In the battle for culinary supremacy, no city stands on the precipice of greatness quite like Los Angeles. Not reviewed by the Michelin Guide and not known for the white-tablecloth, buttoned-up fine dining of yesteryear, Los Angeles has staked its reputation on the strip mall.
From sushi bars in the San Fernando Valley to Korean barbecue in K-Town and tacos in Boyle Heights, the vibrancy of the food one can find in the strip mall is unequivocally LA. At the corner of Melrose and Highland Avenues lies one such strip mall that – though previously overlooked – is now home to some of the city’s (and nation’s) most exciting food, brought to life by Los Angeles’ most passionate chef – Ludovic “Ludo” Lefebvre.
Born and raised in France’s Burgundy region, Lefebvre, 45, found his love for cooking through his grandmother and aunt. By 14 he was enrolled in a French culinary academy where, as he puts it, he was, “abused, not trained.”
Lefebvre, the newest star of PBS’ Mind of a Chef, would spend more than a decade working the kitchens of French culinary legends Pierre Gagnaire and Guy Martin as well as with Alain Passard at Passard’s three-Michelin-star L’Arpege in Paris.
As is so often the case, the sparkle and shimmer of America proved too much to resist and after 12 years working in some of France’s finest kitchens, Lefebvre decided to leave the French system. He explains, “at that time, America was a dream.”
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Lefebvre – who pauses on occasion throughout our time together to inquire with his chefs, busily prepping for the evening’s service behind us – would find consistency and normalcy in an unfamiliar new world, cooking at two of the city’s finest (French) restaurants – L’Orangerie and Bastide.
“I decided to open Trois Mec in a strip mall because that is
the Los Angeles culture to me.”
By the late aughts, Lefebvre was in the process of securing his own space for his first restaurant and grew frustrated playing the waiting game, not cooking. On a whim, Lefebvre was offered the opportunity to make a guest appearance at BreadBar in Los Angeles. The end result of this guest appearance is known today throughout the culinary world as a Pop-Up but for Lefebvre and his operation, LudoBites, it was anything but.
“LudoBites was not an intention, it was an accident,” his wife and business partner Kristine Lefebvre (whom Ludo met as a chef at L’Orangerie over an amuse-bouche) proclaims, noting that “it became a cult hit that the people of LA fully embraced and then it hit us and we said, ‘this is a real business now.’”
The success of LudoBites was driven by the passion of the chef who, in reminiscing on this period in his culinary life, smiles happily as he remembers the joys of “not cooking French cuisine in a strait jacket.”
Following both the cult and critical success of LudoBites, Lefebvre would go on to open his first restaurant, Trois Mec, with the help of his then friends and now business partners, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, in April 2013. It is at Trois Mec that Lefebvre officially planted his flag and staked his claim as one of the world’s most innovative and exciting chefs.
“LA’s culture to me is colorful food, and the California vegetable, and I’ve tried to base my cooking on that…to be playful with LA’s magical flavors.”
In keeping with the cult stylings of LudoBites, Lefebvre neglected to update the signage outside his flagship property, which to this day promotes Raffallo’s Pizza. “We focused on the menu and on the inside of the restaurant and on its design and in the end we forgot about the sign.”
Right out of the gate, Trois Mec – still one of the hottest tickets in town, as the restaurant only seats 28 on any given night – received critical acclaim near (LA Weekly and the L.A. Times awarded it 4 stars) and far (it made “Best Of” lists nationally from Bon Apetit to GQ and Esquire).
“Trois Mec is three things,” Lefebvre explains. “Ingredients, technique, and playfulness… LA’s culture to me is colorful food, and the California vegetable, and I’ve tried to base my cooking on that…to be playful with LA’s magical flavors.”
Though Lefebvre cooks with an endearing respect to where he has been, he does so in a place he likely never expected to be. “I decided to open Trois Mec in a strip mall because that is the Los Angeles culture to me,” he explains.
“I would be very happy if I got a star … I think Trois Mec deserves one star but my restaurant is full and that is the best thing for me.”
It is that very strip mall, an ever-important piece of Los Angeles’ identity, that may explain why the Michelin Guide has not reviewed restaurants in Los Angeles since 2009.
Lefebvre notes that without Michelin in town there is less pressure. “I would be very happy if I got a star…I think Trois Mec deserves one star but my restaurant is full and that is the best thing for me,” he says.
Though his restaurant is always full, your author had to ask him about where he likes to eat on his rare night off. Suzanne Goin (Lucques), business partners Shook and Dotolo (Animal, Jon & Vinny’s), Kris Yenbamroong (Night Market Song), and Nancy Silverton (Mozza) who Lefebvre graciously refers to as “The Queen of LA” are among those he lists as he smiles from ear to ear.
Silverton, who will be featured on Netflix’s third season of Chef’s Table is the type of seasoned American Chef one is accustomed to seeing on television. Lefebvre – tattoos, and Burgundian accent – is less traditional but more modern and certainly fitting for a show produced and narrated by culinary bad boy Anthony Bourdain.
Admitting he never thought he would be on American television due to his accent, Lefebvre acknowledges the personal and professional benefits of being on the air. Reflecting on the rigorous five-month process that was Mind of a Chef, Lefebvre admits, “It will be good for me.”
Lefebvre still cooks at Trois Mec regularly and as he explains it, on top of cooking because he loves to, it’s his time in the kitchen – away from social media, television obligations, cookbooks, and the modern day rigors of life as a famous chef – that makes him feel less busy.
Lefebvre is looking forward to opening a Sherman Oaks Petit Trois location in 2017. As the Trois Mec team will be strong enough without him, the chef will be able to ride his bike from home to work cooking in the Valley, which is very important to him.
Throughout October, Trois Mec will be hosting a guest chef series: “Two Chefs: A Dialogue Through Food.” Throughout the month he will cook with Daniel Humm (Eleven Madison Park), Joshua Skeen (Saison), Jorge Vallejo (Quintonil), and Daniel Boulud among others.
While the entire series is sure to be special and Lefebvre is too humble to admit it, his wife notes that what matters most is that his contemporaries and his idols are coming to cook with him, in LA.