Get Ludo Lefebvre talking about his favorite foods, and there are a few words he can’t stop repeating: “amazing,” “incredible,” and straight-up “wow!” It’s clear you’re not dealing with yet another lifer chef who’s become jaded, unable to get off for anything but the rarest hand-harvested sea algae, or the most challenging off-cuts. Lefebvre is a guy who can wax rhapsodic about pantry staples like butter and vinegar with an enthusiasm that would seem disingenuously made-for-TV if he weren’t so insistent.
Because he is, after all, a TV personality, closer to the daily kitchen life than food-TV stars like Tom Colicchio or Anthony Bourdain maybe, but a fully fledged celebrity nonetheless after appearances on Top Chef Masters, Iron Chef America, and The Taste. A product of France’s notorious kitchen apprenticeship program (“I was abused all day but I loved it,” he says), Lefebvre started cooking at age 14 and worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris before a job offer took him to California in 1996. There he won respect at the classic haute-cuisine restaurant L’Orangerie and the avant-garde Bastide, but was itching to make a name for himself.
It was as chef-owner of the peripatetic LudoBites, launched at the height of L.A.’s experiments in impermanent food in 2007, that Lefebvre became a star. In seven pop-up installations around the city, LudoBites became a globe-trotting tasting-menu-only spot that famously crashed Opentable twice while expanding his cuisine—and his creativity, seen in dishes like squid-noodle pad thai and foie gras-frosted cupcakes—beyond his white-jacketed French roots.
“I was abused all day, but I loved it.”
Global influence or not, Lefebvre is a model of the French belief in the its culinary exceptionalism. His restaurants currently include the classic bistro Petit Trois; the tasting menu-only collaboration with recent Beard winners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, Trois Mec; and their latest matchup, the French-Mexican Trois Familia. Even his on-trend fried chicken chainlet Ludo Bird serves Provence-seasoned drumsticks with béarnaise sauce.
But he’s now been in the U.S. nearly as long as he lived in France, and his loyalties are “half and half,” as he puts it. “I get homesick, but when I go to France I’m homesick for the United States, too,” he says. “After two weeks, I’m sick of French people.” To him, America has the promise, the potential for greatness, especially in the new generation of butchers, bakers, and food-makers looking to make a new name for old traditions. But France? France has the raw materials.
“Eighty percent of my job as a chef is to hunt for the best ingredients,” he says. It’s not his fault that France just happens to have the best ingredients in the world. “I’ve never found good chicken in America to put on my menu. You can put that in the article: I want to find the best chicken in America.”
Whether it’s butter from Brittany or wine from Chablis (plus a few American innovations like ice-cream sundaes), here are the 10 dishes that continue to excite Ludo Lefebvre.