From chartreuse to vermouth: David Lebovitz's cocktails will take you on a sensory journey to France

"People still wanted to travel, and they wanted to feel like they were somewhere else"

By Joseph Neese

Deputy Editor in Chief

Published August 29, 2020 5:30PM (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. From coffee to cocktails, we cover everything you need to up your beverage game at home in our two-part discussion. Click here to read part one of our interview, or click here to watch it on video

One thing you discuss in the book is bar syrups, such as simple syrup. You can mix a syrup up and have it in the fridge for about two weeks. What sort of things like that should we have on hand if we're going to host a cocktail party?

Well, you should generally always have simple syrup on hand, which is just basically a sugar syrup. But you know, there are some very interesting ones in the book. If you want to make a lot of your guests happy, and you want to be very popular and you want them all to post pictures on Instagram, everybody loves the rosemary gimlet in the book. You just make a rosemary simple syrup, and you shake it up with lime juice and gin. And for some reason, whatever's in that drink I invented  it makes people love the drink. And my partner loves the drink. He's French, and that's all he wants to drink. He thinks it's a common bar drink. We'll go into a bar, and he's like, "I'll take a rosemary gimlet." And the bartender's like, "We don't have that here."

But having that rosemary syrup  you can make it in advance, and make those gimlets for your friends. This is a spiced tangerine syrup in the book, which is a basis for a really nice spritz. It's also the basis for a drink called the grapefruit rosé, which you can make into a tangerine rosé, which is sort of a champagne-based cocktail in a coupe that's made with spiced tangerine syrup. I put some Sichuan pepper in it, so it gives it that liveliness in the mouth, and you get that fruit tangerine flavor. You're nodding  I hope you have the book over there so you can make it today. 

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

I'll be making it later. Speaking of the book, how I first came to your work is through food. This is your first cocktail book, correct? You talk in the book about how you really started to get into cocktails. Would you share how the book came about?

A couple of things happened. More cocktail bars started opening in Paris, and you know, and they were good cocktail bars. I mention a lot of great cocktails were invented in France. But in the '60s or '70s, if you ordered a cocktail in Paris, it was horrible. You had to go to like a hotel, and it would be a terrible drink. It just wasn't good.

And then a bunch of young people started opening real cocktails bars, so I started going to cocktail bars and discovering all these French spirits. Things like Chartreuse, Vermouth, Suze and so forth. And I was like, "Oh, OK." And I started tasting all these things and meeting new people, and I saw this movement happening.

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

And then I started making cocktails at home, and I kind of realized . . . I've been a baker most of my life. And I thought, you know, these bartenders that I was always afraid of — these people behind the bar who are shaking things up and stirring, and doing all the flipping bottles over and so forth  they're basically doing what I do, which is mixing different ingredients to come up with something even better but still with the distinct flavors of those ingredients. So I started inventing cocktails at home, and I realized that nobody had really written a book that talked about this French tradition of drinking.

There's books on rum. There's books on wine. There's books on cognac. But no one sort of brought them all together to the same party, so to speak. And I just was so fascinated by what every bottle . . . You know, you go to a café — you've been to Italy a lot. All those bottles behind the bar? It's not just Campari. There's a history behind that Campari, Vermouth Bianco and so forth. And I started just  I wanted to write about these histories.

And the book got a little out of control. It's not a super thick book, but it ended up being 30% longer than it was originally intended to be. Also, because my editor  I still remember her note. Julie, if you're watching  "Hello, I like you." She said, "Well, originally, you said it was only going to be 15 cocktails, and you turned in 50 recipes."

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

As we were saying earlier, one of the things I miss the most right now is the ability to travel. I know we can't come to France right now, but when the time is ready, do you have any favorite bars that you'd like to recommend that we try?

I always hate to say that, because then I can't get inside. I did that with one of my favorite restaurants. They're like, "No, we don't have any tables." I'm like, "How about next weekend?" They're like, "Nope, we're booked." I'm like, "This is David." They're like, "Uh-huh, we got . . . Yeah, uh-uh."

