LA Chef Ludo Lefebvre

(Originally published December 16, 2012 on Examiner.com).

Note since this article was written Chef Ludo has opened Trois Mec and Petit Trois and other restaurants.

Even if the world doesn’t end on December 21, LudoBites will, at least, as a full time business model in Los Angeles. And no, the restaurant that chef Ludo Lefebvre will soon be opening with equal chef partners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo will not be a continuation or an evolution of LudoBites into its own non-transient brick and mortar location.

Though the dining model of giving control over to the chef’s creativity that LudoBites brought to the Los Angeles’s dining scene is one that will continue in some way and spirit to this new location, as well as to the many future restaurants that will hopefully follow it. In contrast to one that aspires for consistency, this dining model- made for an audience willing to experiment- highlights the chef’s ability to adapt adeptly and quickly to change as well as to incorporate whatever inspires the chef at any given moment from where he’s at or has been, what he’s tasted and or from what ingredients are available to cook with.

No where was this ability to adapt to and incorporate inspiration from location as well depicted as it was on the Sundance Channel’s show Ludo Bites America. Sundance picked the cities, and told Ludo and Krissy where they’d go, but the minute these two walked into a restaurant, they dictated the schedule, since this was for them very real with reservations taken, paying customers and press including critics in attendance. Thus they took it very seriously since their current and future reputations were on the line. As Krissy noted, “failure in Omaha is no different than failure in Los Angeles.”

Over the course of this show, Krissy and Ludo visited six different cities, none of which Ludo had ever been to before. In each city, they’d try some local cuisine which Ludo had never before tasted; find a location and then set-up shop a few days later for a one night pop-up restaurant service. Over the course of those few days, cameras followed them as they found staff for both back and front of house; put together a menu inspired by the local cuisine, sourced food, and used traditional and social media to broadcast their pop-up event. Without any trial runs, each episode concluded with Krissy and Ludo overcoming numerous issues with staff and location to get through that night’s service successfully.

Conditions as documented in LudoBites, the book, started out almost equally as chaotic in Los Angeles, and gradually grew a little more stable after each incarnation of LudoBites as Krissy and Ludo grew more familiar with their business model and built a stable of staff that made themselves available for their pop-ups. However, even as the LudoBites “tour” comes to its conclusion in Los Angeles, as the primary source of income for Krissy and Ludo, change due to circumstance and inspiration still occurs almost on a nightly basis. When Chef Ludo tweaks existing items or adds new items to the menu, servers who get descriptions, often see an item during service for the first time when that item is plated for the first time as do the sous chefs who have to have photographic memories to capture a mental image of each of these plates to replicate them after Ludo always does the very first iteration.

Ludobites has never had any trial runs, not even for friends and family. So noting how LudoBites operated and, in some ways, still operates as unorthodox is being kind. To most successful restaurateurs what LudoBites has done and still does borders on insanity. In contrast to the LudoBites model, especially with multi-unit and multi-concept operators, every dish is tested, every person front and back of house has received well formulated training, plus before any location is opened to the paying public many trial services are ran to minimize surprises and to insure consistent quality of product and service. Krissy noted that Paul Fleming, who is a friend of theirs, has “a month of trials” before opening a Fleming’s restaurant.

But the line between madness and creative genius is a very thin one…..

LudoBites provided a model for chefs like Chef Ludo to take off their chef straight jackets and free themselves from the norms and constraints of repetition and consistency. Without these constraints, chefs like Ludo now had and have more creative freedom resulting in a new level of creative cuisine with a lot more hits than misses. For Ludo, this was more than just a notion of seasonality since, as Krissy noted, any decent chef should incorporate seasonality into their dishes. For Ludo, with LudoBites, this was and is an ongoing process of learning and getting inspiration especially from other people and cultures. Thus for Ludo, each plate is a manifestation of this process, where he combines what he’s learned as a French chef, the discipline and techniques, with what he’s learned from other people and through his pallet about other cultures’ cuisine.

LudoBites was also in large part born out of necessity. With all of their equipment, utility and code requirements, restaurants more than any other building type require a lot of start up capital to build out even for an interior fit-out. Thus with so much capital at risk, restaurant aren’t exactly the safest investment. A whole myriad of factors like location, management, critical review, menu mix and price points may result in a location’s success or failure especially since profit margins are so slim, food costs fluctuate, and good help is hard to retain.

