I wasn't feeling the need to connect with people as much as other people were. But I did start this Instagram Live apéro hour, where I did a live cocktail or a drink from my book every evening. And that was really good, because it was kind of like having an apéro with the world.

The problem was a lot of people like you are in New York, and it was 9:00 a.m. in California. At noon, not everybody was ready to mix up a martini. Here I am shaking up drinks, and people with their coffee are like, "What's he doing?"

What are your tips for hosting a virtual happy hour from home?

"Drinking French" is my ninth book. There's always the question you get asked. And the question for this book is: "What liquor should I buy?" And you never know what the question's going to be. I wrote an ice cream book, and usually everybody asks you: "Can this be frozen?" When you write recipes, it's: "Can I freeze this?" I was like, "Finally, no one's going to ask me that question." So people started asking me, "How long does ice cream last?" I never thought of that. You just keep it in the freezer, and if you're hungry enough — no matter how much frost it's got — you'll eat it.

But you know, this question of what liquor people should buy. It's very interesting sort of curating the list down, because you know, you can tell people to buy all this liquor and spend hundreds of dollars. But I didn't really want to do that. I was aware of people's budgets. So I sort of narrowed down what liquor people should buy and featured them on my Instagram Live. You can buy a bottle of vermouth, and it's very French. 

In the book, you say that one doesn't need a lot of tools to get things started. But what do we need to get started at home?

Well, basically, to make any cocktail, you either need a cocktail shaker or a mixing glass, which is just a glass with a spout. If you have a measuring cup, you've got a mixing glass. If you've got a chop stick, you've got a stirring spoon. If you've got a mason jar, you've got a cocktail shaker. So, you don't need to buy stuff.

That said, I think it's a lot more fun to have the right equipment. Once again, you don't have to buy a $300 cocktail shaker. You can buy one for $15, and it does as good of a job as one that's $50. 

But that's something I tell people. You don't have to get equipment to make a cocktail, but you do need decent alcohol. Once again, I shy away from telling people to buy very expensive liquor, because not everybody either has the budget or the interest. And you know, something like Chartreuse is $55 in the U.S. And for some people, that's a real commitment. Whereas Citadel gin — the first French Gin — it's like $25 or $30, so it's much more palatable for the wallet.

But you do say that French drinks taste better in traditional coffee cups or cocktail buses. Is there a science behind that?

I think it's psychological — having a good wine glass. Have you ever been to a fancy restaurant, and they have these really thin wine glasses? And it's like, "Oh, this is really good." Then you come home, and you have your thick wine glasses that won't break when your friends drop them after a party. And they do taste different.

I love collecting vintage glassware. I spent years doing that when I was working on the book, and it really makes drinking out of them much more enjoyable. You know, everybody has their favorite coffee cup, and I see you have glasses on your shelves. And you know, they're probably very special to you. And you bought them for a reason: You like the shape, you like the color, you like the way they feel in your hand. But also, you probably have your favorite coffee cup. And if you live with somebody else, you have to have that cup, and they can't take it. So there is a science behind it. I don't know what it is —

I know what you mean. For me, I have some of my mom's dishes, which I inherited. So I drink out of one of her mugs every morning, and that's really special to me.

If you're drinking a martini, you want it out of a coupe glass or even a martini glass. You don't want it in a tumbler. That doesn't work.

Speaking of wine glasses, one thing that I think about automatically when I think about France is wine. I have most associated drinking in France with wine. In the book, you actually note that wine consumption has decreased over time in France. Can you tell us more about the rise of the cocktail in France?

Well, wine consumption decreased over the last 20 years. It's a variety of factors, which is a very long but interesting subject. It's also a cultural thing: A lot of younger people are drinking beer, but also, the cocktail culture came back. A lot of people don't realize this, but a lot of cocktails were invented in France.

During prohibition, a lot of Americans went to Paris to drink. People would take the boat from New York, and as soon as the boat left the dock, the bar would be open. And everybody just spent a week or so — however long they took — drinking. Then they came to Paris and drank and once they were in Paris, there was Harry's Bar. They would drink, and drink and drink — and it was fabulous.

They had all this liquor, so they invented cocktails. And of course, they used a lot of French liquors like cognac, and vermouth and so forth to make these cocktails, because that's what was available. As well as Canadian whiskey, because Canada didn't have prohibition. So Canadian whiskey became very popular in France, and it's in a number of classic cocktails like the Scofflaw or the Toronto. Arguably, the Manhattan, as well. So a lot of them have roots in France.

You write that the Bloody Mary is one of those drinks.

Yes, the Bloody Mary is very controversial. I sort of tracked it down. This is my first book on alcohol, and I really needed to get the facts right, because I know that everyone's going to be taking a close look. Plus, I was very interested in printing the truth. So the story goes that it was invented in Paris. Some Russian immigrants bought a bartender a bottle of vodka. He tasted it and he's like, "This doesn't taste like anything." So he started adding stuff to it and settled on tomato juice with some spices. And the "bucket of blood," as it was called, was invented. As the drink evolved, eventually it came to America. "Bucket of blood" wasn't going to make it in America.

How does a Bloody Mary in France compare to one over here in America?

Well, it depends who makes it. Americans eat brunch, and that's where most Bloody Marys are consumed. French people — in Paris, there are a lot of brunch places that have opened with "American style" brunch. You know, eggs, fruit salad and so forth. Bloody Marys still aren't that popular in the morning as a drink. So if you get one, it's usually an afternoon drink. But they don't tend to over garnish them like in America now. You're seeing fried chicken with like a whole head of celery, and there's flames shooting out. And it's like, "Here's your Bloody Mary." And it's fun. We like fun drinks, whereas the French tone it down a little.

In your opinion, what are the two or three most popular cocktails in France? If I'm going to dig into the book, where should I start?

Well, the spritz right now is very popular. The Aperol spritz sort of became the strength that everybody took to very quickly. It was heavily marketed in France. All of a sudden, a lot of cafés had Aperol umbrellas, and Aperol seats and so forth. And I have no problem with that. I'm just putting that out there — that that was part of the popularity.

But there are a lot of different kinds of spritzes. Like, I make a spritz with this, which is Cap Corse, which is a white fortified wine. Similar to vermouth, it's very quininey, so it has a nice bitterness. And Cap Corse is made with things like walnut husks, cocoa nibs and citrus, because it's from Corsica. So you have this drink that's much more richer and interesting than a Aperol spritz, in my opinion. But I know the Aperol spritz took some hits this year, so I don't want to say anything against it.

Another cocktail that I discovered is a Suze & Tonic. Americans love gin and tonic. I love gin and tonic. The French are kind of now into gin and tonics, which they call the Ginto. And it's basically Suze, which is a gentian liquor. It's an aperitif, which you can also buy it in the states. You have to go to a decent liquor store. It's very, very bitter. You mix it with tonic water, and it's a great, great, great alternative to a gin and tonic. If you want to have a sort of lower alcohol but sort of more interesting drink. I like gin and tonics, too, but now I'm into Suze & Tonics.

Click here to purchase a copy of "Drinking French: The Iconic Cocktails, Apéritifs, and Café Traditions of France, with 160 Recipes."

By Joseph Neese

Joseph Neese is Salon's Deputy Editor in Chief. You can follow him on Twitter: @josephneese.

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