LA, More Like Paris? We Asked the Expert

Edible Explorer has been exploring, and lately it’s occurred to us that Paris and Los Angeles, so different—old versus new, dense versus dispersed—are also sister cities in new and expanding ways. We had questions though, lots of questions about the ins and outs of French culture, and how the French achieve that elegant simplicity we can’t help but admire. For answers, we went to expert, Aleksandra Crapanzano.

From Gateau by Aleksandra Crapanzano. Copyright (c) 2022 by Aleksandra Crapanzano. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Edible Explorer has been exploring, and lately it’s occurred to us that Paris and Los Angeles, so different—old versus new, dense versus dispersed—are also sister cities in new and expanding ways. We had questions though, lots of questions about the ins and outs of French culture, and how the French achieve that elegant simplicity we can’t help but admire. For answers, we went to an indisputable expert, Aleksandra Crapanzano.

Not only does Aleksandra write a dessert column for The Wall Street Journal, but she’s won the coveted MFK Fisher James Beard Award. She’s also the author of our personal fave, Eat.Cook.LA, in which she so gets our food culture in all its magnificence. Aleksandra says she loves discovering and elaborating on cities in transition—there’s The London Cookbook and, soon, a Paris one. Landlocked during the pandemic, she—like many of us—became obsessed with baking cakes. This got her thinking about her French friends’ super powers of casually whipping up a fabulous cake with what’s in the fridge, and that led to Gateau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes, to be published Sept 27th. We were lucky enough to talk with her about—what else?—the French, but also our food culture in LA. Same same different? Tell us more.

ELA: Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is all about the 15-minute rule, turning Paris into a city where all the essentials are available within fifteen minutes of every home. Paris is already a series of little villages and, unlike the US, people tend to visit the fish store, the bread store, the meat store, that little place you get your perfect figs or strawberries, every single day. How does this epitomize the French attitude towards food? 

 AC: Hidalgo’s attitude is so fabulously French, and I truly love that fundamental belief that all the specialty markets are essential.  That you do need to go to the fromagerie for cheese and the traiteur for prepared goods and the poissonerie for freshly caught fish and the glacier to pick up cartons of homemade ice-cream and, of course, a chocolatier for chocolate.  There’s so much pleasure in these errands, which is hardly the case in supermarkets.  But the fundamental reason is expertise and, really, the recognition that food must be sourced and sold by experts, by people who’ve spent their whole life devoted to the study of bread, meat, fish, fruit, chocolate.  It makes sense.  Why would a fishmonger also be an expert in pastry?  I love shopping in Paris for all the obvious reasons – the stunning displays, the extraordinary produce and the narcotic smell of cheese and baking bread - but also because of what I learn.  If you want to understand meat, for example, go to a boucherie off hours and talk to a butcher.  Chances are his or her knowledge will be formidable. 

We’ve all seen the clichéd image of a rotund bon vivant at a brasserie tucking into a steaming plate of boeuf Bourguignon.  I think the image is even on a poster. But I think that the French attitude towards food is actually exceedingly serious and exacting.  They don’t just shop – they ask questions, they ponder, they observe, they reflect, they decide.  Those who ask the best questions get the best there is to offer.  Shopping in Paris is a dialogue.  Hidalgo’s 15-minute rule preserves the conversation, the small business, and so, too, the community of each quartier, or neighborhood. It’s brilliant.

ELA: Our food in LA is different from the rest of the country, and so is our food sensibility. How do you think it's similar to that of the French, and how is it different?

AC: L.A. is really a détente between city-states.  I’m only half joking.  Few cities have such defined territories and staunch loyalists.  I’m a big fan of the farmers markets – they are like the town green of each neighborhood.  The greatest similarity I see is the very natural approach to seasonality.  The produce in both cities is so spectacularly good that it just begs to be celebrated.  But I also see that both Los Angeles and now Paris have opened their borders and that pantries in both cities have a global reach.  Think sumac, ras el hanout, saffron, yuzu, orange blossom water, Makrut lime, dashi.  By being so international, both cities define their cuisine – neither is a regional city, and the food of each reflects that expansiveness.  In Los Angeles, much of this has to do with sun, produce, style.  In Paris, it’s about being free of the deep-rooted regionality outside the capital – I mean free to pick and choose what appeals.  I see this in baking all the time, and I suppose my book is more Parisian than French in its all-encompassing openness.  There are cakes from Normandy, Brittany, Alsace, Provence, Burgundy...

ELA: What do you love best about both cities for food? 

AC: I can’t answer this!  So much!  For example, I have my essentials in both cities.  Take bread.  In Los Angeles, Gjusta bread. In Paris, Poilâne bread.  Or take tea.  In Los Angeles, sipping an iced-matcha latte while window-shopping on Abbot Kinney.  In Paris, buying kilos of tea at Mariage Frères in the Marais, after pouring over their tea catalogue, which is really a book, over a pot of tea in the pretty adjoining tea room with the skylights.   Ice-cream.  In Los Angeles, rose petal at Carmela.  In Paris, nougat at Berthillon I could go on… 

ELA: When you wrote Eat, Cook, LA before the pandemic, LA was in a moment of transformation and becoming. Would you tell us a little more about that and how you see the pandemic might have changed things here and in Paris? 

AC: There’s so much to say here, some good, some bad, some sad.  On the good side, so many people learned to cook and even though it was all a little relentless at times, it brought families together and gave a sense of much-needed structure to the day.  But the effect on restaurants and cafés and farmers has been devastating.  Being warm and able to provide outdoor seating meant that Los Angeles fared better.  The French government, however, was better at keeping people and small businesses afloat. But it’s clear the effects of the pandemic continue to haunt.  And I think we eat differently too.  There’s just much less affectation and fuss in restaurant food.  We’ve been stripped bare of our pretensions and propensity for trends. 

ELA: The food equivalent of the little black dress in Paris?

AC: Mais, bien sûr, un gâteau!  But, of course, cake!  That’s why I wrote my book!  But it is indeed true:  the French like a little something sweet, like a yogurt cake with a Grand Marnier glaze or a flourless chocolate cake as rich as sin but as ethereal as a cloud.  Something simple, elegant, refined, whipped up in no time and not over-accessorized.


AC: Lemons.  I just love the pucker.  All those fresh lemons give whatever you’re eating a little burst of brightness.  I think they’re behind so much of vibrancy of food in L.A.  So many of the recipes in Eat. Cook. L.A. have a last squeeze of that citrus sunshine.

Preorder Aleksandra Crapanzano’s Gateau: The Surprising Simplicity of French Cakes here.


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