[Photo: EatsMeetsWes / Eater LA Flickr Pool]
Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre's pop-up restaurants, LudoBites, have been known to cause reservation frenzies and crash OpenTable, but it wasn't always that way. In Lefebvre's new book LudoBites: Recipes and Stories From the Pop-Up Restaurants of Ludo Lefebvre, co-written with his wife/business partner Krissy Lefebvre and food writer JJ Goode, he chronicles LudoBites from how it "sort of started as a party" to becoming a full time business.
Below, the Lefebvres discuss bloggers, the future of LudoBites (there will be a 10.0) and the time they accidentally called then-New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton a wimp. Also, details on their upcoming restaurant collaboration with chefs Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo: says Ludo, "We have the space now, we are in construction. We are still working on the concept."LudoBites comes out from Ecco October 9 (pre-order on Amazon).
What drew you to writing a cookbook?
Ludo Lefebvre: It's the a story about LudoBites. It's not easy, and a lot of things can happen. I want to share the story with the customer. It's the first restaurant that's moving around the city, and that's not easy. Sometimes we're very limited in the spaces.
Krissy Lefebvre: And I think it's also about trying to memorialize what LudoBites was, because it defined a place in time that won't exist ever again. It's the challenge of defining what the restaurant was at that point in time.
Do you think that the book could be read as a guide to the dos and don'ts of running a pop-up?
LL: Yes, yes, definitely. We're talking about a lot of headaches, and we're talking too about joy. So it's both.
KL: It lays out the beginning: how LudoBites sort of started as a party, and then became an investment, and then became a business. So it talks about the things we had to do during those periods of time. If somebody's looking to do it, they can get some insights into it and decide if they do or don't want to do it. People will see the amount of investment we had to put behind it.
LL: When we started LudoBites, it was a restaurant to have all my friends, to have fun. I was just tired of working in frou frou restaurants. All my life, I worked with the white jacket, the pressure to get three stars, five stars. The ego of the chef to be the best. I was just tired of that, I just wanted to have fun. So I put on the music I wanted, did what I wanted. It's a restaurant but I wanted it to feel like I was having people over to my house. I was doing everything: I was taking orders, I was cleaning the tables, cleaning the bathrooms. It was chaos. But I wanted a break, I wanted to find out what I wanted to do. All my life I was in a straitjacket, not doing what I want. So finally when I did the first LudoBites it was the real Ludo. I was doing what I want, finally, for the first time in my life. I loved it.
With so many chefs turning out home cookbooks these days, what drew you to doing a restaurant-focused book?
KL: The book is really about memorializing LudoBites and its recipes. It's sort of like a yearbook. You want the real thing and you didn't get to go to LudoBites, you can experience it through the pages. So that why we chose to go with the actual restaurant recipes. And there will always be people who want to cook and want to challenge themselves and want to try. And it's fun, because [the book] has the bloggers' photographs.
Right, the book uses photos from blogs that were shot during each LudoBites. What made you go that route?
LL: We decided to go with the bloggers because in 2007 when we started LudoBites, I remember seeing people taking pictures and thinking what is going on? Why do all these people bring their cameras? And at the time we didn't have any PR, we didn't have any money to do promotion. And it was cool, the next day I was looking online and looking at something about LudoBites. And the bloggers made LudoBites, the bloggers created the buzz of LudoBites. At that time, bloggers were great, it was just having fun. I love it. Now it's a competition, bloggers have so much power now, but at that time the bloggers made LudoBites. The bloggers' photos are real. So the book is real. It's not the same picture again and again. We did not want to recreate what was real.
KL: We wanted to really keep the book in the moment of LudoBites. There are definitely photos that weren't great. As you go through the book, the photos definitely get better because the blogs were getting better and the cameras were getting better.
LL: It's amazing.
In addition to the photographs, in the book you talk about turning to the blogs for immediate feedback and building relationships with them. How would you describe your relationship with bloggers?
LL: Well we've absolutely had issues with bloggers sometimes. Sometimes bloggers don't know what they're talking about. I understand why chefs are irritated sometimes. Chefs who are cooking for a long time, sometimes yes, we make a mistake. But most of the time, when I do a French dish — escargot, Burgundy-style — I had some blogger tell me that's not the way they cook escargot in Burgundy. Well, that's where I'm from, and some blogger who's never been to France and they critique French food? Give me a break. It's relative, I never critique Thai food or whatever. I'm not good enough for that. Cooking French food? Yes, I know French food. But sometimes the blogger criticizes you, oh the chef should do this and that and this. Come on. I'm not going to go critique a famous painter about his art.
KL: But we did build so many good relationships with so many of the bloggers, we definitely listen to their input, whether or not we made changes because of it. We built enough of a respect relationship with them that they start to tell us in the restaurant as opposed to just posting if they didn't like something.
