I’ve never tasted Ludo Lefebvre’s food, but I think I’d like it. I say that after poring over the new book LudoBites: Recipes and Stories from the Pop-Up Restaurants of Ludo Lefebvre. Lefebvre's recipes look refined, but have a farm-table solidity, like modern French food should. Lefebvre was born in Burgundy, and trained with French badasses Alain Passard and Guy Martin. As a young chef in LA he got famous cooking at L’Orangerie and Bastide. And in 2007 he launched what would end up being nine pop-ups, most lasting a couple of months, each an expression of an ongoing project called LudoBites.
Lefebvre stopped by CHOW’s offices in San Francisco this week to talk. The 41-year-old chef struck me as an unpretentious guy who’s worked hard, and has kept his head despite the distractions of food TV and high-profile projects in the media blast-furnace of LA. Still high from the dishes he’d eaten the night before at Daniel Patterson's Coi, Lefebvre talked about his book, set the record straight about his impending restaurant project with Animal’s Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (Eater says the place will be an update on the French routier, or truck stop, though Lefebvre denied that—now there's word of a possible solo project, too), and discussed his faith in simple food:
CHEFS: GROW A PAIR
"Sometimes chefs overcomplicate too much. With Daniel Patterson, it’s very intellectual. To cook a piece of lamb like he did last night, with just maybe a little anchovy in the sauce and some chard—it’s art. The most difficult thing is to cook simply but interesting. When you see all these chefs putting eight to ten things on the plate—I want to tell them to get some balls."
MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY IS FINISHED
"Molecular gastronomy helped a lot with exploring different tastes and textures in the food. Ferran [Adrià] at El Bulli—what he did was amazing. I tried all these techniques, especially when I was at Bastide. It was my job. Now that I’m getting old I don’t want to use sous vide anymore.
"My mentor Alain Passard would always say a cook is all about the flame, you need to control the flame. No [liquid] nitrogen anymore—I want to work with real food, and cook it slowly for a long time. Mr. Passard always used to talk about manipulation of the vegetable. All this chemical cooking—there’s no more sound of sizzling in these molecular kitchens; it’s quiet, like a pastry kitchen. But for me cooking is the smell, the flame, the sound of the pan, the smell of the bread in the oven, the sizzle of a lobster pan deglazed with Cognac. The sound of the kitchen is like a concert.
"In France sous vide is everywhere: Open the bag, empty it on the plate. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great technology, and anything that advances cuisine is not bad. And there are so many great things going on in Paris these days, we still have a lot of great chefs. But molecular gastronomy is dead. It’s finished! Why do you think Ferran closed El Bulli? The business was still good; he could have gone on for five years more. But he knew it was over."
FOIE GRAS? GET OVER IT
"Of course it’s my culture as a French guy, but I’m not going to waste my time fighting [the California ban]. I cooked so much foie gras in my life and ate so much I don’t miss it—I don’t need the cholesterol anymore. I don’t like this law or the politics, and thinking about what might be banned next is scary. But that’s the way it is and I’m going to respect it. Let’s go find something else to cook. Maybe it’s time to do something with squirrel. [Laughs] They’re everywhere in my garden. Squirrel is the next thing."
STOP FUCKING FORAGING!
"I went to Copenhagen maybe two and a half months ago and ate at Noma—I loved it! The first 10 dishes I had, there was no silverware. It was maybe 16 or 20 courses and it was paced so well—that’s what René [Redzepi] does so well, pacing. And he’s doing foraging. It makes sense to do foraging in Scandinavia because they have some amazing stuff there, amazing soil in Copenhagen. That’s what makes the food amazing. In LA, chefs say they’re going foraging—for what? Cactus and palm trees? It drives me crazy. Just buy your stuff from the best farms. Stop talking about it."
WHY CHEFS LOVE CHANG
"[David] Chang changed a lot in America about the image of the chef, the lifestyle of the chef: You don’t take yourself too seriously but you still want to be the best. I want to be the French David Chang [laughs]: a little bit Chang and a little bit Eric Ripert. I want to cook for everybody, somewhere between a refined restaurant and bistro casual. When I did my first pop-up restaurant I was tired of having the white jacket, the toque. For LudoBites I dressed how I wanted. Some restaurants are too casual now. I think it’s time to go back a little—not back to the French attitude, where if you move your napkin two waiters run up to fix it and if you want to move you’re scared. I want my restaurant to have upscale service with a friendly attitude."
ON STARTING A RESTAURANT WITH VINNY DOTOLO AND JON SHOOK
"I’m very happy to be with Vinny and Jon. I really respect them. It’s like music: You have Kanye West and Jay-Z singing together, why can’t the three of us a have a good run? It’s better to have three guys to support each other. I don’t want to do it by myself—I don’t want to wake up in 20 years and think, "Oh God, all I have in my life is one fancy restaurant," and realize I’ve been behind the stoves seven days a week, 14 hours a day. The world has changed and we have to adapt ourselves. Now that I’m 41, I’ve put my ego on the side. Working at Bastide, I was cooking for myself and for food critics, to get a three-star Michelin. It was a lot about ego. That’s why my food now is more playful, simple. I’m not going to fuck up a dish by adding more and more things, and more and more things. The biggest mistake I made when I was younger was not tasting my own food enough. I was more about showing off. Now I enjoy putting out simple food."
Photos by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com