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 Eme and Jean-Francois 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 consistent: 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,” Ludo 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.”
A lively room
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’Arpege and restaurant Pierre Gagnaire in Paris and L’Esperance 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, a former model, 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, former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl has.) And who knows? Maybe Ludo’s foie gras croque monsieur is the next California pizza.
“It’s a harder reservation than Spago ever was,” Reichl says. It’s about “a new kind of exclusivity ... and the power of social media. The hot new restaurants are for people who discuss them on Twitter, pride themselves on being in the know and revel in being in each other’s company.”
Now Krissy, savvy and candid, is planning “the next step in the extension of the Ludo brand”: the LudoBites truck. She says she expects it to start rolling midsummer, but not before everything is up to LudoBites standards. “It’s really important to control the quality behind the brand.”
The Lefebvres have received invitations to “pop up” in Oxnard, Thailand and several places in between. Ludo is speaking about pop-up restaurants at the National Restaurant Assn. conference this month in Chicago. A TV project may be in the works. Though Ozersky lauds the pop-up “business model,” the couple say they live from paycheck to paycheck, at least for now.
The Lefebvres are no media slouches. She has appeared on NBC’s “The Apprentice” and has posed for Playboy. Ludo has been a contestant on both seasons of Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters.” But maybe what has most endeared them to fans is their accessibility via tweets (@chefludo and @frenchchefwife) and Facebook updates and LudoBites website newsletters.
“This is the real me,” says Ludo, who won the hearts of bloggers everywhere when he showed up at the home of Javier Cabral (the Teenage Glutster) to cook with his mom. “I want to be open.”
Last month the couple held a “Top Chef Masters” viewing party at Akasha restaurant in Culver City, even though Ludo lost. (“He really thought his Irish stew was going to win,” Krissy says.)
“Some people wondered, why throw a party if he didn’t advance?” she says. “It’s television.... Why would we waste the Bravo airtime and not use it?”
And use it to its fullest extent. Krissy sat next to Ludo during the airing of the show and live-tweeted the entire episode. Of her marketing skills, she says, “I’d already worked for celebrity brands like Shaquille O’Neal and Pamela Anderson” as a licensing attorney. It only makes sense that she’d do the same for Ludo Lefebvre.
“She’s behind me. She understands me,” says Ludo. “Since she started working with me, my career has been better.”
Theirs is a classic he’s-a-chef/she’d-never-eaten-caviar romance. She was an Army brat raised in Denver, and he grew up learning to cook from his grandmother in Auxerre in Burgundy, France. She adds sea urchin, celery root and foie gras to the list of things she’d never tried before meeting Ludo.
They met in L.A. when Ludo was chef at L’Orangerie and Krissy was in-house counsel at Staples Center. The way Krissy tells it, they locked eyes at L’Orangerie while she was there on a date with someone else: “I saw [Ludo] at the maitre d’ stand and there was an instant connection -- at least in my mind,” she says.
She interpreted the amuse bouche and mignardises as “a love message” just for her and later had a friend deliver her phone number to Ludo. He called; three weeks later they were getting tattoos together and now they’ve been married a decade.
‘A big risk’
Three years ago, Ludo had had enough of Los Angeles, the whims of restaurant owners, and reviewers who “didn’t get it” (he received one star from Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila when he was executive chef for the mercurial Joe Pytka at Bastide). “I want to answer to nobody,” Ludo says.
But when he couldn’t find a space of his own that he loved, he approached the owner of Breadbar and asked to use the kitchen in the evenings after the bakery closed and “do a little menu” -- the first LudoBites. The second LudoBites didn’t happen until more than a year later, after a stint in Las Vegas. But from there, “Bof! Crazy!” as Ludo puts it.
“It was a big risk for me,” he says. “I did not know how people were going to react. But now they order the entire menu.”
Recently the Lefebvres commemorated LudoBites 4.0 at Prix Body Adornment, a tattoo and piercing parlor on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Just before Ludo’s 39th birthday, they both got tattoos of the LudoBites logo: a rooster created by their friend, Pop artist Burton Morris. (Hers is on the back of her neck, and his is on his right arm.)
“I always wanted a tattoo of a rooster,” Ludo says. “When you put a tattoo on your skin it means something to you.”
So what does it mean? “This is it,” Krissy says. “We decided to make LudoBites our life. This is our life.”