LL: One blogger had come the week before to the restaurant, came with his friends, drank, got bombed, and the next day put up a review of LudoBites. Just breaking me like crazy. The night before, so nice with me but just breaking me in the review. And a week later I saw this guy sitting in the restaurant and it was the blogger, I recognized him. He came last week, wrote the review, and you know that's just the business. And I told him what are you doing here? And he tried to hide behind the menu. Why are you coming back here? Why are you hiding? Are you going to destroy me again? If you were telling me you know what, I didn't understand this food and I'd like to try again. If he were just nice with me I would've cooked for him again. You know what I did? I said you get out of my restaurant. I kicked him out of the restaurant. I said get out, get out, get out, I won't cook for you. Why? Why would you want someone to destroy you again? Some people are so jealous of your success and some people are just mean. They don't have the balls to tell you to your face I don't like that or that or that. I think it's easy to put whatever you want about people when you don't know people.
KL: But such experiences are very limited.
LL: Oh yes, it was just the one.
KL: Yes, for the most part we had positive experiences but there were a couple.
Let's talk about the professional critics. It seems that despite some circumstantial bad luck, you've managed to pull through with stellar reviews. For example, did you really call Sam Sifton a wimp for passing on the cheese plate? [In Sifton's 2010 review he writes "The waiter good-naturedly mocked us for our weakness."]
KL: That was me. I didn't know who he was. They had called in favors and favors and favors to get this reservations and I was like oh my God, for God's sake okay. So he comes in and he asks me so, how does this work? And I asked him what he meant, and he said how do people typically order? And I said well, you're a table of four so typically people would order the whole menu and share it, I think it was like 16 dishes. And he says we're doing that, and they go through all the savory courses and he's starting to get full. So when I go back and check on them, he says you know what we're going to skip the cheese plate. I don't remember the exact words, but he put it in his review. It was something like "Oh, New York big shot, wimpy wimpy boy." I had no idea I was calling Sam Sifton a wimp. He was just like we can't do it, and so they went straight on to dessert and skipped the cheese course. So the next day he comes back again, and I'm like who the heck is this guy? So he's sitting outside waiting for his friends, and I walk out there and I say what, did you come back here to prove your manhood? And he looked at me and said not only are we doing the cheese plate, but we're doing four eggs, one for each of us. Well, all right. And Ludo had stormed out of the restaurant that night before Sam came in. I mean we obviously didn't know he was coming, so it would've been really interesting if Ludo hadn't returned to the restaurant that night because he was so pissed off.
The book covers LudoBites 1.0 through 7.0. But there's been two since then, including one in Hawaii. Why leave LA?
LL: 9.0 was great. 9.0 was Hawaii. LudoBites in Hawaii, at the Four Seasons.
KL: It was sort of the LudoBites vacation. We were like a minute from the restaurant. It was sort of the amazing culmination of the hard work and ended up being a big reward.
LL: Well and just with the menu, to be in contact with all these amazing ingredients from the sea. I mean I cooked some stuff I'd never used before, so it was very joyful for me to discover new things and a new culture. It was amazing. At the same time I was in Hawaii with my wife, going out to restaurants. And I created the menu around that, I made the menu in just five days. It was amazing. I used all local fish. It was a great experience to create the food, that's what makes a real chef. I brought nothing from the mainland. Except for foie gras, sorry.
Speaking of which, how are you dealing with the ban?
LL: Whatever. You know, that's what it is. We tried to fight the thing. I love foie gras, it's part of my culture. But there are a lot of other things that are good to cook too. I mean I miss it, yes. But you know what? I get inspiration with something new. So it's fine, whatever.
Is there anything you can tell me about this project you're doing with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo [of Animal and Son of a Gun in LA]?
LL: I'm very excited to be with them. They are good friends, and we did some foie gras dinners together, and we just had fun together. It was really a joy to cook with them, sharing recipes, techniques. And we decided you know what? Let's go do something together. And we have the space now, we are in construction. We are still working on the concept. It's going to be a fun restaurant, something new for LA. And something new, maybe something that doesn't exist in America. It's been amazing to work with some other chefs. I love it, we have fun.
And with the permanent space opening, what's the future of LudoBites?
KL: That's a good question. I do think that there will be a LudoBites 10.0. For sure.
LL: Yeah, we're going to do one. For sure.
KL: Sort of as a culmination, moving into the double digits. And then after that I think it will become more sparse and something that we do on a traveling basis, outside of Los Angeles. Possibly even going into Europe. LudoBites as a brand will not go away, but as far as our full time business model, it's not going to be how we make our day-to-day living any more.