Foie Gras, Hooters Girls, and 'Foodies' in America: Chef Ludo Lefebvre & Wife Krissy On Their New Show "Ludo Bites America"
America has become enchanted with the pop-up restaurant concept, and at the forefront of the movement is Chef Ludovic "Ludo" Lefebvre and his wife Krissy, whose wildly successful LudoBites has had six--soon to be seven--Los Angeles runs. Recently the dynamic duo (he in the kitchen, she the front of house management) took their act on the road for a new television series on the Sundance Channel called Ludo Bites America, which shows LudoBites popping up in various cities around the nation.
My first introduction to Chef Lefebvre's food was one of those unforgettable eating moments; instantly I knew I was dining in the (albeit temporary) restaurant of a "mad genius." His food is playful, inventive, and always enchanting, and, as a bonus, no matter what rep he garnered as the surly Frenchman on Top Chef Masters, he is utterly charming. Mrs. Lefebvre is one of those triple-threat women who is not only whip-smart (a lawyer by trade), gorgeous (been in Playboy), and--this is the killer--incredibly kind. As if life weren't crazy enough for the couple, they recently added two new members to their entourage: Newborn twins!
With "Ludo Bites America" debuting on Tuesday July 19th, we had the chance to ask the Lefebvres a few questions about the show, the food, and life in front of--and behind--the cameras. Here's Part One of our two-part interview.
LAist: How did you choose the cities you visit in the series? Had you been to those cities before? Did you have much advance prep time to "study" the local food scene and where you could shop for ingredients?
Ludo: I really wanted to go to smaller towns. If I picked New York or Chicago I would know what I was going to see. I wanted to discover a part of America I had not been to before and that also had some kind of unique food culture. I was really interested in Mobile, Alabama because what happened from the oil spill and to see what was happening with the seafood industry. I always heard about BBQ from North Carolina, so I wanted to try it. Krissy is from Denver and I have been there before but I’d never had buffalo before. Omaha is famous for its steaks, but I actually ended up cooking Southern which was also a new experience for me.
There is a lot of talk about L.A. being (or not being) a "culinary" city. Having been to several cities now for the show, what do you think makes a city "culinary"? Did any of the cities surprise you in terms of how "foodie" it is?
Ludo: That is a tough one. I think each city has its own culinary parts, but I don't know what makes it a culinary/foodie city. Raleigh, North Carolina was so alive and had such a wide variety of cuisines available, but also had the classic BBQ. People were very passionate about the food there. I think I was most surprised by Raleigh and the “foodie” culture there. In Denver we had amazing wild game meat at one restaurant and then really beautiful vegetables at Black Cat in Boulder, plus great pizza and gourmet sausages. It definitely felt foodie to me.
I did not see a lot of cameras in any restaurant though, even LudoBites when we did it, so maybe none of the cities have “foodies.”
A foie gras Croque Monsieur at LudoBites 4.0 in L.A. (Photo by djjewelz via the LAist Featured Photos pool)
Towards the end of the run you came back to the L.A. area to Redondo Beach--how did that compare to your other L.A. LudoBites experiences? Did you approach it setting up differently, or did you rely on being more of a local?Ludo: Because Redondo Beach was part of the show I wanted to make sure my menu had a real theme to it so I really focused on Mexican food since there is so much here in L.A. and it is truly reflective of L.A culture. I brought in two of my guys from the kitchen so I had them, which was very helpful. It was the biggest LudoBites we have ever done. So it was nice to have the support. Cooking with just students and line cooks got to be trying after a while on the road.
Krissy: I did not approach the front of the house/reservation/marketing any different than I ever do in L.A., except for the single fact that we did phone reservations. I brought in a couple of servers from our previous LudoBites, so that definitely helped me with staffing and training, which could be very, very, very tough on the road sometimes.
What was your reaction to the people who came to protest the use of foie gras at LudoBites?
