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Alain Giraud’s Food Fare Image

Who better to explore the Santa Monica Farmers Market (SMFM) with than French Chef Alain Giraud? His brasserie Anisette is one block from the market and he’s been shopping there since he moved to Los Angeles from France in 1988. He had no intentions to stay, but stay he did. Fast-forward 22 years over an impressive career spanning four restaurants — Citrus, Lavande, Bastide and Anisette — and 2010 sees Giraud being honored at the Planned Parenthood LA Food Fare as chef of the year. “I asked them why they choose me and they said because you are a smiley guy!”

The PPLA Food Fare began with a cooking demonstration by Julia Child in 1979. Giraud, who cooked for Julia Child at the “Merci, Julia” 80th birthday dinner in 1993, was excited to learn this. “I was thinking to do some scallop dish, so I will look in the book and see something about Julia.” It seems even esteemed French chefs still can’t get enough of Julia Child.

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We meet on a sunny Wednesday morning in the middle of the market, and I instantly know it’s going to be fun, flirtatious and undeniably French. He’s had his weekly coffee with Donato Poto of Providence (one of the dream team from the early days of Bastide), something that happens every Wednesday at the market. We stop to share a joke and a giggle with Poto and this sets the tone for the rest of our morning together. They are both carrying their traditional French market baskets­ — Poto’s is full and he is heading back to Providence leaving Giraud and me to shop or, as Giraud likes to call it, “our first date.”

Alain Giraud and Donoto PortoFirst stop is the Weiser Family Farms stand for potatoes and to introduce me to his friend, a fellow Brit behind the table. Giraud picks through the small white new potatoes and tells me it’s important to pick the same size so they cook evenly. He then carefully chooses two servings of purple carrots. As he pays he asks whether his friend Alex Weiser (the owner of Weiser Family Farms) is at the market and is told he is around somewhere.

It’s obvious that Giraud is a regular as he stops to shake hands with a friend, greets a farmer or heads to a particular stall to see whether they have produce he’s been waiting to be in season. He knows everyone, the cafe owner where we have coffee, the farmers, the customers at the market, chefs and restaurateurs. We can’t walk five paces without Giraud stopping to talk to someone.

He prefers a beefsteak to an heirloom tomato he says as we walk past a table piled high with red, green and yellow heirlooms, though he’s not keen on any of these today because it’s too early in the year.

Harry’s Berries versus the rest

“The best strawberries are Harry’s,” he says, as we pass Harry’s Berries. “But $16 a basket is a lot.” I ask him if it’s worth the price difference and he’s adamant – “It’s like a wine, you pay $300 for a Burgundy against a shit cheap wine, it makes a difference. This is my philosophy about that, with onions you can buy the super organic onions and you buy supermarket onions and you cook them nicely both and if you can tell me the difference, good luck. Buy a cheap strawberry at the supermarket and you compare it to a Gaviota or a Seascape from Harry’s Berries and there is no doubt, night and day. The texture, flavor, it tastes like a strawberry you can memorize why it is that you fell in love with it so much.”

Giraud spots the leeks at Tutti Frutti Farms and hurries over to buy some. “These leeks are good. I bought some last week, they were very small, and they were so good. I cook them with a little water and salt and then serve them warm with a very mustardy vinaigrette and shallots – ooh this is good! That is the one I serve at home, but at the restaurant I do a very small dice and we cook it very quickly with a little stock and butter to keep them green and I like to add pistachio. I love pistachio.”

Alain Giraud shopping for potatoes“She has the best smile of the market,” he says laughing when we get to the mandarin stall. “I say that to everybody! I go again for $10. I finish them like that. This is my snack at night.” The smiling citrus farmer hands over a large bag of mandarins that Giraud puts in his basket with the vegetables as he gives her $10.

At the Schaner Farms table Giraud greets Peter Schaner, the owner who is sorting boxes in his truck. “Peter does mostly citrus and small-farm things, he delivers to all the restaurants at the end of the market. (A clipboard lists a who’s who of local restaurants and their orders — so far Ammo, Hungry Cat, Gjelina and Little Door have all placed orders.) Three years ago I bring Peter’s avocados to my mum in France in my suitcase so she has an avocado from California.” He proudly shows me a picture on his iPhone of his mother holding a bowl of dark green avocados.

“The market is more expensive, so we have to be more careful in this economy. We used to spend a lot more at the market, but we have had to cut back. But I want to keep the connection to the market because it’s so important. Next week we are having a booth and we are doing the mini pastries.” These pastries made it on to the Jonathan Gold “99 things to eat before you die” list, and you can tell this pleases Giraud when I congratulate him, but he’s also keen to share credit with his pastry chef Noubar Yessayan. “He works so hard on these and deserves the credit.” As if on cue, we run into Laura Avery (Head of the SMFM) who greets us warmly and tells me, “The best pastries this side of Paris. Come down for the croissants next Wednesday.”

“Next week I have a busy week,” says Giraud. “We are doing Wednesday here at the market and Thursday I am doing the Planned Parenthood event at the civic center. I ask for a blonde sous chef and they give me the blonde from ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ [Cheryl Hines].”

‘I never intended to stay’

Giraud arrived in L.A. in 1988 from the South of France by way of New York and was Chef Joachim Splichal’s roommate. Chef Michel Richard had just opened Citrus, and Giraud planned to cook there for a couple of weeks. “Citrus was ahead of its time,” says Giraud, “Using very fresh high-quality ingredients to serve a larger number of guests, it dispelled the notion that volume was associated with bad quality; that was the thought in France at this time. Three hundred and fifty customers a night, 250 at lunch and everything totally fresh and totally innovative, for me it was a revelation and I fell in love with this concept. Richard was a visionary, being one of the first to open the kitchen up to full view of the dining room with the glass wall. So I stayed two weeks and made friends with the guys.

