Known for his beautiful tasting menus, Laurent Quenioux is the king of pop-up dining in Los Angeles. But unlike many other chefs who run pop-ups, Quenioux is a man with zero interest in opening a restaurant.
"I get at least two phone calls every month asking if I want to open a restaurant," he says. "No, no, no!"
Quenioux burnt out on running restaurants years ago, after the industry made him rich and then made him poor.
In 1985, he opened 7th Street Bistro downtown when he was 21. (He remembers having to wait for his 21st birthday before he could get his liquor license.) The restaurant was a major success.
"I was 21 years old and I had a restaurant grossing $3 million a year with 50 employees," Quenioux says.
Quenioux went on to open Mission Bistro in Alhambra, Bistro K in South Pasadena (a busy restaurant that had to "turn away 200 to 300 people a week") and Bistro LQ on Beverly Boulevard.
Bistro LQ, which opened in 2009, struggled and closed in 2011. Quenioux, who had bootstrapped the restaurant with no investors, was destitute.
"I lost all my money," he says. "I lost my house. I couldn't even buy toothpaste."
He hated the restaurant business at that point, but he still loved to cook.
He still adored seasonal ingredients. And Quenioux, who learned to hunt as a child, still wanted to showcase the kind of food he grew up eating in Sologne, France.
Flash forward to July 2017. Quenioux's roving LQ Foodings pop-ups have been a smashing success all over town for six years, at venues from downtown's late, lamented Starry Kitchen to Echo Park's Taix to Pasadena's Vertical Wine Bistro and Sangers & Joe. He's also taken LQ Foodings to London. And now he's running pop-ups in the backyard of a Highland Park house. He caps these dinners at 22 guests so he can really focus on what matters to him.
"When we used to do the pop-up at Vertical or Starry Kitchen, we would do hundreds of people," Quenioux says. "But when you do only 20 people, you can really use the best ingredients ever. If I go hunting and kill a wild boar or even two hare, I can feed that to 20 people."
Quenioux, in fact, is about to go quail hunting in Joshua Tree.
Serving 22 guests also means that Quenioux can showcase produce, like summer tomatoes, from the Highland Park house's garden. He also goes to Apricot Lane Farms in Moorpark once a week for fruit and vegetables.
"First and foremost, it's seasonal ingredients," Quenioux says when asked he how comes up with his menus. "And then it's about simple cooking."
Quenioux doesn't use much butter or cream for his pop-ups. He doesn't manipulate ingredients or use avant-garde technique. But his "vision of simplicity" can still seem quite elaborate to guests at LQ Foodings.
At one recent dinner, Quenioux served house-made Moulard duck prosciutto, asparagus, Hokkaido scallops, hamachi, caviar de Sologne, peaches and pickled nasturtium berries. It was like a vegetable-and-ham spring roll that happened to be adorned with seafood and fruit.
At that same pop-up, Quenioux also served pork belly and soft-shell crab, with the crisp pork belly made to look like a crab shell while a XO glaze amped up the wondrous umami-rich dish. Haddock came two ways: in a brandade beignet and as a crudo. There were fried green tomatoes with a mole made from more green tomatoes. The tomatoes were served with oxtail, chanterelles, petit gris snails, black garlic and foie gras. The fifth course was headlined by ultra-luxurious Ibérico de Bellota pork loin as well as eggplant and sweet peppers from the garden.
In a way, though, all these elegant and creative dishes were just the prelude for the main event: LQ Foodings also feature what's widely considered the best cheese cart in L.A. Quenioux mostly avoids fat when he cooks because he wants his customers to save room for cheese.
At the moment, he has about 40 unpasteurized raw-milk cheeses, all from France. He serves cheese nobody else in the city offers because he places orders with French suppliers, has friends and family pick up the cheeses and then has other friends in the transportation industry send them to California. He's had some shipments get confiscated before they make it into the United States, though.
"Raw-milk cheeses from France are OK in the U.S. if they're at a 60-day maturation," Quenioux explains. "Some of the French goat cheese, they need to be eaten in a week or two."
Quenioux laughs and adds: "If you wait 60 days, it's not the same cheese."
In addition to his favorite goat cheese, Quenioux is proud to have Reblochon, Époisses, and Brie de Meaux among his collection of "pungent" cheeses. There's also a cheese from Corsica that's a mix of cow, sheep and goat. Quenioux likes to pair that one with Corsican wine.
The cheese cart encourages discussion, communal dining and learning about new flavors, which are all a big part of why Quenioux loves doing small pop-ups. The other night, he introduced a group to Marc de Bourgogne, a high-end liqueur he used to flambé the Époisses.
"They enjoyed it so much they almost bought the whole bottle," Quenioux says.
Quenioux, who has a staff of just four or five for each pop-up, is in his comfort zone when he does his LQ Foodings. And the cutthroat restaurant business he left behind, where costs keep rising, makes no sense to him in 2017.
"Owning a restaurant at this point isn't about serving good food and making money, in my opinion," he says. "It's an ego trip for the chef and the investors. What I'm doing instead is rewarding for the soul, the heart, the belly and financially."
He'll continue to host events in Highland Park but might also show up at a restaurant or two in the fall. He'll have a second cheese cart with raw-milk cheeses from Vermont, New Jersey, Tennessee, Washington and Oregon in the fall.
The experience of LQ Foodings is transporting in many ways. Sitting in the Highland Park garden, eating at a communal table with strangers, you feel like you could be in a rural setting far away from L.A.'s traffic-choked streets. Going to the en-suite bathroom means walking through the kitchen and into a small bedroom. At that moment, you really feel like you're a guest at somebody's home.
Eating at LQ Foodings makes you feel like you're part of a secret supper club. You're a member of a small but diverse group that runs the gamut from millennials to senior citizens, and people at every corner of the table are talking about the adventure they're sharing together.
"We're not going to become millionaires with this, but doing this for our customers is so much more rewarding than the financial gains."
Soon after we speak, Quenioux will be back in the kitchen, making consommés that take seven hours to prepare, planning future menus and continuing his quest for the best ingredients. For a veteran chef who's been through the roller-coaster that is the restaurant industry, this is the ride he can control. This is his simple life.