Ludo Lefebvre, although relatively unknown in the UK until his debut on reality show The Taste, is at the forefront of a restaurant movement in Los Angeles, introducing the city to his type of dressed-down luxury dining. Kerstin Kühn reports
Ludo Lefebvre is pretty badass. With his full-sleeve tattoos, pierced ears, scruffy facial hair and sly smile, he epitomises the rock ‘n' roll chef. But the surly exterior is misleading and underneath he's surprisingly mellow, easy to talk to, honest and fun.
He doesn't hold back, doesn't care too much about saying the wrong thing and, refreshingly, doesn't take himself too seriously either.
We meet at Trois Mec, his restaurant in Hollywood that has taken LA by storm. Voted by Zagat as one of the 10 hottest restaurants in the world right now, it may be a far cry from the temples of haute cuisine Lefebvre grew up with, but by breaking all the rules of what a high-end restaurant should be, it is right at the
forefront of a new movement of fine dining that is redefining LA's restaurant scene.
Trois Mec, French for three dudes, opened last April in collaboration with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, two of the LA restaurant community's biggest names, who together run Animal and Son of a Gun. Trois Mec is a mainstream restaurant with the sense of a secret underground supper club. Hidden away
in an inconspicuous strip mall behind a petrol station, it is housed in what was previously a cheap pizza joint. The original yellow 'Raffallo's Pizza & Italian Foods' sign remains, along with a piece of paper stuck to the door stating: "Closed. No more pizza".
Once inside, however, the remnants of the past are no more and the space is modern, clean and elegant. There are just 24 seats, no tablecloths and a counter lining the open kitchen. You do not reserve a table at Trois Mec - you buy a ticket online at 8am sharp on the alternating Fridays the restaurant releases its
tables. Your ticket encompasses the full price of dinner - $97 (£59) per person for a fivecourse set menu, including tax and tip. Wine is paid for on the night, with a full pairing priced at $49 (£30).
Although Trois Mec may seem like it's trying very hard to be different and trendy, Lefebvre's reasoning behind the concept makes complete business sense.
The ticket system allows the restaurant to control costs (Angelenos are notoriously flaky, but if they've paid in advance they're almost guaranteed to show up) and the strip mall location means low overheads, which allows Lefebvre to make his dinners affordable to a wide audience.
"High-end restaurants are expensive and there aren't enough people to support them. I want to be accessible - I want to cook for everybody," he says.
"Besides, high-end restaurants can be boring, too. These chefs take themselves so seriously; they're not cooking for their customers, they're cooking for the press, for Michelin stars. High-end restaurants are vehicles for chefs' egos. I know that because I have been there too."
Lefebvre got his first job in a professional kitchen at 14 and, right from the start, spent his formative years working under some of the most renowned chefs in France. His apprenticeship was spent with Marc Meneau at his then three-Michelin-starred restaurant L'Espérance in Vézelay, Burgundy. From there
he went on to work with Pierre Gagnaire, who first encouraged him to "experiment with spices and unusual flavour combinations".
After serving in the French army as personal chef for the French minister of defence, he joined Alain Passard at L'Arpège.
"All of them were very different," he says. "Marc Meneau was very classic, Pierre Gagnaire very modern, and Alain Passard, he was the first chef to cook vegetables. Now everyone is doing it. What I learned from all of them was the importance of consistency. Every day is a new day, but the food has to be the same - it has to be as good as the day before. Being creative is easy; being consistent is so difficult. To find the best ingredients every day and to manage
your team and get the best out of them, that's what makes a great chef."
He goes on to say that running a kitchen is much like running an army. There have to be rules in place, he insists, adding that his kitchen at Trois Mec is run in the "traditional French way". "I am very strict. I push my chefs a lot."
COMING TO AMERICA
Lefebvre moved to the US in 1996, when former mentor Meneau organised a job as chef de partie at L'Orangerie, one of LA's, and indeed the country's, most acclaimed French restaurants.
"It was always my dream to live in America," he says. Despite speaking hardly any English, he was promoted to executive chef within a year and overnight became one of LA's most celebrated chefs, gaining a reputation for combining old world simplicity with exotic new world flavours.
"It was good and bad," he says, suddenly looking serious. "I was only 25 and very young in my head. I had so much to learn about life, about food and about how to manage a kitchen. Being a chef is not just about cooking - it's about being a leader and making an example. It's about teaching your cooks how to cook. At 25 you don't know enough about cooking to be responsible for teaching somebody else."