“Then Pierre Sauvaget, one of the chefs, got another job and asked me to do him a favor and stay a few more weeks. So I stayed a little while and a few weeks after Michel asked if I wanted to stay. In that same year I met a nice blonde from Lyon called Catherine et voila two years after we were married in 1990. Then we had our babies and started our life here. I spent eight years at Citrus and I was very happy.”

When Citrus closed Giraud opened his first restaurant the Lavande at the Loews Hotel on the beach at Santa Monica. After three years at Lavande, Joe Pytka entered Giraud’s life. They met through carpooling their young children to the Lycee Francais — “Joe in a Bentley, me in my Honda!” Together they would assemble a dream team and open Bastide, which led to four stars and Giraud living his dream, but there was a price to pay.

“Opening Bastide was like dating Ms. Universe.” Giraud says. “You know it’s a dream, but you know a lot of men will look for Ms. Universe too, and I know there was a lot of jealousy around me because I put myself in a position to have all the tools to succeed, but what people don’t know from the outside is that I pay a very high price mentally and physically to do that. It was not like someone signed a check and said I’ll see you in one year. A lot of heartache, screaming and stress. It was very hard. I started the project in 2000 and I left in 2004.

“What hurt the most for me at the end of Bastide was I wish I had got the full package that was Bastide. Creating the brand was like creating a line of haute couture and I wanted to do the pret a porter too — the catering, doing the bistro, doing Las Vegas — doing all these things and it was just here. But with Joe our goals separated. When we started Bastide I could visualize it — the fountain, the olive trees, the lavender, the gravel crunching — which we had to give up because of the ladies Louboutin heels! I say what the heck, I wanted to have the noise. I was so disappointed about that.”

Ingredient-driven haute cuisine

I get the impression that cooking for the brasserie Anisette is a little too pret a porter compared to his previous couture creations in the fine dining world of L.A. This chef needs a little more refinement, and the brasserie menu of Anisette is perhaps too restrictive?

Alain Giraud with his staff from Anisette at the Planned Parenthood Food Fare 2009.
When asked to describe his dream restaurant he becomes very animated. “Not high end, but not bistro and spontaneous, today I buy this and I want to cook that tonight. To approach it from the ingredients. I want to have the luxury to buy those Harry’s Berries strawberries. Virbila [S. Irene Virbila, Los Angeles Times restaurant critic] once said that perhaps the best dessert she’s ever had was the perfect peach. You have to have a lot of guts as a chef to serve the perfect peach. Like the strawberry, once in a while I can close my eyes and say wow! As a chef, I think it is the ultimate challenge to do that.”

Giraud’s signature dish is vacherin glace, and this is a good example of what he likes to do when showcasing an ingredient. “You need to present the prefect strawberry with a balance of flavor, next to that do the perfect ice cream and show this is the ingredient at its peak and this is a variation of the ingredient without making it too intellectual and overcomplicating it. I hate it when I eat something and I don’t know what it is. I think we are going too much in the direction of the technique and losing the spirit of the ingredients.”

Vacherin glace

Vacherin glace (lavender ice cream, meringue, strawberries and creme Chantilly)

By Chef Alain Giraud

Serves 8

Ingredients
For the lavender ice cream:
1½ cup milk
½ cup heavy cream
½ vanilla pod
4 egg yolks
¾ cup of sugar
1½ teaspoon dried lavender
For the meringue drops:
½ cup of sugar
Whites of 2 large eggs
For the whipped cream:
1 cup of heavy cream
⅛ cup of powdered sugar
For the raspberry coulis:
10 ounces fresh raspberries
¼ cup of sugar
1 lemon juice
For the garnish:
16 strawberries — preferably Harry’s Berries
8 lavender sprigs
Directions
For the lavender ice cream:
  1. Bring milk, cream, vanilla and half of the sugar to a boil. Add the lavender, turn heat off and infuse for 1 minute.
  2. In a separate bowl, combine yolks and sugar. Prepare a bowl of ice water; set an empty bowl on top of the ice water and place a strainer on top of the empty bowl.
  3. Temper the yolk and sugar with a small amount of the warm mixture above, being careful not to cook or “scramble” the eggs. Bring the milk cream mixture back to a boil and stir in the tempered yolk mixture. Cook, mixing continuously with a wooden spoon, until the mix coats the back of a spoon, about 3 minutes.
  4. Strain mixture into the empty bowl and chill.
  5. Run mixture in an ice cream machine until set, and place in freezer.
For the meringue drops:
  1. Prepare a double boiler bath (Bain Marie).
  2. In a mixing bowl, combine egg whites and sugar. Place on the double boiler and whisk for approximately 5 minutes or until mixture is warm to the touch.
  3. Remove from water bath and place in an electric mixer with a whisk attachment. Whip to medium-stiff peak.
  4. Using a pastry bag with a medium-sized round tip, pipe onto a parchment-lined sheet in to a teardrop shape (We suggest piping on a diagonal.).
  5. Place sheet in an oven pre-heated to 175 F convection or 200 F still oven, and dry until hard but without color.
  6. Remove from oven, cool and store drops in an airtight container.
For the whipped cream:
  1. In a mixing bowl with a whisk attachment, combine cream and sugar. Beat to medium-stiff peak.
  2. Place in pastry bag with a star tip.
For the raspberry coulis:
  1. In a blender, place the raspberries, sugar and lemon juice. Blend at high speed until smooth. Strain. Taste and adjust for flavor.
Presentation
  1. Place 1 #12 scoop of lavender ice cream on each plate.
  2. Pipe whipped cream using the star-tipped pastry bag, covering entire scoop to form a dome.
  3. Quarter the strawberries and place them over the whip cream-covered ice cream. Alternate the strawberries with the meringue drops.
  4. Make a rim of raspberry coulis around the dome. Garnish with lavender sprig. Serve immediately.

