THREE years ago Laurent Tourondel was a chef without a kitchen whose name was anything but a household word.
Today the 40-year-old has an empire so well known it can use shorthand for Bistro Laurent Tourondel: BLT. This month his second cookbook has just been published, his fifth restaurant in New York City -- BLT Market -- has opened to upbeat reviews and he is cooling his suede-topped heels while his first restaurant in Los Angeles is constructed in the old Le Dome on Sunset Boulevard for an opening this winter. Between now and then twomore BLT restaurants will open, in Dallas and Westchester County, N.Y., joining those serving his Americanized French food in Washington, D.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
None of this would be happening without a Wolfgang-worthy business plan. But it was not what anyone, including Tourondel, imagined when his last backer abandoned him at what seemed to be the peak of his career, at a critics' favorite restaurant called Cello in Manhattan. The breakup left him so disillusioned with high-end, formal dining that at the groundbreaking BLT Steak, he came back with a whole new way of cooking. He maintained his obsession with sublime ingredients combined in surprising ways. But he eliminated all the fuss.
Tourondel's original concept is essentially a great American steakhouse crossed with a classic French bistro. The prime meats, generous portions and hearty flavors are all there, but they are matched with creative sauces, jazzy combinations and imaginative side dishes. And the ambience is just as important. Tourondel understood, probably even before New York diners did, that the future lay in top-quality food served in a relaxed but not unsophisticated setting.
Given that he comes at American appetites with a European's awe, he is also not afraid of excess. All his meals start with a hyper-rich bread item, whether a giant Gruyere popover at BLT Steak or cheddar-cream biscuits with melted butter at BLT Fish. What follows is usually just as irresistible.
"People who pay a lot of money for what I do should not leave hungry," Tourondel says simply. His most rewarding moments, he also says, come while "watching customers leave my restaurant -- happy."
His new coffee-table book, titled, not surprisingly, "Bistro Laurent Tourondel," gives a good sense of the line he walks between straightforward and over-the-top cooking. He gives rock shrimp the Buffalo chicken wing treatment, barbecues brisket and even does chili, with corn and a surfeit of sausage, but he also stuffs zucchini blossoms with three kinds of cheese, dresses marinated octopus in a bergamot vinaigrette and steeps home fries in heavy cream with fresh sage. Even basic dishes have a twist, whether fresh carrot juice, mayonnaise and sesame oil in a dressing for a carrot salad or Earl Grey tea as a back note in a bread pudding with apricots. Not everything works beautifully, but you can almost taste the photos.
Tourondel's first West Coast outlet, a branch of BLT Steak, will offer more raw fish than the original, but otherwise he is sticking with what works. Usually that means Kobe beef and other meats with assorted sauces, and side dishes such as Parmesan gnocchi along with steakhouse classics such as baked potatoes. The specials will be key, since he describes his approach as "seasonal, the best product, originality, but most of all it is a combination of flavors."
To take that strategy so far and so wide, he is running hard. When a restaurant opens, he is in the kitchen overseeing lunch and dinner service daily; he schedules no meetings when patrons are to be fed because the food is what makes all this possible.
A couple of Thursdays ago he was up at 5:30 at his home in East Harlem, at work on specials by 6 and at a design meeting with the David Rockwell Group by 10, going over details for BLT Burger in Las Vegas and a much more ambitious restaurant in the new Donald Trump Hotel in SoHo in Manhattan. He worked the lunch shift at the new BLT Market in the Ritz-Carlton and went on to a photo shoot and more meetings before returning to the cramped kitchen to oversee dinner service.
He's got brains and brand
Chefs with cloning capability are nothing new; rare is the neon name that does not have a Craft-style map for world domination anymore. But Tourondel is an exception to the Emeril rule. Before he came up with the idea of branding himself as BLT, he was primarily known only at the top of the New York food chain for his exquisitely cerebral fish cookery at Cello, a restaurant in the townhouse of a high-end stereo showroom on the Upper East Side.