MY PLACE AT THE TABLE: A Recipe for a Delicious Life in Paris. By Alexander Lobrano. Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 256 pages. $27.
The seductive sensuality of food and eating tops the bill of fare in restaurant critic Alexander Lobrano’s culinary walking tour of Paris, the highlight of this memoir of a life in gastronomy.
Now a freelance blogger and contributor to Saveur magazine, the multiple James Beard Award recipient has been point man in the City of Light for most of the major food and dining publications during his 30 years of gustatory adventuring in France and much of the rest of Europe.
After stints in New York and London, Lobrano secured a post in Paris by accepting a job as a high-society and fashion correspondent — by no means his bailiwick.
“I had about as much natural aptitude for fashion journalism as I had for jet-engine mechanics,” he recalls.
But it wasn’t long before Lobrano found the chef’s table and stayed, though in the beginning he had to tear himself away from eating in the same café day after day. He discovered that “there would be no such effortless metamorphosis” from neophyte to avatar.
“Just being in Paris wasn’t enough,” Lobrano says. “I’d have to work at it. With a rush of adrenaline, I knew exactly how I’d begin to build a real life here. The next day, I went to a bookstore and bought four guides to Parisian restaurants, two in English and two in French. I’d make Paris my home by eating it.”
And so he has, for three decades and counting. But he knew he had found a home within the first six months. Paris was “a propitious place for incubating dreams.” And Lobrano dreamed big.
“Food would become my muse, my metaphor, and my map for making a place for myself in the world and finding my place at the table,” remembers Lobrano, who also resolved to learn to cook French food, as well as eat it.
Long on charm and self-deprecation, Lobrano is nonetheless well aware of the clout he wields. But that’s a side dish to recollections of his personal life, from his years growing up as a shy, gentle son of a straight-laced middle-class family in suburban Connecticut (whose saving grace was love of travel) to his sometimes painful romantic history.
He also affords us a measure of culinary history, especially a focus on the bistro revolution in France and its internationalizing effect on Western cooking.
The author is not above name-dropping, but that’s part of the juice of such a book. Apart from famous chefs and socialites, he recounts close encounters with Giorgio Armani (a man who “seemed to have little aptitude for pleasure”), an initially hostile Patricia Highsmith and Julia Child (whom he did not recognize at first), among others.
Lobrano, whose blog Hungry for Paris and France has produced three books in a series of the same name, closes with tantalizing short takes on his favorite Parisian restaurants, with advice on how to get the most from one’s dining experience.
Of his career as a critic, he quotes an early mentor who taught him that “humility is always the best point of departure. The first thing you’ll have to learn is how to decipher a cook’s intentions. And then, with more experience, you can judge the success with which those intentions have been achieved.”
With his latest book, Lobrano’s intentions are delightfully accomplished, and then some. From mouth-watering descriptions of bistros and brasseries to the temples of haute cuisine, he has it covered.
Reviewer Bill Thompson is the author of “Why Travel?”