Lucy Lean is the editor of edible Los Angeles. She has worked at Talk magazine in New York City, edited books about world cinema for the British Film Institute and appeared in the BBC’s “London Girl Lucy Lean Meeting Her Friends for Lunch.”

Photos, from top: Alain Giraud and Lucy Lean. Credit: David Guilburt; Giraud and Donato Poto. Credit: Lucy Lean; Giraud shopping for potatoes. Credit: Lucy Lean; Alain with his staff from Anisette at the Planned Parenthood Food Fare 2009. Credit: Planned Parenthood; Giraud’s signature dish, verachin. Credit: Karen Harley.

 

 

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A View of L.A. Image

I meet Chef Andrea Cavaliere at Cecconi’s, the Italian hot spot at the corner of Melrose and Robertson in Los Angeles, on a busy Friday afternoon. The sun shines through the tall hedge at the entrance, the terrace doors are open and the restaurant is winding down from lunch. Cavaliere stops at the table of two ladies and greets them in Italian as we walk to a table in the corner of the dining room. He later tells me they are food purveyors and sell good olive oil. As one might expect from an Italian chef, good quality olive oil is Cavaliere’s favorite ingredient and his menu at Cecconi’s reflects this.

Born in Turin, in northern Italy, Cavaliere started cooking at his family’s trattoria. After culinary school and various European restaurants, he moved to London in 1998 to work at Neal Street Restaurant with Chef Antonio Carluccio. It was there that Cavaliere was approached by entrepreneur Nick Jones, whose most celebrated hit is the Soho House brand: the hipper-than-hip, members-only boites in London, Bath, New York and now West Hollywood, with two more set to open in Miami and Berlin. Back in 2004, Jones bought the original Cecconi’s in London and was looking to transform it from a dowdy grande dame into a place to see and be seen. And, with Cavaliere, he did just that. Next, Cavaliere tackled the culinary programs for Soho House Shoreditch in 2007 and Soho House’s first American venture Soho House New York in 2008.

In 2009, they worked their magic again, this time in L.A., transforming onetime Industry favorite Morton’s, site of those fabled Vanity Fair Oscar parties, into a new Cecconi’s, an ultra-contemporary setting sporting cerulean blue leather chairs, black-and-white tiled floors and enormous glass jars filled with cherries to lend some color at the bar. Cavaliere’s menu balances Northern Italian comfort food with local healthy Californian fare. One bite of his margherita pizza and I am transported back to a tiny pizzeria off St Mark’s Square in Venice. On top of a thin and crisp wood-oven baked crust, the tomato sauce is sweet and fresh, the slightly salty buffalo mozzarella is perfectly melted, and basil leaves beautifully round out the flavor.

As the corporate chef for Soho House, Cavaliere has been busy helping with the opening of the West Hollywood addition, setting up Chef Matthew Amistead, who came from Babington House (a Soho House club, hotel and spa in the English countryside), with a support system of Los Angeles suppliers and staff. The 20,000-square-foot penthouse club at Sunset and Doheny has panoramic views of the city and is due to open March 8. But Cavaliere found time to sit down to talk about menus, food trucks, his late mother’s influence on his recipes and the taboo of eating cats, dogs and fluffy bunnies.

How is the menu for the new Soho House different from Cecconi’s?
It’s very different. Matt’s menu is not Italian like Cecconi’s. It’s a club menu with local influences. Californian and Italian cuisine are both based on the sun, the climate is similar, and they use local ingredients you can buy from markets — so there are some similarities.

 

Have you tried the food trucks?
Yes, I would like to have a business and do a truck. I have talked about this a lot with Marcus Barwell [the project manager who opened Cecconi’s and now the Soho House club] a long time ago. Before the craze we had this idea.

Maybe a pasta truck?
Yes or maybe a pizza truck with a wood oven? There is a pizza truck in Venice that the Truffle Brothers told me about. [They say] it does a very good pizza slice. I like the idea of this. A chef can cook anywhere. Pasta can be done on a truck, definitely, there is no reason why not.

What is the next thing in restaurants?
That’s what we are doing here. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I did a lot of research. There are many restaurants where there is a lot of attitude. I was also shocked by the prices some people were charging for average food. We try to do the best product for not too much money. A restaurant should be relaxed. We have a restaurant where you have good food, not too expensive, with a good scene and it’s open all day. (At lunch you can get the Prezzo Fissi menu — a choice of two courses for $15.)

How is breakfast going?
It’s good. I don’t know if it’s to do with the financial crisis, but I see more and more businesses having meetings in the morning. But maybe if you want to make deals it’s better to do it at dinner with the alcohol.

You serve cicchetti, Italian tapas, at Cecconi’s for your midnight menu.
Yes, we saw it on day one in Venice (Italy), when I went with Nick Jones to do research. We knew it would be perfect for Cecconi’s. It’s an excuse to have some food when you drink. It’s one bite — mini oven-baked meatballs, scallops, tuna tartare — finger food.

Who were your influences in cooking?
My mother, first and foremost. It’s her meatball recipe here. And then my aunt. We are from Turin-Piedmont, in northern Italy and my mother’s sister married a man from Puglia in southern Italy. She gave me my first ethnic experience. Piedmont is one of the best regions for food in Italy, and then there’s Tuscany. Puglia is amazing — I guess everywhere in Italy is good!

What is your signature dish?
Pappardelle with rabbit — my mother’s recipe. We would have it a lot in Italy. But it’s not on the menu at Cecconi’s.

Is America not ready for rabbit?
America, yes, but I don’t know if Beverly Hills is ready for rabbit. I did it at Cecconi’s in London. Maybe I shall try to do it.

