Ludo Lefebvre wears many chef hats: a master of French cuisine, he’s the king of the Los Angeles pop-up dining experience, a seasoned cookbook author, just wrapped a season of The Taste with last night’s episode, and co-hosted Ludo Bites America on the Sundance Channel with his wife, Krissy. There’s plenty more accolades where those came from, so it’s no surprise that he’s one of the great LA-based chefs who meet annually at Hawaii’s Four Seasons Resort Hualalai for Made In America culinary event.
Made In America, created by blogger, cookbook author and former Edible Los Angeles editor Lucy Lean, is a weeklong celebration of great American chefs where mere mortals like myself can attend intimate cooking classes, paddleboarding and even a tennis tournament with the folks you love watching on TV, all in one of the most luxurious settings on the planet. (No joke, Hualalai is always on the best resorts in the world lists.) In fact, right before this interview Ludo was working up a crazy sweat on the tennis courts, finishing in second place and, never out of character, flashing his ass to the camera (not pictured). Can you think of a better time to conduct an interview with a food reality show judge?
Was there ever a time you thought maybe the celebrity chef life wasn’t for you?
I don’t know if I’m a celebrity chef. People say I’m a celebrity. I’m known in the industry but nobody at the [Four Seasons] was coming up to me like “hey, Chef Ludo!” Maybe I am a little bit, but it’s not my goal to be on TV all the time. My goal is to cook for people, which is why I’m opening a restaurant now. TV’s not my priority, it’s fun to do The Taste, but I need to be in the kitchen.
Has being on The Taste affected your view of celebrity chefs?
I love Gordon Ramsay, I love Tony, I love Nigella, and I met a lot of celebrity chefs last week in Miami and they’re all really nice. I’d say 80% are very nice.
How do you feel about the Lawson/Bourdain producing team?
I think they work very well together, they like each other, both know a lot about food and I think it’s a good match, definitely. It’s a different style, I like it.
You famously use over 200 spices in your cuisine. Of those, which five could you not live without?
Oh, that’s good! Okay, not counting salt and pepper…piment d’espilette, juniper berries, turmeric, I’m obsessed with citrus so we can do that and tamarind. Those are more flavors.
Out of those 200, how many do you have in your home kitchen?
Not that many, actually. Maybe 20. I have a lot of boxes in my garage with different spices I need to bring inside.
What’s your best advice to the home cook on creating spice blends?
When I was younger I made so many mistakes in food because I wasn’t trying it enough, and now that I’m old I always make sure to test everything. I tell all my cooks, “I always want to see a spoon in your pocket, I want to see you trying what you’re cooking all the time.” Try, and adjust.
Tell me about your fishing excursion here in Hawaii — what’d you catch?
I’m just surprised I didn’t get seasick. But I caught two ahi, which we threw back because they were small, then the captain caught a 10-pound ahi and my friend Didier caught a rockfish. I was so pissed off; I don’t know why he didn’t give it to me for my cooking class. I needed a rockfish for my cooking class. Seven hours on the boat and that’s all we caught, and I didn’t even really catch anything. But we saw a big shark whale twice as big as the boat. It was crazy.
Sounds like fishing’s not really your thing.
No, I’m just not patient enough.
I know a lot of your dishes involve foie gras. What would have been a better way for California to spend the $50 million used to ban foie? Do you smuggle?
Education. I’m just sad for the kids. Education is very important for this country. I don’t smuggle foie though, I just use something else. I miss it, but I’ve cooked foie gras all my life and now I just push myself to find a new foie gras, something good like foie gras.
So what’s the new foie gras?
Actually, monkfish liver.
Yes, ankimo! One of my favorite things in the world.
Me too, I agree with you. I did that at Ludobites 8, I poached it in milk then seared it in beurre noisette (hazelnut butter) and it was so good. People love it. I think monkfish liver could definitely be a new thing. It’s hard to find, hard to cook, but it’s a very particular flavor like foie gras. And it’s cheaper, too.
What was the last best dish you made?
Three weeks ago I poached some turnips in a very light beurre monté with sake, mirin, ginger and bay leaf and it was pretty amazing — and it was just poached turnips. And after I served the turnips, my partner Vinny said “this broth is so good,” so then I used that broth to cook radishes and uni and it was also very, very good.
With a new LA restaurant coming up, is that the end of pop-ups for the near future?
I wouldn’t say there will be no more pop-ups, now I’m just focusing on the restaurant, but they’ve already booked me for a pop-up next year right here at the hotel.
What can you tell us about your new restaurant?
It has a very small kitchen and just 24 seats. I like that because you can really get the best ingredients. It’s so hard to get the best ingredients in large quantities. With 24 seats, it’s amazing. You cook the best for your guests when you have fewer people, it’s about a return to hospitality. I think we lose that these days with casual restaurants, I want to take care of our guests more and more.
I really love your suede apron and I see you wearing it all over the place. Where’s it from?
Someone made that for me. It’s a company called RTH in California — the guy Reneé is a friend of mine. We were doing a special event, and he dressed me. He made this leather apron for me and I love it. When you travel, you just take one apron. It gets dirty, but you just wipe it off and use it the next day. Or you can turn it over and use the other side.
Can you buy them or is that a Ludo exclusive?
I’m sure if you ask him he’ll do it for you. I think they’re pretty great. It’s like a leather jacket and gets really nice. I’ve had this one for almost a year now. It’s not heavy; it’s actually pretty light. Except last night in front of the beach fire where I was cooking.
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