Why on earth is pop-up pioneer Ludo Lefebvre opening an old-school French bistro in Los Angeles? And why is he taking on the painstaking and ultratraditional work of French winemaking? The answers lie in Ludo’s native Burgundy.
No one’s ever accused Ludo Lefebvre of being a traditionalist.
He rose to fame with the irreverent brilliance of LudoBites, his now-legendary series of Los Angeles pop-up dinners. His 18-month-old restaurant, Trois Mec, is just as modern. Yet his new place, Petit Trois, shows off his love for classic Burgundian cooking. And he’s making Chablis the old-fashioned way with expat American Ray Walker. To understand what drives Lefebvre, Per-Anders Jörgensen tagged along on a homecoming trip to Burgundy.
Growing Up in Burgundy
Per-Anders Jörgensen: You grew up in this house. Is there a part that feels most special?
Ludo Lefebvre: The wine cellar. I did so much partying there. My parents would leave for the weekend, I’d invite all my friends, and we’d go to the wine cellar and drink. My father would get very mad at me because I would drink the expensive stuff. He made me my own wall of the cheap stuff.
PAJ: Did you cook as a kid?
LL: With my grandma Marcelle. Every Sunday, after church, she made roast chicken with potatoes. I’d give the chicken a massage with the butter and salt; it was my favorite thing to do.
PAJ: Your father tried to discourage you from becoming a chef?
LL: Yeah. When I was 13, I said to my dad, “I want to be a chef.” So he arranged for me to stage at Le Maxime, a nearby restaurant. My dad said to them, “Be hard on Ludo. Show him what real life is in the kitchen.” It was tough. But after two weeks, I still loved it. My grandpa was a friend of Marc Meneau at L’Espérance near Chablis; it was a Michelin three-star restaurant then. I left home to work there at 14. You had to prove you were good. When I was a kid, I was really bad. I did stupid things. But cooking taught me to shape up. Being in the kitchen was so hard then—like being in the army. “Yes, Chef,” and that’s it. The chef would go away and say, “Can you take the dog?” “Yes, Chef.” I had a roommate, and my bedroom was tiny—and I had to keep a dog there for three days. Back then, to cook well, you needed to work with the best chef. It’s so different now. Kids watch a video and think they can cook like the chef from Noma.
PAJ: Who were your biggest cooking influences?
LL: I cooked for Marc Meneau and Pierre Gagnaire, but the chef who inspires me still is Alain Passard. He taught me how to cook—to make food that was simple but interesting. He’s a genius, this guy. He told me to cook with my ear: to listen to the sizzling when you sauté fish. You never leave it alone, your fish. You’re always listening. So much care. But when I worked for him, I was a punk. I was 20 years old. I loved to cook, and I loved to go out and chase women and drink. I’m sad, because I was so young when I worked with the best chef in the world.
The Los Angeles Chapter
PAJ: What made you leave France?
LL: I wanted to see something new. As a French guy, you saw America every day on TV. Everyone in France was talking more and more about really good French chefs in America: Daniel Boulud, Jean-Louis Palladin, Michel Richard. Twenty years ago, France was not open-minded like it is now; everyone cooked with the same ingredients. In Los Angeles, I ate soy sauce and wasabi for the first time. I had never tasted a jalapeño! I never ate sushi in my life! It was shocking to discover these things at the age of 24. Don’t tell anybody, but my favorite restaurant was P.F. Chang’s.
PAJ: Is your L.A. restaurant Trois Mec a French place?
LL: Yes and no. There’s a simplicity thatis very French. I take a few ingredients—not all French ones—and do something good. I make a dish with avocado, sushi rice and very amazing salt cod that we turn into a foam, with citrus vinaigrette, and that’s it. It’s so simple, so elegant; people are surprised how good the salted cod is with the avocado and rice.
PAJ: Your tattoos really tell your life story.
LL: The last one I got says “Bourgogne” [Burgundy]. I’m so proud. People say, “Oh, you’re from France!” And I say, “No, I’m from Burgundy.” They say, “What do you mean?” I say, “I’m from Burgundy. It’s not the same.”
PAJ: How did you get into wine?
LL: I was born in Burgundy. I saw my parents drink wine all the time. I grew up with it; it was like my milk. My dad would do the vendange, the wine harvest, in September. I picked grapes when I was young. I crushed grapes, too.
PAJ: How did you meet the winemaker Ray Walker?
LL: I was on the show No Reservations, and Anthony Bourdain asked me to take him around Burgundy. We went to talk to Ray about life as an American making very good wine in France. You can have a great story, and the wine’s no good. But Ray’s wine is actually great. No BS.
Ray Walker: Anthony’s producers said, “Ludo’s coming, too.” I said, “The name rings a bell.” I researched him and I said, “This guy is really amazing.”
LL: I always wanted to do a wine, then Ray said to me, “Ludo, do you want to make Chablis?” Of course! It would be my dream to do Chablis. But I would never ask Ray. Ray asked me.
RW: We’re aligned in many ways. In Chablis, a lot of people do machine harvesting: The tractor comes and shakes the hell out of the vines until the grapes come off—good grapes, bad grapes, unripe, ripe, overripe, leaves, bugs, everything goes in. I didn’t want to do that, and Ludo didn’t, either. He wouldn’t throw a whole side of beef in the oven without cutting it up. It’s the exact same thing. So we handpick the grapes.
PAJ: What’s your prediction about Maison Ludo?
RW: It’s going to be great. We have excellent Chardonnay grapes. After that, it’s simple. If you don’t change the wine, it stays great. In a year, everyone can judge for themselves.
The New L.A. Restaurant
PAJ: Tell me about your new place, Petit Trois.
LL: The ambience at Le Rendez-Vous, my favorite restaurant here in Burgundy, is exactly what I want for Petit Trois. At Rendez-Vous, it’s very classic Burgundy cooking: beef bourguignon, jambon persillé, escargots. At Petit Trois, the food is classic Burgundy, too.