 

When I am at Cecconi’s a week later, Cavaliere proudly presents his signature dish: Thick melt-in-your-mouth ribbons of pasta covered in a flavorsome meaty brown sauce with small delicate bites of white rabbit. “The rabbits came from a man in Sonoma,” he tells me. “They arrived with the skin on, so we had to take extra time to prepare them. I hope you like it. I’m putting it on the menu on Monday.” Pappardelle with rabbit also appears on the menu at the club.

Is there anything you would never eat?
Cat.

Have you ever been served cat?
No. I tell you why I say that. I was talking to my father about food and memories recently, at my mother’s funeral, and there is a region in northern Italy called Venito, near Venice. There is a town there called Vicenza. They say that people from Vicenza eat cat. They keep the heads on the rabbit in the butcher to prove it’s not cat.

 

They really eat cats in Italy?
My father was telling me that during the war people ate cats because meat was scarce. Apparently, after the war my grandma used to cook cat once a year in remembrance of those tough times. My father tried it. It was a shock for me. I did not know this.

What did he say it tasted like?
Rabbit.

 

So did you ever eat cat growing up?
No. I asked my father. Thank god. In the winter they would leave the cat for two weeks under the snow, to age it and lose the fur — like in Italy when you come from hunting you leave the birds to hang. Then my grandmother cooked it civet, with red wine and a lot of spices. In Italy now there is a big celebrity chef [Beppe Bigazzi] who worked for the TV channel RAI, like the BBC in England. He got sacked because during the program he made a suggestion to cook cat casserole.

 

 

It sounds like it is part of a tradition.
Yes, a tradition of desperation.

There can’t be much meat on a cat.
If you have nothing to eat, I don’t know why you wouldn’t eat a rabbit. Cat is not acceptable. I don’t like cats anyway. I have a dog.

But you would never eat your dog!
No. Come on!

 

Chef Andrea Cavaliere’s Pappardelle With Rabbit Ragu

If you don’t have a pasta maker, you can buy pappardelle from your grocery store or fresh from your local Italian deli.

Serves 6-8

Pasta Ingredients

3½ cups unbleached all purpose flour
4 eggs
½ ounce chopped mix of rosemary and thyme

Directions

  1. In a bowl (wooden if possible) make a volcano-like shape with the flour and create a well in the middle. Break eggs and herb mixture into the well.
  2. Beat eggs with fork to incorporate into flour. Do this until it becomes mixed and doughy and proceed to knead dough with your hands.
  3. Once smooth and beautiful, cover in plastic wrap and let rest in fridge for half an hour.
  4. Run dough through pasta roller to create a thick, 1-inch-wide pappardelle. Let rest with a bit of flour mixed in while preparing the ragu.

Rabbit Ragu Ingredients

1 rabbit (ask butcher to debone or do it yourself)
1 onion
2 carrots
3 celery sticks (diced to ⅛ in thick)
½ tbsp tomato paste
1 glass white wine (Vermentino if possible, Italian or Californian)
1½ ounce Taggiasca olives
1 handful ripe cherry tomatoes cut in half
1 ounce toasted pine nuts
2 ounce freshly grated Parmesan
4 sprigs fresh thyme
Zest of one lemon
Olive oil
Flour for dusting

Directions

  1. Dice the rabbit into ¼-inch cubes and dust with flour, salt and pepper.
  2. Sear in heavy bottomed pot until golden brown. Add veggies and tomato paste, and stir until all is golden brown and smells delicious.
  3. Once it caramelizes, add white wine. The white wine will quickly evaporate. Then add olives, fresh thyme, lemon zest, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts.
  4. Cook for 30-35 minutes over low heat, slowing adding stock (add a bit, stir, let evaporate, and repeat until stock is done). Let it rest.
  5. Cook pappardelle in boiling salted water, for a few minutes if fresh or according to package directions. Heat ragu and add pappardelle.
  6. Add two tablespoons extra virgin olive oil and 2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan.
  7. Mix together to combine, and it will become creamy.

 


Lucy Lean is the editor of Edible Los Angeles. She has worked as a magazine writer and editor at Talk magazine in New York City, edited books about world cinema for the British Film Institute and appeared in the BBC’s “London Girl Lucy Lean Meeting Her Friends for Lunch.”

Cecconi’s is located at 8764 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood, Calif. 90069. Phone: 310-432-2000. Website: cecconiswesthollywood.com.

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LudoBites on Wheels Image

LudoBites, the daring pop-up restaurant venture of Los Angeles chef Ludovic “Ludo” Lefebvre, is getting ready to take over its next location. After invading a bakery twice, and conquering an art gallery/cafe, he’s thinking small.

On Feb. 13, for one day only, Lefebvre will be in his smallest kitchen ever — a food truck — at the L.A. Street Food Festival in downtown Los Angeles.

I like to think I played a small part in this coup, bringing this Michelin star chef in alongside the Cool Haus ice cream sandwich makers, the Grilled Cheese Truck, the Flying Pig and others. Talking to festival co-founder Shawna Dawson some weeks back I suggested getting a chef to do a pop-up truck, specifically Lefebvre, given his interest in the transitory food establishment. Lefebvre jumped at the chance.

So next week the pop-up veteran will get to try his hand at another hot dining trend, food trucks. Working on the fly is nothing new to Lefebvre: at LudoBites at BreadBar bakery and Royal/T art space, Lefebvre’s brought his “bistronomy” (affordable high end French cuisine) to those lucky enough to get a reservation. Cooking on a truck, however, is something altogether new, and he’s excited about it.

Ludo and wife Kristine.“I can cook anything,” says Lefebvre, “Michelin star quality cuisine is what I like to do … and yet what does everyone ask for? Not classic French dishes mixed with modern techniques — but fried chicken!”

So fried chicken it will be.

