A World-Famous Chef Talks About Running A Restaurant In Kazakhstan

A native of France, Laurent Tourondel has cooked at several esteemed restaurants in his home country, as well as done stints at some of the finest establishments in London and Moscow. Today, the chef, restaurateur and author manages 15 restaurants worldwide. His most interesting project, however, may be his LT Bar & Grill, located in Almaty, Kazakhstan. So just how did Tourondel end up opening in a country that many would have difficulty pointing out on a globe? He tells us here, in his own words.

I first traveled to Kazakhstan back in 1990, immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, while working as a chef in Moscow. I remember being taken aback by the beauty of the country and how friendly the locals were. At the time, there wasn't much of a tourism industry and I thought the food was rather unusual; it certainly was not a place many travelers found themselves in the early '90s. I was still very much starting out in my own career and certainly never imagined that I would find myself back in Kazakhstan running my own restaurant, but fast-forward to 2013 and LT Bar & Grill was born!

The first time I met my (now) business partner was while working at BLT Steak in New York City. I heard a table speaking in Russian and when I walked over, I took everyone by surprise by conversing with them in Russian — a French chef speaking Russian in midtown Manhattan was definitely not what they expected! It turns out the table was a group of Kazak businessmen, and I took them by surprise once again when I told them of my trip to the country so many years earlier. Through this chance encounter, I met a man who dreamed of opening a Ritz-Carlton in Almaty. At the time, I didn't think much of it.

A few years later — when his dream become a reality — he remembered our chance meeting and came to me to run the hotel's food and beverage program. My fond memories of the country, and the opportunity to help grow the city of Almaty through such an ambitious project, felt like a full-circle moment for my career and me.

Since opening LT Bar & Grill three years ago, I travel to Kazakhstan twice a year with my culinary team. During my stay, we work on seasonal menu changes, analyze sales to determine what is working and organize press dinners with local media.

I always make my way to the Green Bazaar — Almaty's huge indoor marketplace, which functions as the pulse of daily life — for menu inspiration. You see butchers selling whole mutton and horse (a staple of the Kazak diet), hanging sausages, bottles of camel and horse milks, and locals haggling over produce...not to mention all of the spices that I'm always trying to bring back with me! As I go back year after year, I recognize the local vendors who have opened my eyes to so many new ingredients and flavor combinations. There's no better place to get a handle on the country's cuisine.

What I enjoy most about traveling, especially to somewhere like Kazakhstan, is the rich and unique traditions that manifest themselves within food. One specialty dish, which is probably one of the more interesting (read: out-there) creations I've ever come across, is beshbarmak, reserved for celebrations and composed of boiled horse or lamb, meat broth and pasta sheets. The dish translates to "five fingers" and is traditionally eaten with one's hands. During celebrations, the boiled horse or lamb's head is presented on top of the beshbarmak to the evening's guest of honor — it's an undeniably visual dish that goes back to the nomadic days. Other specialties include shuzhuk (horse-meat sausages that you'll find hanging all over the Green Bazaar) and manti, or dumplings, which I've recently come across on menus in New York.

Being from France myself, and operating restaurants across the globe, the experience of doing business outside of the U.S. is always eye-opening. Kazakhstan has proven to be an especially interesting venture, as we're working in an emerging city that is only now starting to see tourism really start to gain momentum. The culture and pride are contagious.

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know and learn from so many locals and to incorporate their own unique traditions into the food at LT Bar & Grill. On the flip side, it's equally rewarding to take dishes that have become so representative of my own career and cooking style — my popovers, for example — and introduce them to a group of customers for the first time.