Some chefs are satisfied with preparing the same dishes, day after day, with little to no variation. Ludovic “Ludo” Lefebvre is not that chef.
The renegade Frenchman recently spent a year in Las Vegas, where he launched Lavo at The Palazzo and was soon churning out a staggering 700 covers per night. However, high-volume didn’t lead to culinary satisfaction, so Ludo returned to L.A. to “become familiar with the city and revisit farmers markets and reconnect with my people and just cook my food.” His second stint behind the BREADBAR counter has been defined by whipping food bloggers (and critics) into a frenzy with his tantalizing tweets. He’s also generated buzz by appearing on “Top Chef Masters,” an all-star version of Top Chef that features some of the nation’s best chefs competing for charity. He lost to Rick Bayless in a street food showdown, but the appearance helped to double LudoBites’ business, so you won’t hear Ludo complain.
At LudoBites, he’s applying classic French technique to global ingredients while pushing himself creatively. “It’s a new combination,” says Ludo. “In town you have some amazing chefs, but they don’t take the risks to create a new combination of flavors.” His efforts have resulted in dishes like duck fat-fried chicken, chorizo soup with pickle granita and cantaloupe; and duck with lime, kumquat and carrot cream.
One of Ludo’s favorite aspects of LudoBites is to be front and center, which allows him to build relationships with diners. “When I was at Bastide or L’Orangerie, I was always behind the wall, in the kitchen,” he says. “Now I meet so many people…I go eat at their house and meet them at restaurants. It’s cool.”
At this stage, Ludo and wife Kristine (who runs the front of house) aren’t able to travel as much as they’d like, but his open-minded approach has allowed him to learn a lot. Customers have introduced Ludo to Korean barbecue, Chinese sea cucumber and Vietnamese food in Little Saigon. They’ve taught him how to make kimchi and dumpling dough. Over the Fourth of July, his friend Stork even showed him how to make Memphis-style ribs. Now he’s contemplating a rib night at LudoBites, complete with a smoker out back and a Tennessee-inspired whiskey marinade. “It’s really like in France, living around the table,” says Ludo. “I want my door open.”
Ludo also uses social media outlets to share his passion. “On Twitter I ask people to talk about their passion about cooking,” he says. “If I see somebody who’s very passionate, I invite them to my kitchen.” Ludo wants people to get a behind-the-scenes look at the life of a chef. “I want to take them to the market with me, show them my inspiration,” he says. “I want them to see how we sweat…cooking is not just looking in a book.”
“Every day I get up in the morning and try something new,” says Ludo. “I’m always behind because some day the recipes don’t work.” He’s making life harder than it needs to be, but he’s never satisfied with the status quo. “I love to push myself,” says Ludo. “I’m never happy with what I’m doing.”
When Ludo was a 10-year-old in Burgundy, he’d spend afternoons at his grandmother’s kitchen table, soaking up the scene while she prepared dinner for her architect husband. Ludo was mesmerized by her cooking, “the love, the passion,” and of course the enticing aromas. He’ll never forget her savory pie with ground meat, onions, spices and herbs, topped with mashed potatoes and cheese and baked with a prodigious amount of butter. “Cooking for her was very important,” says Ludo. “To watch her cooking, smelling the kitchen, I wanted to be a chef after that.”
Ludo first apprenticed with famed French chef Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. For his first year in the kitchen, he was limited to cleaning, prepping pastry and cleaning ducks. Working the line was a dream, but after a year and a half, Gagnaire put him on the line to cook his first fish: John Dory with pistachio and bell pepper en papillote. “I was working next to [Gagnaire] on the line and cooking a piece of fish the customer was paying eighty bucks for,” he recalls. “I was very proud. It was like an orgasm.”
Ludo enjoyed working in France with chefs like Gagnaire and Marc Meneau, but after watching so many American movies and TV shows, he was inspired to move to L.A. “Everything feels possible in America,” he says. Given that, he asked Meneau to help place him in an America restaurant. “He always said, Ludo, you’re not ready yet. You need to spend more time in France.” Finally, when Ludo was 24, Ludo said, “Chef, can I go now? He said, ‘Yes, I will help you.’” Meneau wrote a complimentary letter and faxed it to high-profile U.S. restaurants like Daniel Boulud, Le Bernardin, Citrus (Michel Richard) and L’Orangerie. Ludo got five positive responses and almost signed on with Daniel Boulud in Manhattan, but chose Los Angeles instead. He spent six years at L’Orangerie, followed by a stint as executive chef of Bastide. After spending his entire career in fine-dining, Ludo decided to focus on “pretty good ambience, good food and that’s it…Spend the money to buy the best ingredients.” This transition led to a partnership with BREADBAR co-owner Ali Chalabi on the first LudoBites in late 2007.
Ludo still considers Pierre Gagnaire his number one role model, saying, “He was the first chef cooking the new combinations, to break the plastic vacuum, to be more creative.” At LudoBites, Ludo is breaking his own molds, joyously announcing new dishes via Twitter to his increasingly enthralled fan base. Here are some of his recent proclamations: “For all of those who keep telling me they LOVE bacon – new tonight – Bacon Tart with Green Almond & Cinnamon” – “ “By popular demand, Chocolate Cup Cake, Foie Gras Chantilly, Candied Bacon-Almonds, Maple Syrup stays on menu this week” – and perhaps most evocative of all – “The midnight walk on the beach inspired: Snails with Brick Sesame Oil, Eggplant Chutney & Lemon – new tonight @ LudoBites.”
Ludo will be behind the counter at BREADBAR West Third through August 22, and he’s already lined up a three-month stint for LudoBites at a different venue. He’s working on a LudoBites cookbook. A network even approached Ludo about a cooking show, but it has to be on his terms, meaning he we will no longer be confined by the walls of a kitchen.