I tagged along as Lefebvre and his wife, Kristine, recently researched their food truck options at a downtown food truck depot. The chef couldn’t wait to get aboard to check out the kitchen: one small fry cooker, a griddle and a small prep counter. Lefebvre was confident it would work. The larger issue was who would drive this 20-foot kitchen on wheels? “I’m front-of-house at LudoBites,” said Kristine. “And you are in the back in the kitchen.” She took the driver’s seat of the brand new air-conditioned Mobi Munch truck that is being specially wrapped in the bright red LudoBites rooster logo for the event.

Lefebvre is at a crossroads of sorts. Keep doing pop-ups? Open his own restaurant? He becomes quite tetchy talking about it. “I don’t know what is going on in my head, I try to figure out,” he says in his accented, abbreviated English. “I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do. Finding a space is not easy, you know. It’s got to be just right.”

From ‘Top Chef Masters’ renown to painting

Lefebvre who grew up in the town of Auxerre in the Burgundy region of France, trained in that nation’s finest restaurant kitchens, mentored by four of the greatest chefs, Marc Meneau, Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Martin and Alain Passard. (Asked whether he’d ever move back, he said, “It’s a peaceful life, but it would be boring.”) He was lured to Los Angeles in 1996 to work as the executive chef at the now-shuttered L’Orangerie and later moved to Bastide. He quickly made a name for himself, racking up a James Beard nomination for the Rising Star Chef Award and five stars from the Mobil Travel Guide at both restaurants. Most recently, he became famous on “Top Chef Masters,” where he was the telegenic chef whose thick French accent was subtitled.

altLefebvre’s creativity extends to painting — and he hung his artwork at BreadBar and Royal/T during LudoBites’ runs. His subject, not surprisingly, is food. A self-portrait titled “Happy Chef,” shows a grinning chef in a large toque and whites brandishing a knife and a whisk. The chef is surrounded by stars, symbols and initials that match the French chefs he trained under — MM, PG, AP and GM — and a large red question mark about to be pierced by an arrow.

“It’s a lot about my life,” he says of the painting. “Where I start and what happened in my life. It’s all about my mentors. The day when I came to L.A. in ’96 for L’Orangerie. After I talk about Bastide. It’s interesting. I did this big thing on the painting. It’s cut and stitched. What happened is that I got really hurt at Bastide by the L.A. Times. [Restaurant critic S. Irene] Virbila break me. I was the first chef in L.A. to do molecular cuisine, and Mrs. Virbila don’t get it back then. Now she get it and give Bazaar four stars. It hurt me then, and it hurt me now. I put that on my canvas. And then I get my five-star Mobil. I get better. It’s a story about how I feel about cooking. Now I’m a happy chef.”

Hype follows Lefebvre’s fried chicken

But there is that big red question mark near the happy chef. Yes, LudoBites in pop-up settings afford him a great deal of creativity and flexibility — if not riches. It is fun to whip up a restaurant for two weeks or four weeks. He’s been spotted front of house taking orders, chatting with guests, even clearing tables. So what if the food runs out when Pulitzer-winning LA Weekly critic Jonathan Gold arrived for his reservation? When that happened, Lefebvre cooked up some fried chicken in the spirit of “the show must go on.” Gold, in turn, called it one of the best meals he had that year.

LudoBites’ dearth of fine-dining trappings hasn’t turned people off. Quite the reverse. The 13 dates in December at Royal/T sold out instantly. Food blogs, Facebook and Twitter went into overdrive. “Did u get your res @chefludo?” they tweeted. The interest was overwhelming, so much so they stopped taking reservations amid claims by Lefebvre that @FrenchChefWife — the Twitter handle of his accomplished wife — had overbooked every night.

The hype took a toll on Lefebvre, who suffered from the chef’s equivalent of writer’s block during the menu-planning phase for LudoBites at Royal/T in December. “The expectation of customer means I need to be creative,” he said at the time. “And come up with some great new ideas. And it’s not easy you know. Last week I can’t cook. I cannot get any ideas. I’m freezing on my menu for two weeks now. I have no idea. I have nothing. Nothing. Nothing!”

Ludo's cupcake.The bar was high. His menu for LudoBites’ summer ’09 incarnation at BreadBar featured an abundance of truffles, oysters, foie gras and caviar at a surprising $40-ish prix fixe. The night I sat at the counter in the commercial bakery, I sipped a deconstructed Bloody Mary, followed by a rich foie gras miso soup with radish. A delicate tuna sashimi with sushi rice ice cream and sashimi togarashi arrived for an entree. And dessert? I passed it up. But it was a chocolate cupcake topped with a foie gras Chantilly creme drizzled with a maple and balsamic reduction and then sprinkled with tiny maple candied bacon and almonds. I regret skipping it to this day and hope it will reappear on a future menu.

No wonder then Lefebvre appeared a little overwhelmed by the expectations — others’ and his own — a few months later. He desires to do many things, which means he resists doing one thing long term. “I could do a restaurant seven days a week, but it could get boring. I want my freedom to create.” He likes change. Movement. “To be consistent as a chef is so difficult. A dish can’t always be consistent.”

Contemplating a restaurant

Part of the thrill of LudoBites is its ever-changing menu. It might be scallops in brown butter with pineapple and squid ink powder. Or bread soup with Gruyere marshmallow. Veal with udon, kombu dashi, mushrooms and sesame seed miso. Marinated hanger steak with a mole zacatecano learned from teenage food blogger Javier Cabral’s mother. Though the dishes resurface, each meal feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “It’s common at LudoBites,” says Kristine Lefebvre, “for customers to run the menu, basically order one of everything.”

L.A. Street Food Festival

When: Sat., Feb. 13, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: L.A. Center Studios

500 S. Beaudry Ave., downtown

Price: $5. $30 VIP pass on sale online only.

More info: lastreetfoodfest.com

That will be easier on Feb. 13 at the L.A. Street Food Festival, where dishes top out at $5, and Lefebvre’s menu will consist of nothing but fried chicken, sure to be more than finger-licking good.