Ludo: I don't understand the protesters. I am French and I grew up with foie gras and will always cook with it. Asking me to stop using foie gras is like asking a Korean not use kimchi or a Japanese person not to use rice--it is a staple of French food. It is my national heritage. I think the protesters need to some research because I buy my foie gras from free range sources; they are grouping all foie gras producers together and that is not right. There are ethical farmers out there and I ensure I only use product where the animals are respected.
Krissy: I thought the protesters crossed the line. This is America and it is a free country, so I respect their right to be heard, but they were extremely aggressive with some guests and it really seemed to go too far. Ultimately their efforts failed--no customer turned away and everyone (minus one vegetarian) ordered the foie gras, and they just brought LudoBites more publicity, so I don't know if they got the result they were hoping for. Ludo is definitely doing foie gras on the LudoBites 007 menu [running this summer in DTLA], so I guess I will see them again.
Because this is a TV show, and there were cameras rolling, do you think people were drawn in to dine at your different pop-ups because of the "star" factor or the food? How are you reconciling that balance or contrast now that you have your own show?
Krissy: We made it very, very, very clear that although there were cameras in tow this was a real restaurant and real LudoBites. People still had to get their reservations and pay for their meals. It is a bit different than most shows that comp guests and may not even serve a meal that night at all. Because we insisted that everyone understand that this was a real LudoBites, but just for one night, the pressure was very high and I assure you the staff felt the pain sometimes. A perfect example was in Denver. I opened the original Denver Hooters many, many moons ago, so I recruited Hooters girls to be my servers. When I interviewed them the cameras were there and they were all excited to be "on a TV show,” but reality quickly set in when they got to the restaurant and Ludo started going over the menu and I covered our service plan. It was quite funny.
From the guest perspective I really think people wanted to try Ludo's food. All the press that helped spread the word was done in a way that made it clear that LudoBites was in town for one night. Any mention of the TV show was secondary. It was really about LudoBites traveling around America. I think we did a great job of controlling the message. I can honestly say that I don't recall one customer saying they came because of the show. I do recall many people saying that they wanted try some of the crazy kind of food Ludo is known for cooking.
How did you recruit staff? What do you need to tell the staff of a pop-up that might not be what you would tell the staff of a permanent-space restaurant?
Krissy: I either found staff at other restaurants or used staff from our partner restaurant [where the pop-up was happening]. If we had really great service at a restaurant I would try to talk the waiter in to coming to work with us. I got a couple of good ones this way. As I mentioned, in Denver I used Hooters girls. I figured I learned everything I knew about restaurants at Hooters, why not go back to the source of my training. Mostly I ended up with staff from our partner restaurants. It was bit tough in a few because some servers had been in their restaurants for more than a decade and we completely turned what they normally did on their head. My intro line was pretty much always you have no idea what you are about to experience. It will be intensive, stressful, but ultimately, if you listen, fun. Not sure they all had fun.
You work so well together in the restaurant and in general in "regular" life, so how did adding the cameras and the traveling affect the partnership? Did you learn anything new about each other? What was the first thing you did when you wrapped the show and came home to L.A.?
Krissy: First, thanks for the kind words. We work really hard. Our life has become LudoBites, but we make a point of leaving the work behind and enjoying our home life. That gets difficult on the road when there is no home to go to, we just end up back at a hotel and rehashing the day, over and over and over again. Ludo does a better job of tuning it out than me. I am always in work mode. I think the show brought us even closer. We have been through so much together that a few cameras seem like nothing. We really want to keep our personal life off camera though, so it was all business, most of the time. There are some fun personal moments though. The first thing we did when we got back to L.A? I stayed in the first night and opened mail while Ludo cooked a dinner for LACMA. The next day, the twins arrived (a bit early). So no break for us.
In Part Two, we'll get down to the tasty details about the food Ludo made for diners on "Ludo Bites America," and find out if Ludo thinks America is ready for the "fiery" Frenchman.