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THE BARBECUE ISSUE / WORLD FLAVORS

Fireworks on the grill

Exotic wood, spices that pop: A chef in the spotlight offers his exciting take on an American tradition.

June 30, 2004|Laurie Winer | Special to The Times

With characteristic brio, Ludovic Lefebvre is explaining why he prefers grilling with wood, instead of the far more convenient gas method. "With gas, you press a button and it starts. Gas has no flavor! It's not exciting! It's not romantic! It's not love! Why not just cook in a microwave? Cooking should be a pleasure. It's a pleasure to buy your wood, to build your fire. It's like they were doing a long time ago!"

When quoting Lefebvre, who has just been named executive chef at Bastide, one just wants to use exclamation points. The heavily accented, 33-year-old chef grew up in Burgundy but says he prefers the American attitude toward barbecue. "The French don't do the pork rib; they don't do the beef rib. People here are more passionate about the barbecue." Yet today he is barbecuing neither the pork rib nor the beef rib but a leg of lamb with an exotic world-spice flavor, along with a couple of lobsters, some vegetables and a pineapple. He is using a brand-new classic black Weber grill, on which, he says, grinning impishly, he is grilling all these things in this way for the first time. "I know it's going to work," he says. "I'm a chef! This is what I do!"

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 06, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Binchotan -- An article about barbecuing in the June 30 Food section said binchotan wood originated in China. It is from Japan. It also incorrectly stated that the wood could be purchased from Nishimoto Trading Co., a wholesale distributor. The wood is available retail at Marukai Market, 1740 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena, (310) 660-6300.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 07, 2004 Home Edition Food Part F Page 2 Features Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Binchotan -- An article about barbecuing in last week's Food section said binchotan wood originated in China. It is from Japan. It also incorrectly stated that the wood could be purchased from Nishimoto Trading Co., a wholesale distributor. The wood is available retail at Marukai Market, 1740 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena, (310) 660-6300.

Lefebvre is especially volatile today. "I'm scared, I'm scared, I'm really scared. Every day I go into the kitchen, I'm scared. I want to be scared. I want to push myself." He is scared because he has been named to replace the esteemed Alain Giraud at what is perhaps the city's premiere restaurant. The news shocked the food world, and just the mention of it sends Lefebvre right into the bedroom. He emerges with two crystals the size of baseballs, one purple and one clear. "I need the power of the stone," he says. "They will be in my office."

But there's more. He pulls down the neck of his T-shirt to reveal two necklaces, made of citrine, beads, a Chinese coin ("for protection") and a string of nuts from India called Rudraksha that look like tiny hairy macaroons. He unfolds a small piece of paper on which is written a few key phrases, such as "thank you for my blessing" and "calm, no stress." One also can't help noticing that he has had apparently helpful Asian characters tattooed on his right arm, along with what appears to be a dragon. A koi fish decorates his left arm, and, he tells me, his wife's name is emblazoned on his chest.

A week before the big news broke, I had arranged to meet Lefebvre to see what one of the city's top French chefs could tell us about what we like to think of as a great American summer tradition, the Fourth of July barbecue. We had planned to meet at the W Hotel, where Lefebvre had been installed for the last nine months, planning to open a new restaurant -- Ludo -- in late summer. Instead, we are on the patio of the Studio City house into which Lefebvre and Kristine, his American wife of five years and an entertainment attorney, recently moved.

Wood and herbs

And so, for the moment, we try to stay focused on the task at hand: barbecue. For charcoal, Lefebvre uses a Chinese wood called binchotan, ordered through Nishimoto Trading Co. in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. The sticks lie on the floor of the patio in an interestingly battered box with red Chinese letters. "The flavor is very smoky but subtle. You cannot smell it, but you can taste it," Lefebvre says of the expensive wood from the Wakayama province. He says charcoal briquettes or a cheaper wood will do; "I just love this one."

In preparation, Lefebvre coated the 5-pound lamb in coarse sea salt and let it rest for two hours. The leg was then rinsed, dried and rubbed with a paste made from olive oil and a dry herb blend. Or, as he says, "I give it a massage all over." The herb blend was concocted by one of his favorite tradesmen, Perry Doty at All Spice in the Farmers Market on Fairfax. To this Lefebvre has impulsively added a teaspoon each of two more dried spices, Penja, which is a smooth and woody white pepper from the Penja Valley in Cameroon, and espelette, from a red Basque pepper that is not quite as hot as cayenne. "The blend was perhaps not aggressive; this gives the lamb more character," he says, when I ask how he decided on the last-minute addition of the two spices. Then he adds, "I don't know why I put this spice on! It's about cooking! You take a risk! You mix things up!"

Lefebvre ignores the instructions that come with the grill; he leaves the dome-shaped cover off, modulating the heat by crouching down on the ground and opening and closing the bottom vent, which is, technically supposed to remain open. "What I love about barbecue is that it's all about technique," says Lefebvre. To see him hunched over the Weber blowing on the wood, his long hair streaming in his face, is to think about men and their relationship to fire. "I can't have the cover on!" he says. "Then I don't see what's going on!

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