But what happens after the food truck goes back to its parking spot? Another LudoBites pop-up? Surely, L.A. restaurant-watchers keep saying, he will open his own restaurant in the near future.

Restaurants are a delicate mix of art and commerce. In a reflective moment, Lefebvre acknowledges this and says he is looking for a front-of-house business partner to balance his passions. Eternal pop-ups are what Peter Pan would choose. Lefebvre seems ready to grow up.


Lucy Lean is the editor of Edible Los Angeles. She has worked as a magazine writer and editor at Talk magazine in New York City, edited books about world cinema for the British Film Institute and appeared in the BBC’s “London Girl Lucy Lean Meeting Her Friends for Lunch.”

Photos: Ludovic ‘Ludo’ Lefebvre portait at top by Max Wanger. Ludo and Kristing Lefebvre at their food truck, by Lucy Lean. “Happy Chef” painting by Kristine Lefebvre. Cupcake by Eugene Lee.

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Going ‘Slow’ in Sonoma Image

I first met Douglas Gayeton, the author of “Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town” in October, when he drove to Los Angeles from his farm in Petaluma for a dinner at Mozza that I had organized.

Nancy Silverton was cooking Italian food using local ingredients, Joe Bastianich was pairing Italian and Santa Barbara wines, and Gayeton was there to sign books and tell us all about life in a Tuscan town.

In one of those moments of synchronicity that surround Gayeton, Silverton had gone to Book Soup that afternoon to pick up a copy of “Slow” that she had preordered. She walked into Mozza to find 50 copies of the book stacked up waiting for the evening’s festivities and had no idea she was about to meet the author. Silverton and Gayeton are both friends of Dario Cecchini, made famous in Bill Buford’s book “Heat.” As Silverton cooked pizza and Gayeton signed books, they shared stories about their mutual friends in Italy, and we all planned to get them to Los Angeles.

Gayeton’s book is full of characters such as Cecchini, each captured in stunning sepia photographs. The danger of a visually dazzling large-format book such as “Slow” is that the nuances of the story are eclipsed. Gayeton is adamant that “Slow” is not a coffee-table book where you can dip in and out, but rather a story with a beginning, middle and an end. Perhaps it can be both — and just like slow food, it takes time to get to that moment of understanding. But you are better off for having made the extra effort.

A Better Life Where We Are

When I initially discovered “Slow,” I wanted immediate gratification. I was tempted to pack up and jet off to find this corner of Europe for myself. I had to taste the prosciutto, eat the fresh baked homemade bread dipped in local pressed olive oil and drink the biodynamic vino. I was missing the point. The real message is to reconnect with food where we live — by finding local artisans, visiting the farmers market and buying what’s in season directly from the farmer. We need to relearn how to make time to chop and cook and prepare a family meal from scratch. “Slow” inspires and shows us how to live a better life wherever we live. You don’t have to move to Tuscany. “Through this unusual portrait of a Tuscan community,” writes Carlo Petrini (founder of Slow Food) in his preface, “we come to understand that living slowly, once learned, can be done anywhere. It is not a matter of luck; it is a matter of choice.”

Gayeton’s endorsement of the slow food movement, with its beautiful imagery, came about from a sense of loneliness after his marriage to his Italian wife Ombretta ended in divorce. The narrative is filled with hope and inspiration. “As an American cast adrift in a foreign country,” Gayeton writes. “What I really sought were answers. I wanted to visualize what the rest of my life would look like. Intuitively I knew the people I met would show me a path.” There’s nothing sugary about this journey. The hardships are etched on the faces of Gayeton’s subjects as they go about their daily grind.

When he arrived in Italy, Gayeton was no different from most Americans. “I had no connection to food,” says Gayeton. “Where it was from, who had made it, the journey it took to reach my table and also the people who had raised it. I had never thought about food as being intrinsically cultural, as having a cultural dynamic and being culturally important.”

A Slower Life in Sonoma

At the culmination of the book, Gayeton leaves Italy and returns to America to live 10 miles from where he had grown up. This is no happily ever after ending but rather a way of starting another chapter in his life, with his new wife Laura Howard and their daughter Tuilerie. He uses all he has seen and learned in Italy to carve out a new way — a “slow” life connected to nature with homegrown vegetables, chickens, horses and goats. The book and the characters in it are inspirational; it shows the rewards and logic of moving back to this way of life.

A grueling national book tour aside, Gayeton’s life on his small farm in Sonoma is a far cry from his fast-paced life in Los Angeles, where he lived and worked before moving to Italy. He consciously prioritizes quality of life over career and ambition.

“First and foremost it’s about quality of life and everything else follows from that. This difference is a result of the book.”

He shares the pleasure he gets from watching 3-year-old Tuilerie grow up on the farm with a close connection to the land. It’s the small things — teaching her the proper way to feed the horses with her fingers outstretched. “When she sees farm animals in her children’s book,” Gayeton explains, “she knows that all of those animals actually have names­ — it’s not just a goat or a chicken but it’s her goat or her chicken. Today I was watching her in the barn feeding all the young goats and sorting out their fights and refereeing them.”

Howard founded and runs LaLoo’s Goat’s Milk Ice Cream Company. That is the reason the couple returned to America. Instead of buying a Tuscan olive grove, as Gayeton had planned, the pair bought a farm in Petaluma so that Howard could fulfill her dream of making artisan ice cream from goat’s milk. Tuilerie has milked a goat in her short three-year life, and she definitely understands that this milk can become sweet delicious ice cream.

A New American Lifestyle

This good life on the farm is unrealistic for most of us, and Gayeton realizes we can’t all drop everything and pack up a moving truck and relocate to the country. “Even if you live in a city, you can make an effort,” says Gayeton. “Whether it’s a farmers market or a small market that pays attention to what it sells. Just to make a connection to where food comes from.” Chef Alice Waters writes in her introduction to “Slow,” “We can begin by simply breaking bread around the table, inviting our children into the kitchen to help prepare the family meal, and planting a few herbs in a window box. Your life will be richer for it.”

