french restaurants/los angeles
petit trois and trois mec
portrait by TODD COLE
interview by EMILIEN CRESPO
EMILIEN CRESPO — You started cooking at 14 under chef Marc Meneau at L’Espérance in Burgundy. How did that happen?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — I was a troubled kid; I got kicked out of two schools, and my father got fed up with it. He told me I had to work for real, and I was forced to apprentice for one of three things: mechanic, hairdresser, or cook. I picked cook because I loved eating. At that time, cooking for a three-star Michelin restaurant was the only way to learn how to cook; there were hardly any cookbooks, TV shows, no Internet. You had to suffer, get abused. I was lucky to be accepted at Marc Meneau’s restaurant thanks to my grandfather, who knew him. On my first day, the chef sat me down and told me: “Boy, I’m glad you’re well connected, but I’m putting you on trial for a month. If you’re bad, you will be fired.” He was very straight with me. He taught me rigor, discipline, and to shut my mouth. It was tough; I was working 15-16 hours a day, six days a week. But I was happy. Happy to learn pastry, to remove the ducks’ feathers, to pick the right products. I worked there for three years as an apprentice, and I was proud of what I was doing. I will always remember the first time I composed a plate for a client. At that time, people were paying $120 for a plate, and I was so proud, so proud.
EMILIEN CRESPO — Any memories of the clients at that time?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — Of course! One of the greatest composer-singers in France, Serge Gainsbourg. When he found out that he was sick, he came to spend a month at L’Espérance. He would come for lunch and dinner, he would play the piano for the customers — his very last shows. He knew he was about to die. He would eat everything on the menu — mostly healthy, but he also loved butter, cream, and foie gras. I was a punk; I didn’t realize who Serge Gainsbourg was. But it was magical. I could see in Mr. Meneau’s eyes how excited and proud he was to have Serge Gainsbourg over there. He used to have this small table on the patio where he would have dinner every night.
EMILIEN CRESPO — What did 10 years of cooking in three-star restaurants in France (under chefs Meneau, Alain Passard, Pierre Gagnaire, and Guy Martin) teach you?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — I was lucky to learn with Marc Meneau because he taught me the foundations of French cuisine. I remember that he was always reading cookbooks, including historic ones. He gave me this wonderful piece of advice: “Pick a classic dish in a cookbook and replicate it with a twist of modernity.” He was awe-inspiring. His techniques! The ingredients we had over there… The new generations don’t realize that you need to learn and master the basics. Now that I have solid foundations, I can do anything I want. After that, I told him that I wanted to work somewhere else, and he sent me to Pierre Gagnaire. At that time, it was just word of mouth; chefs would call each other all the time. If you got fired from a Michelin three-star restaurant, you would never find a job again. You had to say “Oui, chef,” and shut your mouth. I am very grateful because Mr. Meneau fulfilled his mentor role: after teaching me everything I had to know about the art of French gastronomy, he sent me somewhere else to discover another conception of cuisine. At first I was lost, because Gagnaire was a rule-breaker. He was the first chef in France to be very creative, using sake or a lot of spices from around the world. As for Alain Passard, he taught me the art of fire, how to cook a whole fish on the bone, a whole piece of meat on the bone, and most importantly, the art of seasoning. He was the king of techniques. You would go to Pierre Gagnaire, where the fish would be cooked perfectly, but the plate would be too messy. At Alain Passard’s, you would get one piece of fish, sauce, and vegetables. That’s it, boom. Simple but spot-on: you’d have to clean the fish, take care of the way you would marinate and cook it, letting it rest and slicing it precisely. And finally, Guy Martin taught me about business. He was a clever man. He taught me how to manage a restaurant and put the team together. It was a big restaurant, and I learned how to be a leader.
LUDO LEFEBVRE — I wanted to see something else. That’s all. I had always dreamed about going to America. Mr. Meneau told me I had to stay in France to learn my job first because I was not ready. He told my dad that I was naturally gifted
— I knew how to cook — but I just was not ready. When the moment came, he sent my resume to six of the best chefs in America, and they all said yes. I didn’t know where to go, and I picked Los Angeles.
