This week, The Expat touches base with Bariloche-born sommelier Paz Levinson, who lives in France. She competed in the Best Sommelier of the World Contest on home turf in April, and ranked fourth in the world.
Name: Paz Levinson
Lives: Père Lachaise, Paris
Degree: Bachelor of Arts from UBA
Job: Sommelier at Virtus
Currently reading: A whisky manual and Humedal by Daiana Henderson
Last movie: The Birth of Sake
Can’t live without: My Laguiole corkscrew
Paz says: “The first time I visited France was in 2000 when I went to discover Europe, though I never thought I’d end up living there! I visited several more times and decided to move there in 2013. I’d been working in China but, given the language, living there can be hard so my husband, a Mandarin Chinese translator, and I decided to move to France.
“I’d always wanted to live in a country where I could learn another language: I already spoke English so I didn’t want to go London – or to Spain, obviously – and wanted to pick up French. My husband wanted to continue with his Oriental studies, and as France is very developed with lots of universities, moving to Paris was ideal for us both.”
Virtue of Virtus
Given that Paz worked in Shanghai for a French firm, the move was relatively seamless, she says, plus France’s capital bears certain similarities to Buenos Aires. And after working at Unico Paris and Le Bristol, Paz is now getting to know pastures new.
“When we lived in China, I worked for a company with restaurants in Paris so getting work was quite easy. Plus, for Argentines it’s true that Paris and Buenos Aires are sibling cities in some ways so it was easy to adapt.
“I now work at Virtus and we are all foreigners: two Argentines – me and chef Marcelo di Giacomo – and Japanese chef Chiho Kanzaki. It’s a bit like a laboratory and I oversee wine as well as cocktails. I just started working there when I returned from competing in the best sommelier of the world contest in April.”
Thanks to the recent launch, much of Paz’s daily routine revolves around the restaurant, she says, although she gets some down time in a floating tank. “The day starts with me going to bed late as I work in the restaurant but I try to be up at 9am. I’ll drink some mate, then have some toast and coffee. In cafés, they give you bread but it’s not toasted like it is in Argentina, which I miss! I’ll study in a library then have something easy for lunch like a sandwich, then by 3pm I’m at the restaurant, having meetings, trying wine, putting in orders and checking everything is in place for the evening’s service.
“My days off are Sunday and Monday so I try to do something different. Sometimes I’ll go to morning tastings and there’s quite a big cocktail movement here so I enjoy vermouth and French drinks. I also found out that Paris now has floating tanks. These are personal spaces where you float in salt water in darkness – it’s taken me two years to find one but now it’s a trend.”
With three years in Paris, the sommelier, currently ranked fourth in the world, has lived in two districts. She says: “We used to live in Nation but now we’re in Père Lachaise, near the cemetery where Jim Morrison is buried. Every neighbourhood in Paris is really nice – it’s a beautiful city. Père Lachaise is very peaceful and lots of young French families live there: it’s also well-connected and close to everything – Paris is a gigantic city but it’s not very difficult to get around. There are lots of lovely parks, we’re far enough away from intensive tourism and it’s diverse. We go to the twice weekly market to buy meat and cheese or oysters in the right season, as well as vegetables.”
As for cultural differences, picking up French has been a challenge. Paz says: “I knew it would be hard to learn a new language at my age, it’s always a bit harder! And in France people point it out to you if you don’t speak very well. So it can be a little hard but I imagined it would be – if you go to London, for example, nobody asks where you’re from.
“It’s also hard to plan in advance. Coming from Argentina we aren’t very used to that and are more likely to improvise! The French schedule things with lots of warning but in Argentina we are far more spontaneous, dropping in on friends without calling ahead. I try to do that with my sommelier friends because it’s nice to stop by, but dinners that need a little more logistics are well-planned. As for flights, we’re always late in getting those cheap prices! The Parisians already planned their summer holiday and now they’re thinking about their winter holiday!
“I’ve also had to adapt to restaurants closing very early. We are used to eating late and grabbing pizza at 1am. This is a very touristy city where everything is usually open and available but the fact that shops are often closed on Sunday and Monday attracts my attention. As I work in gastronomy and only have those days off, my consumerism is at an all-time low!”
World of wine
With regard to friends, Paz says she doesn’t know many Argentines in Paris, though her husband recently opened a Spanish language book shop. She says: “My friends here are from the world of wine, people I trained with for the sommelier contest. I connected with like-minded people with the same interests, so as to train and study with them, well, that part of the wine world is amazing because we are in direct contact. I know I don’t speak ideal French as I learnt it all here, but wine puts me in touch with people from here who work in the same industry.
“My husband opened a Spanish language-only book store, the only such shop in Paris: the links between Paris and Argentina are strengthening again. So we’re receiving people who come to buy books they can’t get hold of easily. The store also has a small space to showcase Latin American art – all of that is generating more Argentines coming our way!
“It’s not as easy to make friends in France as it is in Argentina. We also have Chilean friends, for example, translators, people who have been here for a long time. An Argentine friend living here married an Englishman, then moved to London: this is a city where people come and go. But fortunately working in the restaurant with the others is like being with a family.”
Besides her nearest and dearest back in Argentina, Paz says she misses the extensive countryside. “Places where there aren’t too many people or houses. It’s very populated here so I miss places like Patagonia, those wilder areas, a lot. I drink mate every day but I also miss having an asado, that ritual of getting together.”
Paz tries to escape Paris when she can, with travels usually taking her to wine regions such as Burgundy and Bordeaux. “I love staying in Dijon, it’s a gorgeous city. But a while back we went to Cap Ferret where there are oyster-farmers: I love oysters so I adore going there. I also went to Brittany as well as Bandol in the south, both places are wonderful to visit. I love it all!”
As for her most French characteristic, the fromage has it, Paz adds. “I do love taking advantage of the city, going to public swimming-pools, walking around with a baguette in my hand. And I got used to eating cheese after dessert very easily!”