The Fork in the Road: Clare Smyth

In the latest of a series of interviews with top chefs for The Caterer, in which I examine the turning points that led them on their path to success, Clare Smyth talks about her journey to becoming the UK’s first three-Michelin-starred female chef

7718153Things happen by chance, and it just so happened that when I was 14 and working at a local restaurant in Northern Ireland, my head chef gave me a book on classical sauces. It was this book that ignited my interest in reading about fine food. It spurred me on to read more and more cookbooks and ultimately led me on my path to becoming a chef.

The very first cookbook I bought for myself was Anton Mosimann’s Cuisine à la Carte. From there I went on to read the Roux brothers and the more I read, the more I came to understand what fine dining was. That really inspired me and made me realise I wanted to be a chef at the top level.

As soon as I left school, I went to England to go to Highbury College in Portsmouth. I got an apprenticeship and worked four days a week at Grayshott Health Spa in Surrey. I was lucky enough to have a great mentor there and I remember him being really surprised by my knowledge given my young age. But everything I knew, I had learned from books.

After working at Bibendum and the St Enodoc hotel in Rock, Cornwall, for a while, I decided to go Australia for six months and did a number of stages at restaurants around Sydney. When I returned to the UK, I knew I wanted to get into a top kitchen. I applied for positions at most of the two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants and did trials at the Fat Duck, the Waterside Inn, Le Gavroche and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, which had just got its third star. I knew from the moment I set foot in the kitchen that it was the place for me. I felt like I belonged right from the start.

It was by far the toughest kitchen I had ever been in. Gordon was there every day and the standards were incredibly high. It was like a military operation and almost like boot camp; you were either good enough or you weren’t. But I had expected it to be hard and that’s why I went there: I wanted to learn from the best. I loved the discipline; there was an energy about it that was just incredible and I knew that if I could handle it and thrive in this tough environment, I would be good enough to make it one day.

WORKING WITH ALAIN DUCASSE
After three-and-a-half years and working my way up from demi chef de partie to senior sous chef, I decided that I wanted to go and work in another three-star kitchen. One of the chefs I had always been drawn to was Thomas Keller, so I went to the US and did stages at Per Se and the French Laundry in 2004. After that, I knew I had to go and work with Alain Ducasse and I managed to beg my way into the kitchen at Le Louis XV in Monaco.

Working at Louis XV was the second biggest turning point in my career. Again, right from the moment I arrived, I knew it was where I was meant to be. I stayed for 18 months and it was an amazing place to work and a completely different environment from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. The head chef, Franck Cerutti, was a really happy, gentle soul who would come into the kitchen every day with a big smile on his face. He was as passionate as Gordon during service – especially when something went wrong – but he was just a totally different spirit and very much himself all the time.

The brigade was much bigger, with 26 chefs, but we were like a big family and I’m still in touch with many of the chefs I worked with back then. The produce was phenomenal and some of the finest I have ever worked with to this day. And while the cooking was very, very classical in its roots and most things were cooked à la minute, the simplicity but precision of the cooking, coupled with the passion for the product, was simply incredible.

7718152RETURNING TO LONDON
When Alain opened his restaurant at the Dorchester in London, he offered me the position of executive sous chef. But at the same time, Gordon was opening his restaurant in Paris and asked me to come back to Royal Hospital Road as head chef. It was a difficult decision to make, but I knew I had to take the head chef position with Gordon – it was too good an opportunity to pass on. Alain was very angry when I told him and I remember feeling down about having upset the best chef in the world. But then one of the other chefs said: “You’ve just been offered jobs by two of the best chefs in the world – you have nothing to be down about!”

Until I started at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, I didn’t quite understand what would happen and the amount of pressure I would find myself under. I was the first woman in the UK to head up a three-Michelin-starred kitchen, so there was a lot of interest from the media. I knew there was also a chance I could be the first woman in the UK to lose three stars. I was never really confident about retaining the stars and it was something I was very nervous about for a long time.

I didn’t take holiday for the first two years, as I was so determined to make sure that every single plate of food that left the pass was right. It wasn’t until a few years after retaining the three stars that I started to feel comfortable. I slowly managed to find the confidence to put my own touch on the restaurant, to make changes and evolve things. When I became chef-patron in 2012, I began to feel like I could own the three stars.

Now, after eight years at the helm, I feel like I have done most things I could have done. I have been awarded an MBE, received five AA rosettes, three Michelin stars, won Chef of the Year and achieved 10/10 in the Good Food Guide. But on a personal level, I have a lot more I want to achieve. That’s why I am opening my own restaurant.

The Chef Shortage Facing the US Hospitality Industry

In my latest feature for The Staff Canteen, I speak to two of Los Angeles’ top chefs about the chef shortage facing the US hospitality industry.

The topic of the skills shortage is hotting up both sides of the Atlantic. Even the USA’s finest restaurants complain that hiring has become incredibly difficult and there’s no solution in sight. It’s not just one single problem that’s to blame but a mélange of issues that are conspiring to put the industry at a crisis. Too many restaurants are opening and there aren’t enough people to work in them; pay is poor and the wage discrepancy between front- and back-of-house staff is putting people off working in kitchens. And then there’s the generation of those entitled millenials, who demand instant success and refuse to work their way up from the bottom. I spoke to two of Los Angeles’ top chefs about how the chef shortage is affecting their businesses, why they think they’re having to face this crisis in the first place and what they’re doing to overcome it.