EMILIEN CRESPO — Why?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — Maybe Baywatch, Pamela Anderson, the beach. I was a little afraid to go to New York because I couldn’t speak English, and a friend of mine was already in LA.
EMILIEN CRESPO — How was Los Angeles 20 years ago?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — Less stressed but also less creative, with fewer restaurants. A little more French. And older, more “old Hollywood,” especially where I was working, at L’Orangerie. It was very fancy, very froufrou, very Versailles. It was also very expensive. I cooked for Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas — who celebrated his 80th birthday, and all his legendary friends were there. Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, U2, The Rolling Stones, they all came!
EMILIEN CRESPO — How has life in Los Angeles and in Southern California changed your approach to French cuisine? Is it more rock-and-roll than what you would be able to do in Paris?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — LA is the city of freedom. I think you can do whatever you want in LA. It’s cheaper, we have space, people are very open. And I think that 20 years ago, nobody was really interested in the Los Angeles food scene. I loved this quote of Frank Gehry, who said how much he had loved LA until recently because New York and European journalists would let him fly under the radar. At that time, he could build whatever he wanted. It’s what I felt with cooking.
EMILIEN CRESPO — What about the food scene in Los Angeles? It seems so exciting.
LUDO LEFEBVRE — California has the best agriculture in the country. I’m lucky because if I don’t have good ingredients, I’m nothing. I am also grateful because the clientele is very open. I’ve always seen LA as a city where people go to the theater to watch movies. I experienced that when I started doing pop-up restaurants in random locations. It was a spectacle. People would stop by to have a look; they’d be so excited to see the new menu. As it is the entertainment capital, customers are very open to creativity.
EMILIEN CRESPO — You blast French rap in your restaurants.
LUDO LEFEBVRE — When I moved here, I was very French. I was always cooking with truffles, foie gras, Bresse chicken. Then I discovered wasabi, soy sauce, kimchi, spices, jalapeños… It gave me access to a world full of new flavors that I could associate with my French skills. These cultural diversities make LA so unique. People are very open to different kinds of food.
EMILIEN CRESPO — Why does the French food scene seem slower in comparison?
LUDO LEFEBVRE – It’s easier to open restaurants here. Generally speaking, Americans are more open than French people. French people live too much in the past, and it takes longer to change their way of thinking. However, they go out a lot and love dining out. It is quite hard to break traditions in France. In LA there’s hardly any culture or tradition to break! It’s a young country, you can do whatever you want, there are fewer institutions.
EMILIEN CRESPO — Like the Michelin guide, for instance? LA used to have a Michelin guide rating, until 2009.
LUDO LEFEBVRE — That’s the greatest thing about LA. No Michelin guide. LA is not a gastronomic city. It does not fit the lifestyle, the way people live, the way people dress. We still have freedom because the Michelin guide is not here. If they came back, I know my cooking would be safer because as a chef you want to have a star. Now there’s no pressure, I can do what I want. I would be happy if they came back, but I would have to change what I do quite a bit.
EMILIEN CRESPO — Time named you “Chef of the Future.” Where do you see gastronomy heading?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — I see it going toward raw, ultra-raw. Having fantastic ingredients and manipulating them less. The El Bulli era is over. Molecular gastronomy is finished. Cooking is very simple. My first job as a chef is to hunt for the best ingredients. And after that, it’s techniques and seasoning. That’s it. The young chefs now understand this, and it makes me very happy.
EMILIEN CRESPO — Your restaurants Trois Mec, Petit Trois, and Trois Familia are located in old strip malls. It’s quite a shock for people coming from out of town to eat delicious escargots while looking at the back of a gas station next to a dirty donut shop. Why did you choose these locations?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — Ten years ago, I wanted to open my own restaurant, and I didn’t realize how expensive it was. It costs a lot of money. So I created pop-up restaurants called LudoBites all over the city for four years. I would change locations every three months, with a different menu each time. It made me learn a lot about LA customers and location, but most importantly that people would drive for good food. It was great to go everywhere from the Valley to dangerous Downtown areas where I would see my Beverly Hills guests worrying about their Mercedes.
EMILIEN CRESPO – This coincided with the birth of social media, too.
