Reviewing Alexander Lobrano’s Memoir About Dining in Paris: “He Is a Poetic Writer About Food”

From a Wall Street Journal review  by Moira Hodgson of the book by Alexander Lobrano titled “My Place at the Table”:

In 1986, Alexander Lobrano was offered a job writing for Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine in Paris. He accepted at once. No matter that he didn’t know a thing about his assigned beat, men’s fashion. John Fairchild, the much-feared publisher, told him not to worry. “If it doesn’t work out, that’s easy. I’ll fire you.”

Mr. Lobrano’s beautiful memoir, “My Place at the Table,” reads like a novel, the story threaded with the author’s adventures as a gay man and an outsider, haunted by a childhood secret he reveals only toward the end. He is a poetic writer about food, whether he’s describing his first taste of an apricot soufflé or his boyhood enthusiasm for Chef Boyardee.

If Mr. Lobrano knew nothing about menswear when he arrived in Paris, he knew even less about French food. Gearing up the courage to dine out alone, he consults a guidebook that suggests he bring something to read. “You might also consider doing a crossword puzzle, or even some discreet needlework.” He settles on a restaurant known for mushrooms. “As a child I’d eaten them after they’d been drained from a little can with the image of a green-faced Pennsylvania Dutchman peering out in a friendly way.” But when the waiter talks about cèpes and trompettes de la mort  he’s lost. The meal, however, is magnificent.

Writing in a light, self-deprecating tone, Mr. Lobrano brings each scene to life with sensual details, beginning with his lonely childhood in Connecticut. He opens with the ode to a BLT sandwich he wrote in grade school. He gets an “A,” but his father is annoyed. Why hadn’t he written about baseball or climbing a tree? “What I didn’t know then was that food would become my muse, my metaphor, and my map for making a place for myself in the world.”

In Paris he persuades his editor to let him write a story on the legendary cheesemonger Henri Androuët, followed by another on oysters. The articles are so successful that he’s asked to do a critique of L’Ami Louis, an exorbitantly priced bistro with only two dishes on the menu. Mr. Lobrano was shocked by “musty-tasting foie gras” followed by “lukewarm emaciated roast chicken” and “cold, greasy potato straws.” He wrote: “L’Ami Louis isn’t about food, it’s about a certain type of communal conspicuous consumption that bonds powerful people with its smugness.” No one had bothered to tell him it was Fairchild’s favorite restaurant….

Following a tip from a post-office clerk, Mr. Lobrano discovers a restaurant unlike any he’d encountered in Paris. At La Régalade, located in an out-of-the-way district, the chef, Yves Camdeborde, was serving a completely new style of French cooking. “It ripped the corsets off the traditional idioms of French cuisine by mixing classic bistro cooking with regional food . . . and then refining it with the technical perfection of haute cuisine and the spare but provocative use of expensive luxury ingredients like truffles and foie gras.”

Over three decades, Mr. Lobrano would explore the innovations introduced by young bistro chefs. It was a revolution: international ingredients, shorter cooking times and no heavy sauces. He’s dazzled by dishes such as white peach and tomato gazpacho, ravioli stuffed with foie gras, and grilled wild salmon garnished with powdered beets.

He slips comprehensive gastronomical information into his book so deftly, it goes down without your being aware of it. His enthusiasm is infectious, although occasionally he gets a little turgid, writing about “a soft, creamy chicken-liver terrine that was as earthy and satisfying as sex in a barn” and “marinated herring with boiled potatoes, a muscular comfort food that recalled the wet wharves of northern European ports.”

Mr. Lobrano acknowledges a debt to his landlady, a French countess who lived upstairs. Upon learning of his desire to be a restaurant critic, she gave him great advice. “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.” He has done both admirably.

Moira Hodgson is the author of “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time: My Adventures in Life and Food.”

Speak Your Mind