The whole notion of the “pop-up,” which LudoBites helped establish in Los Angeles, mitigates a lot of this risk, since expensive fit-outs aren’t required and no long term leases are signed. As most in Los Angeles are now well aware, the pop-up uses an existing location’s layout, as a sub-tenant for a short period of time for a limited engagement.

Money for expensive build-outs though wasn’t the only financial lacking; money also wasn’t available for any PR. To get the word out about these pop-ups, LudoBites very quickly recognized the power of the “blogosphere.” Though Ludo and Krissy never specifically catered to this sphere, they organically built relationships with many food bloggers who already had built in audiences to whom these bloggers were able to immediately share their experiences. So especially back when LudoBites was a smaller more intimate less pressure driven enterprise, Ludo and Krissy had a lot of direct communications with and incredible respect for the bloggers writing about them.

Thus LudoBites was able to piggy back market off of the bloggers’ audiences as LudoBites built its own audience. As word got out, both these borrowed audiences and newly established ones created more and more buzz so that for each new version of LudoBites, seats for a meal service became harder to obtain. For this final incarnation LudoBites 10.0 over seven thousand entries were entered in a lottery for only the approximate three hundred available seats during the three week run ending this coming Friday. Plus if there is a cancellation, via response to twitter tweets, those seats are rebooked within minutes even if inconsiderate patrons wait until the last hour to cancel.

With limited runs, and seats, like with Stones tickets in a small venue, scarcity has helped make LudoBites successful. Limited runs make engagements events, and not just another show that can be attended any other time. Though again as Krissy noted, without a great product that people want, scarcity wouldn’t and doesn’t work. Thus LudoBites wasn’t and hasn’t been successful due to its marketing plan. Rather LudoBites was and has been successful due to its business model.

Getting through this final version of LudoBites, the new yet to be named restaurant open, and managing what ABC’s new show “The Taste” will do for Ludo’s brand are what’s on Krissy and Ludo’s immediate agenda. And even though 10.0 will mark the end of the traveling circus LudoBites in L.A. as these two’s primary source of income, seats to the new venue will most likely still be very hard to obtain and thus scarcity will continue to be help generate demand. This still to be food concepted restaurant, an unique collaboration between three of Los Angeles most popular chefs (Ludo, Jon and Vinny), will only have 25 to 35 seats. Plus the restaurant will “premiere” around the same time “The Taste” does on ABC during prime time for 2 hours on January 22nd. [Note this has change since this article was written. The restaurant will open soon but it’s opening will not be concurrent with the show’s premiere]. Such national exposure for Chef Ludo as a mentor on this show with Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson will obviously further expand Ludo’s audience, brand as well as demand for his cooking.

(A quick sidebar: regarding the new restaurant, prior reported names and concepts have changed, so this was not a topic for discussion, especially since these names and concepts may change yet again. Note too the concept for the restaurant depends upon what the chefs will be making, not the décor, so the final food concept and name most likely won’t be determined until the three chefs get the opportunity together to step into the new kitchen and cook).

Assuming the world doesn’t end when the Mayan calendar does, LudoBites though may continue in some form to other cities across the country and world to further Ludo’s brand outside of Los Angeles. Wherever LudoBites travels, for these working vacations, LudoBites will only be LudoBites with Ludo in the kitchen because LudoBites was and is the restaurateur.

Though since Ludo is definitely a cooking chef this may in some ways limit his future growth, since being so hands on, it takes Ludo some time to develop the confidence to turn over the reigns to other staff. This is partly why it took so long to get the LudoTruck on the road, since Ludo wouldn’t let this concept hit the street until he was absolutely certain his partners could execute in accordance with his standards.

However, as Ludo does build a team through establishing non-transient venues and staffs, the ultimate goal is to have many other restaurants as well as concepts that could be singular dish or item focused (like the LudoTruck). This then allows Ludo to both have locations that carry on the adaptive spirit and flexibility of LudoBites, as well as concepts that he can entrust to partners who execute up to the standards that Ludo establishes.

Though then again if the world does end this coming Friday, December 21, before or after the final table turn, all of the above won’t even be a memory let alone spring point for the future, since there will no longer be bloggers or yelpers on the sphere to complain or to spread Ludo’s brand’s message.

Obviously if a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to blog about it, no one else will ever hear about it, so the falling tree never made a sound. But then again, no yelpers? Hey maybe the end of world isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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