LUDO LEFEBVRE — Social media made LudoBites, in 2007. Twitter, bloggers. Somebody would come to eat, and the next day we would see a review on social media. It was amazing. People were taking photos of their plates. Crazy times. It also helped me pick my location for my restaurant. I realized I could cook anywhere and that I didn’t need to have a fancy restaurant. Strip malls are very much like incubators for a chef; you can do what you want and it does not cost much. I didn’t want to make people pay on the menu for a $20,000 door. I also wanted a small restaurant at Trois Mec so that people would have the feeling of being in a kitchen. It was extremely important for me to have this direct contact with the guests.
EMILIEN CRESPO – You’ve said you used to cook for your ego.
LUDO LEFEBVRE — Every chef cooks a bit for his ego. It helps in pushing one’s limits. But you also have to restrain it, and now I think that you’re mostly cooking for your guests. I used to cook for critics, to get news articles, good reviews. As I’m getting older, I realize that the most important thing is taking care of your guests. At times, I would like to push the envelope and do more creative things, but it’s a risk. I am focused on satisfying people. And to have people enjoying themselves, you have to stop thinking about yourself. I have to restrain creativity. Creativity is easy, you know; I can create new textures with seaweed and strawberry, but it won’t be everyone’s taste. But if I cook the perfect roast chicken with potatoes and sauce, everybody will love it.
EMILIEN CRESPO — What is the hardest part of being a chef?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — People coming to the restaurant who don’t know anything about food and telling you things; that makes it even more difficult.
EMILIEN CRESPO — You’re very active on TV and social media, cooking in la société du spectacle. What do you hate about the chef-as-rock-star culture?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — Because of TV, some chefs see themselves as artists. But we’re not artists; we’re craftsmen. TV can be very dangerous for chefs. I won’t say any names, but a long time ago, I went to this fantastic restaurant. The chef got a TV show, and things went downhill. He stopped focusing on food, and he became obsessed with his image. That was so sad. The guy was a genius.
EMILIEN CRESPO – Yet you got nominated for an Emmy for the PBS documentary series, The Mind of a Chef.
LUDO LEFEBVRE — TV can be great to pass on a message. It probably helped me in the French government’s decision to knight me under the order of Arts et Lettres. It was an honor and much more meaningful for me than winning a James Beard award.
EMILIEN CRESPO — You’ve had many artists at your tables.
LUDO LEFEBVRE — I would have loved to be a painter. I’m so jealous; when they create, it’s just them touching the canvas. As for me, there’s a lot of cooking involved to properly execute a dish. It takes time to teach people how to cook. Artists are just by themselves. Mad at themselves. I’m tired of getting mad at other people.
EMILIEN CRESPO — Do you miss France?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — Of course. I miss the culture and art de vivre. The biggest thing I miss is history. Louis XIV invented gastronomy as we know it. The cooks, the large feasts, les arts de la table, the service, the show, the way people would dress, the music. My dream is to recreate an authentic Louis XIV dinner, to create a large buffet with 18 dishes at a time. I’d love to do this in LA or elsewhere because that’s my job as a chef, to get people to discover new things. I started working on this with the Getty Museum because they have a huge collection of Louis XIV books and artifacts. A lot of recipes also have not changed. We invented a lot at that time: sauces, puff pastry, everything. When you read historic cookbooks, you realize we haven’t invented much. For any recipe, I always start by looking at classic cookbooks. I always read about history to get inspiration for all the things we haven’t done yet.
EMILIEN CRESPO — What are your next projects?
LUDO LEFEBVRE — I’m opening a large version of my Petit Trois restaurant before the end of the year in the Valley, in Sherman Oaks. I want to bring back les arts de la table. For instance, bring back a large dessert cart. Build an old-school brasserie with all these dishes that can’t be found in LA because it’s important to revere the past. Some dishes like quenelles, salmon coulibiac, blanquette de veau. The waiters will have a white jacket, a black tie, and an apron. There are no restaurants like that in LA. I’m also throwing an event at Trois Mec where I invite chefs from all over the world to create a dialogue. Some of the guests this year will be Enrique Olvera (Pujol in Mexico City), Grant Achatz (Alinea in Chicago), and Bertrand Grébaut (Septime in Paris). Having them cook with me is important to exchange cultures, skills, ingredients. Cooking is sharing.
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