But when I was doing my Instagram Lives, I wanted to feature some French bartenders and one of them is Margot Lecarpentier. She has a bar called Combat, and I love her style of making drinks. They're very simple, but interesting and French. Not at all snobbish. There's no speakeasy there, no curtain you have to go through — it's just out on the street. She has the most amazing cocktail shake ever, and she was such a popular guest that I had her on my show twice.

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

And then, when we could go out [after quarantine], I went to the bar, where she showed me how to shake a cocktail. I ended up hitting the ceiling, because she does this thing. And it's like, "Whoa." And the ceiling is low. I'm a big American, and she's a little French woman. So I hit the ceiling, but I would say go to Combat.

Another bar that's very interesting is Copper Bay. They also have a bar in Marseille, so there's a connection between the two cities. And it's sort of a nautically-themed cocktail bar. And they're very nice there, as well. Very friendly, open. It's interesting, because being sort of a middle-aged man  a dorky, 61-year-old guy  my barometer about a good bar is if I go in there, and they're nice to me. Because the nice places? They just go right to the hip people. And I'm like, "No, me." So if they're nice to me, it's a good bar.

And when we do go to a bar there, you had some French slang in here. Are there any essential words that we should know, to be ready to pull out?

I gained sort of a vocabulary of French slang for café drinks like coffee, and some of them are sort of on the risky side. You throw them out there. I thought it was kind of funny to put them out there, because people wouldn't realize that. But, if you use the word petit a lot in French . . . Years ago in France, a woman said to me, "Oh, you're American." She goes, "You have that petit accent when you speak French." And I was so proud of myself. I was like, "Oh, I finally speak French with a French accent." And then I realized a few weeks later the French say petit everything. Like, "Let's have a petit café. Let's go have a petit cocktail. Let's have a petit pause." (That's a little pause before going to have a drink.) Everything is petit, petit . . . And so, just throw petit in front of everything you ask for.

Great, and speaking of Combat, forgive me, because my French is terrible. But we featured the lovely drink 


You can find the recipe here. I wanted to ask you two quick questions in closing: One is fun, and one is a little more serious. 2020 has been a year, from the pandemic to I'm sure you keep track of politics back in the states, even though you're in Paris. If 2020 were a cocktail 

Do I need a drink with this?

If 2020 were a cocktail, what would it be?

I think for me, it would be a Manhattan, because it's no nonsense. It keeps you grounded. It's something I always want. There's been so much happening this year, and I hate to say terrible things have happened, because a lot of good is coming out of this, in a way. Though now that I say that, then you see bad stuff. So it's like, "Help!" But I always feel grounded with a Manhattan. It's earthy, it's kind of the best of who we are, it's got bourbon, it's from Kentucky. A really good American-made product. Vermouth from France — the best of France is in this traditional drink from the French Alps. You know, and so forth. So I would say a Manhattan. A martini's not bad either  because it's so American to have a martini — but I'm kind of into Manhattans.

I like that. And now, a favorite question of mine to ask the chefs who we speak with at Salon: Why do you cook? I like to cook, because it connects me with my family roots. My grandmother's an immigrant from Mexico. You're a professional chef, but why do you cook?

Well, if I had any Mexican in me, I would cook all the time, because I love Mexican food. So was the question why do I cook?


Now I'm thinking of Mexican food. You know, I was a restaurant cook for many years. So for me, cooking was a job. It was a way to make a living. It was a way to find a family. I was part of a restaurant family for many years. But I'm also am in love with ingredients. I am so . . . That was how I got my job at Chez Panisse. I was being interviewed by Alice Waters, and she was asking all these questions. People had said, "Oh, tell her this, and she wants to hear this." And I said, "I love salad." I said, "I love greens." And I didn't know that she was just a fanatic about salad greens, as well. I got hired.

Same with liquors and all these  I just, I love falling in love. Right now, there's cherries at the market, and I just buy like five pounds of cherries. Everyone's like, "What are you going to do with them?" Like, eat them? I can't help it. That said, I do buy tortillas in New York, and I bring them back to Paris. I get these ones that are made in upstate New York, and they're kind of expensive. But they're excellent, so it doesn't bother me.

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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