This was followed by two years at Bastide, another of LA's most distinguished French restaurants, cementing Lefebvre's status as one of the city's top chefs after he became the only LA chef to receive the prestigious Mobil Travel Guide Five Star Award at two restaurants.
But after Bastide closed for refurbishment, Lefebvre decided not to return and famously became the chef without a restaurant, running a series of pop-ups called Ludo Bites.
"The idea came from nowhere," he shrugs."I really wanted to buy my own restaurant but it's very, very difficult. It was very stressful for me to find the right location. Landlords wanted to take advantage of me and everything was very expensive."
Ludo Bites started after a friend, who owned a bakery-café called Breadbar, asked Lefebvre to help put together a dinner menu. Instead, he took over the space for three months. "It was a big risk for me because it was totally different from the froufrou, high-end restaurants I had come from. It was fun and very accessible, but it was a big challenge for me to get it right," he says.
The pop-up was a runaway success, dubbed a "transforming moment in the Los Angeles restaurant scene" by the city's most feared food critic Jonathan Gold. What started as a menu of simple small plates soon evolved into an elaborate chef's tasting menu and reservations were so sought after, Ludo Bites once crashed the Open Table website.
"After the success I realised that the business model was very good for me. It was just like renting an apartment," Lefebvre says. He continued to run the pop-ups for five years, between 2007 and 2012, in nine different incarnations across LA and once in Hawaii.
Ludo Bites was turned into a cookbook, a television show called Ludo Bites America, and an online series called Ludo Baby Bites. Branded the pop-up pioneer, Lefebvre became a celebrity. And after appearing on a number of TV shows, including Top Chef Masters, Hell's Kitchen and Iron Chef America, he joined the judging panel of ABC's culinary reality show The Taste, which premiered in the US in January 2013 and in the UK earlier this year.
REDEFINING FINE DINING
Lefebvre has said that his favourite restauant in the UK is Dabbous, and that is probably the closest thing London has to Trois Mec. Like Dabbous, Lefebvre's food adheres to a philosophy of simplicity where the ingredient is the star of the show. Techniques and theatre happen in the kitchen, but what's on the plate is understated, delicate, playful, interesting and, most importantly, delicious.
With Lefebvre, a simple plate of potato pulp is elevated with butter, bonito flakes, Salers cheese and onion soubise to delicious effect; a dish comprising thin slices of avocado covering crab ceviche has an intense citrus boost and added crunch from buckwheat popcorn.
Service is down-to-earth but informed. Waiters seem to outnumber guests, yet the atmosphere is relaxed, with French rap music in the background. In many ways dining at Trois Mec feels like being a guest at Lefebvre's home. "I want people to feel like they're in my house," he says. "Trois Mec is about hospitality, about looking after the guest. There are too many casual restaurants now and I think people want more refinement."
Indeed, Trois Mec cleverly embraces the essence of a fine-dining restaurant and combines it with casual dining by rejecting the usual formalities.
"With Trois Mec I have the freedom to do what I want," Lefebvre adds. "Of course I would love to have a Michelin star, but I'm not living by that and I'm certainly not following their rules." However, he does bemoan Michelin's absence in LA (the guide discontinued its LA edition in 2009, saying there was no
real food culture).
"LA has changed so much and there are so many amazing restaurants here now," he insists. "New York is all about high-end, established restaurants, but LA is all about variety and young chefs and Michelin should be here."
Lefebvre has a point - LA's food scene is undergoing a phenomenal awakening and Lefebvre is a driving force who has helped to move it forward. Now chefs like Ari Taymor of Alma, Miles Thompson of Allumette, Josef Centeno at Orsa & Winston and Curtis Stone at Maude are all delivering tasting menus that offer high-quality ingredients and accomplished cooking in an informal setting and at an affordable price.
"A year ago nobody was doing tasting menus. Now lots of chefs in LA are doing them," Lefebvre says. "I guess it's nice to be copied."
The Taste Experience
So how was filming The Taste in the UK?
The food was very different and the contestants were stronger than in the US. Britain still isn't known for great food, but it's definitely changing. There is a culture and you can feel that. What surprised me the most was that the UK contestants were really good bakers. Baking requires a lot of skill.
Was there a difference between the professional chefs and the amateurs?