Gayeton is using his book to promote a new lifestyle for all Americans in both sprawling cities and remote rural communities. “We are far too reliant in urban America on convenience foods,” he says. “Whether it’s fast food or pre-prepared foods, and I think that we are a poorer culture for that. In the 1940s, people spent 30 percent of their income on food; now we are down around 14 or 15 percent. People just don’t see a value in it or put a premium on quality food and it’s fascinating to me that that is the case. Most Americans don’t think about where their food comes from, and I was certainly guilty of being that person. I had only seen plastic-wrapped meat from a supermarket. I had never eaten an egg that had come directly from a chicken. My experience in Italy really opened my eyes.”

“Slow” celebrates what Gayeton calls the “almost lost arts.” In a nation of immigrants, first-generation families would make a conscious effort to become assimilated in U.S. culture and lose connections to their family traditions, yielding to the homogenizing melting pot of America.

Gayeton speaks to Tuilerie in Spanish, the language of his paternal grandparents who came from a village in northern Spain. He is preparing her for when they make their next move to live in Spain sometime in the future. All the Spanish and Italian traditions — he had a grandmother from Tuscany — were somewhere in his family, and “Slow” was an attempt to recapture what had been missing. People he has met on his book tour are arriving at the same realization. A young man in San Diego bought Gayeton some handmade salumi; it was some of the best he had ever eaten. Like Gayeton these people are children and grandchildren of immigrants, and they are realizing that in this race to become American their parents and grandparents cut them off from any cultural connection to the past that they had.

In the hills of Tuscany, Gayeton discovered, everybody turns to the business of harvesting and pressing olives each fall. Most locals have a plot of land with olive trees, or they help a neighbor pick from their olive grove and in return are given a bottle of olive oil. “Everyone in this town had fresh pressed oil on their tables come the beginning of November,” says Gayeton. “Or in late September everybody had fungi porcini on their table or truffles because there’s such a connection culturally to the land. All those rituals that go around whether it’s getting together with family and friends to pick olive trees or to go hunting for mushrooms, it’s only something that Americans are learning now.”

In Sonoma there’s no shortage of locally raised lamb, duck and grass-fed beef. Being part of this agricultural community has resulted in Gayeton becoming friends with many of the local suppliers of his food. If he wants lamb, he can call a neighboring farmer and will often trade goat’s milk ice cream for the meat. The sense of belonging doesn’t stop at the barter, more often than not the farmer will come over to cook and eat the meal with Gayeton and his family. These American dinners are evocative of the Italian meals captured in “Slow.”

“I had this kind of Italian arrogance,” says Gayeton, “that there’s a certain quality of life that Italians had that really couldn’t be duplicated in America, and it’s just laughable. All these preconceived notions about what constitutes a strong local cuisine I had only associated with Italy and specifically Tuscany, and I just couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s here; you just have to find it.”

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Lucy Lean is the editor of Edible Los Angeles. She has worked as a magazine writer and editor at Talk magazine in New York City, edited books about world cinema for the British Film Institute and appeared in the BBC’s “London Girl Lucy Lean Meeting Her Friends for Lunch.”

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Let Them Eat Cupcakes Image

In the face of a bad harvest, a harsh winter, bread riots and peasants revolting, Marie Antoinette probably did not say, “Let them eat cake.” But if she had, she was on to something. Leap forward 200-plus years, and here we are: collapsed housing market, unemployment hovering at 10 percent and a brutal financial crisis. Yet within this mess, or maybe because of it, something continues to grow in popularity: cupcakes. Why do cupcake bakeries continue to succeed as all else fails?

Tyra Abrams, co-owner of New York’s famed Magnolia Bakery, can wax poetic on the power of a fresh, well-made cupcake. “It looks charming, inviting and is just the right size,” she says. “It reminds us of childhood and the notion of simpler times at a time when things are not so simple. It comforts on a blue day and helps us celebrate any occasion. And no matter what the economy or who is in office, one can always depend upon it being absolutely delicious.”

Cupcakes are the perfect small indulgence, concurs Charles Nelson, owner of the Beverly Hills-based bakery Sprinkles. “It’s $3, so while the economy is definitely in a recession, people still have a few dollars to treat themselves. It’s a pick-me-up to help brighten your day.”

Proclaiming itself the world’s first cupcake bakery, Sprinkles opened in Beverly Hills in April 2005, putting it on the leading edge of this icing avalanche. Nelson already has stores across the country and more planned for New York; Chicago; Washington, D.C.  — and maybe even London and Tokyo.

But there’s a bicoastal cupcake showdown brewing.

In Los Angeles, on the corner of Orlando and 3rdstreets,in a space formerly used by a dry cleaner, signs in the window announce “Magnolia Bakery, New York, coming soon.” Magnolia has sold a variety of baked goods since opening in 1996, but cupcakes are what put it on the map, thanks to mentions on HBO’s “Sex and the City.” So popular are its cupcakes at the original store on Bleecker Street that each customer is limited to an even dozen — a policy into which I ran headlong in 2004 when I needed 18 for a birthday party. Nothing would make the store sell me an extra half dozen. I had to walk down the street to another bakery, which gladly filled my order.

I recently walked up and down 3rd Street in Los Angeles, near where Magnolia will move in early next year. The recession has taken its toll on this popular shopping area: It is dotted with shuttered storefronts with large “For Lease” signs. This same block is where the recently closed and much-missed Cook’s Library bookstore was. Across the street is the family-run gourmet shop-deli-bakery Joan’s on Third. “I can’t imagine Joan [McNamara, the owner of Joan’s on Third] can be very happy,” says the man behind the counter at Blanche, a neighboring housewares boutique. “But it will be good if it brings more people to the neighborhood because business is slow for all of us.”

