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July Fourth on the Grill

Chef Laurent Tourondel may be French, but few Americans grill a better steak. He shows his ability to revitalize American flavors with global accents at a July Fourth party on the porch of a friend’s beach house.

Fans of french chef Laurent Tourondel know that the food at his BLT restaurants isn’t French. Or particularly fancy: No froufrou foams, no $85 truffle supplements. Although classic French technique still serves the chef well, most often it helps him reinvigorate American stalwarts—from porterhouse steaks and onion rings to lobster rolls, popovers and cobblers.

After working as the chef to an admiral in the French navy, the Auvergne-born Tourondel appeared to be headed for a traditional fine-dining career. A disciple of both the fabled Jacques Maximin and the Troisgros brothers, Tourondel was named an F&W Best New Chef 1998 for his wonderful French cooking at Las Vegas’s opulent Palace Court. In 1999 he garnered three stars from the New York Times at Manhattan’s now-shuttered Cello. But it’s his fascination with iconic American dishes—especially big, juicy, perfectly grilled steaks—that has made him a superstar.

Many French chefs do not grill. Perhaps they find the high heat required to put the best grill marks on a cut of meat to be somewhat harsh. But Tourondel’s admiration for the technique—and his ability to perform it with French precision—have helped him create a growing restaurant empire known by the acronym BLT (Bistro Laurent Tourondel). Since opening the first BLT Steak in Manhattan in 2004, he has added two branches and has plans for three more. He also runs Manhattan’s BLT Fish, BLT Prime and BLT Burger; BLT Market is opening this year in New York City’s Ritz-Carlton Central Park. What’s next? BLT Chili? BLT BLT? It seems that for every kind of food America loves, Tourondel knows how to make it exciting and draw the crowds.

For the Fourth of July, the most American of American holidays, Tourondel hosted a cookout at his friend Nina Lesavoy’s house in East Hampton, New York. The house, an elegant recasting of a former dairy farm, stands low to the ground and blends into the beach landscape—not dominating it, like the outsized mansions of neighboring hedge-fund hoi polloi. A matched pair of red silos serves as an entryway. A single-lane swimming pool running the length of the building mirrors the exact size and shape of the row of cattle stalls that once stood there, in the days when farmers outnumbered financiers.

In a lush garden nearby, Tourondel gathered ingredients for the meal. "For me," the chef reflected as he bent down to retrieve some plump green tomatoes, "July Fourth is the first real summer party. Memorial Day is the start of things, but so often the weather isn’t great. Labor Day is fun, but there’s also a sadness there—it’s like, ’Let’s have one more great time before we have to get serious and go back to school.’ The Fourth of July is just summer and fun." As he picked a few more tomatoes, he added, "Plus, July Fourth is the first time you can make a whole meal, or lots of it, straight from the garden."

With a full haul, he returned to the house. Acting on the philosophy that a smart host does as much as he can before the guests arrive, he fired up the grill to get a head start on his salsa of green and red tomatoes with Vidalia onions. The tart, not-yet-ripe tomatoes (along with the summer’s first ripe beefsteaks) will be a snappy-sweet accompaniment to his thermonuclear jerk chicken, which is just completing its 24-hour marinade. Unlike many French chefs, Tourondel craves spicy heat rather than merely tolerating it. "It wakes you up, and it’s kind of fun," he said with a Gallic shrug.

Satisfied that all was ready for the next day’s festivities, Tourondel joined Lesavoy and another friend, Brianna Clark, for sundowners in the "cow pasture"—the lawn where dairy cattle once grazed. There are few places more serene than the Hamptons at happy hour, when all of creation looks like a Monet landscape in the soft light of eastern Long Island; in the gathering evening mist, the lawn shimmered like a bolt of green velvet. True to Tourondel form, his martinis departed from the canonized version: a brightly flavored potion of gin, fresh ginger and lime juice muddled with cucumbers and basil.

The day of the party was red, white, blue…and gray. The leaden sky was broken only by the occasional cloudburst, which is why God decreed that all nice summer houses should have verandas and awnings. The group gathered in the late afternoon, a band of Tourondel’s colleagues and friends from the city. The chef passed out a round of the nouveau-martinis that he had given a test drive the night before. He then directed his guests to a expansive buffet spread. The dishes, recognizable at any cookout, had all been indisputably Tourondelized.

The potato salad, a Fourth of July regular, had been beefed up with applewood-smoked bacon, mustard oil and barbecue sauce. "I’m not sure that Americans would make it this way," he commented, then added knowingly, "but the taste is very American."

Every alteration had a reason. To stand up to the spicy jerk chicken, Tourondel replaced the traditional mayonnaise in his coleslaw with a bracing, Asian-inspired concoction of limes, chiles and fish sauce (he has traveled extensively in Vietnam and is passionate about its cuisine). In place of corn on the cob, Tourondel tossed kernels of grilled corn and diced Kirby cucumbers with Cajun-spiced shrimp. With his peach cobbler, another common sight at church dinners and firehouse barbecues, Tourondel alluded to the classic French combination of peaches and almonds by swapping out the expected vanilla ice cream topping for a cooling almond ice milk. For guests wanting a lighter finish, Tourondel also served chilled blueberry-lemon parfaits.

Come sunset, Tourondel and his well-fed friends gathered on the wide, sandy beach to take in one pure and unadulterated American scene. As fireflies flitted above the grassy dunes, the boom of the breaking waves competed with the tom-tom beat of fireworks lighting up the eastern sky.

A longtime F&W contributor, Peter Kaminsky also writes for the New York Times. He recently collaborated with chef Michel Richard on the cookbook Happy in the Kitchen.

Published July 2007
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