The chefs were much more stressed out than the home cooks and for them it was way more about ego. The home cooks cooked a lot more from the heart.
What about the guest chefs: Pierre Koffmann, Simon Rogan, Angela Hartnett and Fergus Henderson?
Fergus! Isn't he amazing? He is known all over the world and his cooking is so good. The way he talks about food, about life, he was a great inspiration.
Were there any UK restaurants that excited you?
My favourite was Dabbous. I loved it. It was very good, very interesting. I liked the creativity of the food. It was simple but very intellectual too.
You can see the chef really knows what he's doing with his ingredients and techniques and it was very playful.
NUNTUCKET BAY SCALLOPS, TANDOORI, SESAME, CAULIFLOWER
Note from Ludo Lefebvre
The ingredients and their weights are for one portion, as are the plating up directions. However, the method is for batch sizes and how we prepare the dish at the restaurant for service, and it's also how they work best.
For the cauliflower puree Makes 90 portions
1 large cauliflower (about 1.2kg)
Salt and white pepper
Slice the cauliflower florets and place them with 400g cream into two 12in x 12in sous-vide bags. Season with salt and white pepper. Cook at 100% steam at 85ËC for 20 minutes. While the cauliflower is warm, strain the liquid from the bags and then blend 200g of the cooked cauliflower with 50g of the cooking liquid. Season again with salt and white pepper. Repeat until all the cauliflower is blended smooth. Chill immediately.
For the cauliflower couscous
Makes 40 portions
800g cauliflower stem and florets
Rough-cut the cauliflower, steam and blend in a robot coupe. Blend the cauliflower with the water until the cauliflower is broken down into little grains. Strain and pat dry.
For the roasted cauliflower oil 600g cauliflower florets
800ml grapeseed oil
Salt to taste
Fry the florets at 190Â°C until nicely browned. Blend with the grapeseed oil and season with salt. Let the oil steep for 1 hour and then strain it.
For the lemon puree 12 Meyer lemons
Cut the lemons in half, squeeze the juice and reserve it. Blanch the lemon halves in boiling water for 10 minutes, and then strain and cool. Make a stock syrup using 700g sugar with 550ml water and cool. Scoop the flesh from the inside of the lemon halves, leaving just the peel. Cook the peel in the syrup for 20 minutes and then strain. While everything is still hot, blend the cooked lemon peel, 30g sugar, 50g of the reserved lemon juice, 100ml water and 200ml of the
stock syrup. Strain through a chinois and chill immediately.
For the scallops Makes one portion
400ml smoked rice vinegar
30g Nantucket Bay scallops, halved (approximately 10 halves per portion)
To prepare the scallop cooking liquid, mix the water, smoked rice vinegar and kombu and bring to a boil. Remove the kombu and then pour the liquid over the scallops.
For the tandoori powder
312g (or 1 jar) tandoori paste
Spread the whole jar of tandoori paste thinly on a silpat. Place in a dehydrator until dry - about two hours. Grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder and then pour into a shaker.
For the sesame tandoori tuile 250g Isomalt
90g tandoori powder
Toasted sesame seeds
Preheat the oven to 150Â°C. Melt 250g of Isomalt in a small pot over a medium heat. Pour the Isomalt evenly over a silpat and cool until it hardens. Break the Isomalt apart and blend to a powder in a Vitamix.
Measure out 200g of the Isomalt powder and mix well with 90g of the tandoori powder (see previous recipe). Finely sift an even layer of this mixture onto a silpat on a sheet tray.
Liberally sprinkle sesame seeds on top until the powder is fully covered. Sift a very light layer of powder mix on top of the sesame seeds. Top with another silpat sheet and bake in a combi oven at 150Â°C with the fan on 3. Remove from the oven, remove the top silpat and cool until hard.
To plate one portion 20g cauliflower purée
30g Nantucket Bay scallops, halved
Fleur de sel
10g lemon purée
4g tandoori tuile
20g cauliflower couscous Roast cauliflower oil
Place the cauliflower purée on the plate and make a swoosh. Scatter 10 halves of the scallop on top of the purée. Season the scallops with fleur de sel. Squeeze three penny-sized dots of lemon purée in different areas on top of the cauliflower purée.
Crack the tandoori tuile into about five or six small pieces and scatter around the plate. Spoon over the couscous, covering all the other ingredients. Season with the roasted cauliflower oil and then finish by sprinkling the tandoori powder all over the plate.