Ludo Lefebvre's groundbreaking pop-up restaurant excites crowds… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
How to decipher the runaway success of Ludo Lefebvre? The chef has L.A. on a culinary string and doesn't even have a professional stove to call his own.
Reservations at his pop-up restaurant LudoBites — several-week stints of Lefebvre cooking at various locations, including a bakery and an art gallery — sell out overnight. And if he's serving fried chicken from a food truck, the line of customers/fanatics will be an hour (or two) long. This month he was dubbed a "chef of the future" in Time. What's behind the craze?
There is, of course, Lefebvre's French-accented charm, his telegenic looks, his bent for cutting-edge cuisine. He makes the chocolate foie gras cupcakes and soft-shell-crab-stuffed cornets that the young, hungry and snap-happy go nuts for.
But there's more to it than his winning smile and generous amounts of duck liver. He has, for now, eschewed the traditional chefs' path: work the line, then helm the kitchen, maybe one day own your own restaurant — one that typically doesn't move from address to address. In a business and dining environment changed by the interwebs and the recession, better to stay light on your feet anyway. He calls it "la revolution."
"The LudoBites model is the epitome of the 21st century marketplace, where the chef, not the restaurant, is the name of the game, and where novelty (not to mention news value) counts far more than musty testaments to past greatness," writes Josh Ozersky for Time.
And don't forget — there is also his attorney wife, Krissy Lefebvre. If he's the creative talent, she's the organizational and marketing force behind him. He's concocting foie gras powder while she's scheduling his next photo shoot. He's in the kitchen and she seems to be everywhere in the dining room at once, greeting diners at the door and running ham soup and boudin noir mousse to tables. "He truly is a tortured artist. Me, I'm just tortured," she jokes, but then says seriously: "He's the artist, and I execute."
Had Ludo Lefebvre followed in the footsteps of other French chefs such as Christophe Emé and Jean-François Meteigner who came to Los Angeles and cooked at the erstwhile L'Orangerie, he might have a restaurant with white tablecloths and plenty of Bernardaud.
Instead, the itinerant Lefebvre most recently has been cooking at a breakfast-and-lunch spot called Gram & Papa's in downtown's gritty Fashion District. The wine glasses are donated, the plates are from T.J. Maxx. Nothing on the menu is more than $29.
But his approach to cooking has remained the same: French food influenced by "flavors from around the world," torqued by a repertoire of powders, pastes and foams — something Ludo calls "bistronomy," for bistro-meets-molecular gastronomy. "I cannot cook safe food," he says. "If I cook simple, people complain."
Ham soup, for example, is based on jambon-beurre, the typical French sandwich of ham and butter. "But I wanted to play with the texture. So soup! I don't know what goes on in my head," says Ludo, who can swing from petulant to animated in a beat. "I love to surprise people, to do something I never think about before. Then I get it perfect and I take it off the menu."
On a recent night during the remaining weeks of the latest LudoBites (LudoBites 4.0 for those counting), the room is lively, as ever. The storefronts on 9th Street selling polyblend mini-dresses and men's three-for-$299 suits are closed, but the restaurant is aglow with low lights and filled with rapt conversation and the beats of French hip-hop group NTM. A young couple at the next table pulls a bottle from a paper bag; the kids are drinking Korbel.
It's definitely an easy vibe that the couple cultivates. He doesn't go by Ludovic but Ludo, and she doesn't go by Kristine but Krissy. Ludo, 39, is a classically trained chef who worked at L'Arpège and restaurant Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and L'Espérance in Vezelay but is as likely to be found chatting at tables as he is plating sea bream ceviche with Meyer lemon paste and cilantro flowers. No chef's whites, just a short-sleeved dishwasher's shirt. Krissy, 41, is a former model. She wears glasses, loose jeans and ordinary Nikes.
"I want people to feel that they're in my home," Ludo says — no matter where he happens to be. "I want to create an ambience where you have a great life, a place where people meet each other, talk."
Welcoming and prepossessing, he and Krissy are sort of the of-the-moment version of Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff back when those two were king and queen of Spago — but without the '80s glitz. (Though Sidney Poitier hasn't alighted on LudoBites yet, Ruth Reichl has.) And who knows? Maybe Ludo's foie gras croque monsieur is the next California pizza.