When getting ready to finish reading Blood Bones and Butter the other night, I got to thinking about the idea of a celebrity chef. I was deep in the part when Hamilton is spending a full month in southern Italy with her husband’s family. With the written admissions that her marriage doesn't ever quite fit and after some previous poking around online, I know they end up less than together. So the whole time I’m reading about how much she loves being a part of the Fuortes family I am wondering if at the moment I was thinking about it she is gearing up for a month long vacation with her 2 sons to visit their paternal relatives in Italy- leaving Prune in the hands of her chefs and staff.
This got me thinking about what happens when a chef transitions from an executive chef or restaurant owner into celebrity. It is the very fact that they made amazing dishes to put a restaurant, and then their name, on the map in the first place, but then as their celebrity grows and the demand for their appearances at events, book signings, on television, etc, grows equally, they are cooking in a restaurant less and less. Some celebrity chefs, mostly TV chefs and now some bloggers and food writers, were never really known for restaurant cooking; like Ina Garten and Giada DeLaurentiis. But what sense does it make that the more celebrity that is demanded of a restaurant chef, the less cooking they actually do? The celebrity turns into more restaurants, which in turn makes it impossible for them to ever cook at all the places under their name, and more books, which requires time to write outside of the kitchen in that limited amount between closing after the dinner shift and opening for prep the next day.
The one obvious exception to this rule is Chef Ludo Lefebvre, King of the Pop-Ups. Chef Ludo even uses the term “pop-up” differently from any other chef. A pop-up for him is a once in a lifetime restaurant experience, not a supplement to an already successful restaurant or brand (like Martha Stewart’s “Pies & Tarts Pop-Up” to promote her most recent book). Chef Ludo began doing a pop-up style restaurant to allow himself the freedom to wear multiple hats, do what he wants, when he wants, and not have to give in to the grueling constant of owning a restaurant or the cult of celebrity to a job he would no longer be doing. Ludobites is a new experience in each installment—and Chef Ludo is present every night. You can see him in the kitchen, he will come out to your table and talk to you, he is cooking your food.
One might want to argue that the LudoTruck is a brand of Chef Ludo’s celebrity and that he does not work on the truck every day. For me this is different than a full-blown restaurant experience. Food trucks offer a limited menu and in the case of the Ludo Fried Chicken Truck, that menu was created by Chef Ludo and is adjusted by him. It is not a restaurant where his name is all over, but the executive chef creating the nightly menu is someone different. And yes, you might argue that a second LFC outlet will be opening in LAX and Chef Ludo will not be cooking there—but it will be the same idea; a menu taught to the employees, created by Lefebvre. He is constantly reiterating the fact that he wants to cook for people, he wants to be the one feeding them. His celebrity does not stray from what earned him recognition.
In Albany I was involved in the low-grade celebrity chef scene throughout high school. I worked for a fine dining restaurant as a busser. Before I started working there I remember the first time I went for an early dinner with my mom. At the time my brother was working for the restaurant already so we were going to see him at work and enjoy a nice meal. The chef/owner of the restaurant also had a television show locally on a network station. I used to watch the show and found the chef somewhat charming and was a little star struck when I met him the first time. Shortly after that first introduction I started working bussing tables for the place. I would always have diners asking if the chef was working, if the chef could come out to say hello, if the chef could take a photo with their group. The answer was usually, no, he is not in tonight. In the couple years I worked at the restaurant he probably worked the line less than five times. If he was at the restaurant he was in the office, if he was in the office he was largely unavailable to customers and the kitchen. When I picture him I see a man in a cashmere sweater, not in a sauce stained chef’s jacket, working a dinner shift.
My writing this is simply a means of taking a step back from the Hollywood-side of the food scene and trying to view what’s going on as it happens. If we are keeping our celebrity chefs so busy out of the kitchen—restaurant or otherwise—are they really the ones who deserve all the credit? Are we over looking those who are actually executing all those Michelin-starred, Zagat-rated memorable dishes? Chef Ludo is staying true to himself now as he embarks on a country-wide adventure called LudoBites America. While he is literally out travelling the USA there is no restaurant in LA being run by his sous chefs. He is taking his food with him and bringing it to different states and different people. He is a proponent of cooking, of innovation and creating dishes that are truly his own. I have faith that his ideals will never change and look forward to every new idea he will come up with next.
Follow Chef Ludo on Twitter: @chefludo
Follow "Chef" Krissy, his wife: @FrenchChefWife
Watch LudoBites America on Sundance Channel starting July 19th
Get a reservation for the 7th installment of LudoBites this August: Reservations can be made starting July 14th