Chefs of the Future! This is the third of a three-part series examining how restaurants may work in the years to come.
Ludo Lefebvre has plenty of admirers. Jonathan Gold, the country's most respected restaurant critic, is a fan. So are millions of Top Chef: Masters devotees, who find the tattooed young French chef either downright dreamy or totally insufferable or both. He has won Mobile 5-Star awards at two previous restaurants. And his current eatery, Ludo Bites, is one of the most popular and in-demand in Los Angeles.
There's only one problem. The restaurant doesn't exist.
At least, not in the way we tend to think of restaurants. There's no phone number, no fixed address, no Zagat entry. Ludo Bites is a roving entity: when its next location is announced usually via e-mail first (there are 3,000 or so people on the list) and then on Facebook and Twitter within seven hours, all reservations are snapped up at the place Ludo Bites will be occupying for the next several weeks.
Of all the chefs who are pushing the limits of dining in America, Ludo may be the one most entitled to be called Chef of the Future. He serves wildly original, French-influenced food, but it's his business model that might be the template other young toques follow. After leaving his previous kitchen, Bastide, in 2006, Lefebvre considered opening a bistro, but even that costs a small fortune now, with all the construction and design, not to mention rent, which remains sky-high despite the recession. "I thought to myself, Why can't I rent a restaurant the way I rent a house?," he remembers. "I don't have to do a major change, I don't have to invest in equipment, build out and renovate ... I'll just put some rooster signs in the window and start cooking."
So that's what he has done. Typically, a Ludo Bites dinner is BYOB and costs less than $50. "The prices would have to be 35% higher if we had our own place," he says. There are about 18 dishes on the menu. A typical one might include traditional boudin noir terrine, fried liquid foie gras, fish and chips and lacquered pork belly with mustard ice cream. Lefebvre's ability to dazzle with his cooking has never been in question. His ability to produce it in tiny restaurants, which, in some cases, lack even something as basic as a walk-in freezer, might be. (Ludo Bites typically partners with places that serve breakfast and lunch and are usually empty at night.) Any given night at Ludo Bites resembles a Top Chef challenge: quickly turn out mind-blowing haute cuisine with minimal staff and a crappy oven you've never used before. He does all the ordering and the prep and oversees and cooks the entire dinner service, with four staffers and whatever culinary students he can conscript. There's no way he can produce the same food he did at his acclaimed tablecloth restaurants, which he freely admits: "I was driving a Rolls-Royce. Now I'm driving a Hyundai, but I like it."
But the hassle has a big upside, in the form of flexibility, creative license and the ability to turn on a dime as he sees fit. "I have my freedom. No owner can control me. This is the real Ludo. I can do what I want. I love it," he says. In fact, the Ludo Bites model is the epitome of the 21st century marketplace, where the chef, not the restaurant, is the name of the game, and where novelty (not to mention news value) counts far more than musty testaments to past greatness. (There's nothing more irrelevant than a 10-year-old review on a wall.)