Still, it’s not as if Los Angeles has a cupcake shortage — especially with Sprinkles just a few miles west. So what is it Magnolia brings to the fight? Fresh baked-on-premises, says Abrams. “Everyone will enjoy the visual ‘theater’ and delicious aromas that are part of the Magnolia experience. … For a city that expects fresh, high quality food, our concept is a perfect fit,” she says. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve carefully expanded our array of specialty cupcakes and they are amazing! But, Magnolia’s Classic vanilla and chocolate cupcakes, iced with our iconic pastel butter-cream frosting with that recognizable swirl are the real stars everyone’s been waiting to see and bite into.”

Sprinkes cupcakes have a trademarked candy disk atop the icing -- a distinction that led to legal action. Photo by Lucy Lean

Sprinkes cupcakes have a trademarked candy disk atop the icing
— a distinction that led to legal action. Photo by Lucy Lean

I asked Sprinkles’ Nelson what he thought about Magnolia’s arrival on his home turf, and he was very politic. “There have been 12 to 15 new bakeries that have opened in Los Angeles the last nearly five years. I think it’s a large town with a lot of people and so we welcome anyone who wants to come to L.A. and sell baked goods. We wish them the best. We are going to be opening up in New York probably by the end of next year, so we’ll end up being neighbors on both coasts. We’ll become BFFs!”

This best-friends-forever attitude has its charm, but underneath this sugary exterior these businesses are fierce about protecting their intellectual property. Sprinkles has sued several times and sent letters to a dozen bakeries around the country asking them to cease copying the Sprinkles brand. Last year Sprinkles sued Modern Cupcakes of North Hollywood for copying its trademarked candy disk that tops each cupcake and then turned its lawyers on a new bakery in Montecito, Calif., called Sprinkled Pink Cupcake Couture. It changed its name to Whodidily. (Interestingly, both Candace Nelson, wife of Charles Nelson and co-owner of Sprinkles, and Wendy Jones of Whodidily will appear on the Food Network’s upcoming series, the aptly titled “Cupcake Wars” — Nelson as a judge and Jones as a contestant.)

The 1990s cupcake wars in New York were the stuff of legend. The Magnolia Bakery founders and high school friends Allysa Torey and Jennifer Appel fell out, dissolved the partnership and their friendship went with it. Appel moved on to start the Buttercup Bake Shop. An ex-manager of Magnolia opened Billy’s Bakery. Then Peggy Williams, who had left Magnolia to work at Buttercup with Appel, opened Sugar Sweet Sunshine on the Lower East Side. Other ex-employees of Buttercup started The Little Cupcake Bakeshop in Brooklyn only to be sued by Buttercup: They had signed a confidentiality agreement Buttercup instituted in the wake of Williams’ departure. Torey eventually sold Magnolia to Tyra and Steve Abrams in 2007. Given such drama, it’s surprising it took Food Network so long to launch a reality show.

Cupcakes go mobile. Photo courtesy of Sprinkles.

Cupcakes go mobile. Photo courtesy of Sprinkles.

Sprinkles, continuing to drive the zeitgeist, launched a cupcake food truck, two years in the planning. The customized Mercedes Sprinter, painted chocolate brown with frosted red-and-white hubcaps, delivers cupcakes to studio lots, special events and neighborhoods far from their Beverly Hills and Newport Beach stores.

Like others’ mobile food fleet, you can follow Sprinkles and its truck on Twitter, complete with a daily word to whisper to get a free cupcake. Recently, the truck has been at UCLA, USC and various studio lots as part of the store’s October charity drive: All proceeds from the sale of its special strawberry cupcake, the Sprinkles’ Pink Ribbon cupcake, will be donated to the Entertainment Industry Foundation’s Women’s Cancer Research Fund.

For the moment, Sprinkles seems to have the only cupcake cater-craft trolling Los Angeles, but that won’t be the case for long. The proprietors of New York’s Cupcake Stop truck are looking to expand into other markets. Babycakes NYC, another East Coast bakery, plans to launch a truck from its forthcoming storefront in downtown Los Angeles. With the food-truck competition building, it’s only a matter of time before one food truck sues another — and my bet is that the cupcake trucks will be first.

In the meantime here’s a recipe to bake cupcakes from scratch — useful to that ever-shrinking population that remains remote from a cupcake bakery or truck.

Sprinkles Spice Cupcakes
with Cream Cheese Frosting

Courtesy of Candace Nelson of Sprinkles
Makes one dozen cupcakes

Ingredients

  • 1½  cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ⅛ teaspoon ginger
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick butter
  • ⅓ cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • ¼ cup unsulfured molasses
  • ½ cup milk

Directions

  1. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, the baking soda, the spices and salt.
  2. In another bowl, combine the molasses and milk.
  3. With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and the granulated sugar, beat in the eggs, and beat in the flour mixture alternately with the molasses mixture, beating well after each addition.
  4. Divide the batter among 12 paper-lined cupcake tin and bake the cupcakes in the middle of a preheated 350 F oven for about 20 minutes, or until it springs back when lightly touched.
  5. Turn the cupcakes out onto a rack and let them cool completely.


Sprinkles Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces cold cream cheese
  • 4 ounces unsalted butter, still firm but not cold
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • ¾ pound + 2 tablespoons powdered sugar, sifted
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla
  • If you like, add eggnog to taste

Directions

  1. Blend cream cheese, butter and salt until smooth and creamy.
  2. With mixer on low, gradually add powdered sugar until incorporated.
  3. Gradually add vanilla (and eggnog), and mix just until incorporated. Do not over-mix or mix on high speed because it will incorporate too much air. The frosting consistency should be creamy and dense, like ice cream.

 

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