Timothy_HollingsworthTimothy Hollingsworth is the chef proprietor of Otium, a new restaurant in Downtown that is redefining Los Angeles’ dining scene. The former chef de cuisine of the French Laundry, James Beard Award winner and erstwhile Bocuse d’Or competitor says laws and attitudes need to change for the industry to overcome the chef shortage.

Josiah Citrin, chef patron of the two-Michelin-starred Mélisse in Santa Monica, meanwhile, says the skills shortage is nothing new. But the constant flow of information that is available on the internet coupled with a new generation lacking the determination to go through the ranks is making it worse.

Why do you think there is a chef shortage and skills crisis facing the hospitality industry?
Timothy Hollingsworth: I think it’s mainly because there is a change in people, with the millennials, who are very conscious of how they spend their time and how much they want to work. The old school mentality of working your way up for years, putting in extra hours and staging for free is gone now. I think I was the last of that generation. I was so passionate about what I do and so determined to succeed that I wanted to learn as much as possible and that meant that I was prepared to work as hard as I could even for free. That mind-set is gone now.

Josiah Citrin: I wouldn’t say there’s a chef shortage but rather a cook shortage. A cook and a chef are two very different things and there aren’t enough cooks for all the restaurants that are opening. Businesses are expanding so fast and there are more restaurants opening than people want to become cooks. This generation of people doesn’t want to work their way up from the bottom – they’re not interested in putting the time in and learning the trade, they want to go straight to being a chef and get to the top. People are more interested in promoting themselves online than they are in working They’re obsessed with celebrity but not the craft of cooking.

How have things changed from an industry point of view?
TH: Now there are a lot of labour restrictions that the industry has to deal with. Restaurants get in trouble for people working too many hours, minimum wage keeps going up and it’s much harder to maintain that same kind of work ethic. Even for the people who do want to work hard and perfect their skills, it’s more difficult because of all these laws and regulations. And then there’s the whole idea of the celebrity chef. People have this perception that being a chef is this amazing, creative, inspirational job when the reality is that – in addition to all those things – it is also an awful lot of hard work and a craft and art that you have to spend years to learn. You don’t just wake up one day and know how to make a dish. It takes a long time to develop those skills. What is lacking in cooks in the USA today is that foundation.

Josiah Citrin_CharlesParkJC: Everything is online and available all the time. Recipes are there for anyone to see and pictures of dishes are all over Instagram with way more emphasis on looks than flavour. You can see anything you want online, it’s all there – you don’t have to work with anyone, you don’t have to travel, you can do it all sitting behind your computer. People used to have to work with chefs at different restaurants, come up the ranks and learn their craft, now they just look online and think they can figure it all out that way.

How is it affecting things at your business?
TH: It’s difficult to train staff. We have to look at things in a very different way –it’s a different time and we have to adapt to it. I am responsible for the people who work for me, I’m responsible not just for their livelihood but also for their development. When they leave my restaurant they have my name on them and that has to mean something. It’s my job to teach them a certain level of standards, a certain set of skills, respect for their stations and understanding of how things work in different positions. They won’t learn as much because the system is not as good as it was before. But we are making it work.

JC: It’s really hard to find good people and inspire them to stay with you. People are always coming and going and it makes things difficult. The only way around it is by investing in a system that really works so people can come in and out of it. That’s how I run my restaurants. You have a few key people who stay and the system operates by turning people in and out.

What needs to be done to address this issue?
TH: It’s not just the industry that needs to change it’s the laws. We open at 5pm for dinner and close at 11pm – that is six hours. Chefs work for eight hours so with cleaning down your station and a 30-minute break, there literally is no time to learn the fundamentals of cooking. They are learning; they’re learning how to cook and do certain things but they’re not learning how to operate in a full circle.

JC: I really don’t know what can be done. It’s very complex. But it’s nothing new.  When I started Mélisse 17 years it was tough to get cooks. It hasn’t changed and it hasn’t improved and because food is so hot right now, more and more restaurants are opening effectively making the situation worse.

El Celler de Can Roca’s ‘Cooking Up a Tribute’ to premier at the Berlin film festival

Below is the trailer to ‘Cooking Up a Tribute’, a documentary film showcasing brothers Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca, owners of the three-Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, and their decision to close their restaurant for five weeks and go on a road tour.

Directed by Luis González, the film recounts a tour which last summer travelled to six cities – Houston, Dallas, Mexico City, Monterrey, Bogotá and Lima – in four countries in the Americas to prepare nearly 50,000 dishes for more than 2,700 people. Up to 56 new and different dishes were created and adapted to Texan, Mexican, Colombian and Peruvian cuisine. Some 200 ingredients and 29 wines were used for each menu in each country.

In addition, the Roca brothers trained more than 7,000 cooking students and selected 13 of them to receive a training scholarship at the kitchen of El Celler de Can Roca, which is currently ranked number two in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

Joan Roca said: “For us, this crazy decision has meant weighing the anchor of our restaurant for the first time in search of the mild weather of the South and making our dreams come true in real gastronomic paradises. We have enjoyed an extraordinary professional and personal experience, which has been intellectually rewarding and allowed us to grow as a team.”

Josep Roca added: “This tour has been a real challenge, a bold decision, an act of courage draped in responsibility and code of ethics. An opportunity to continue to learn, seek inspiration and be true to the training we have received and we can share with so many catering students in the places we visited,” explained Josep Roca.

And Jordi Roca said: “With enthusiasm, willingness to learn and much modesty, and above all, as a professional and personal challenge, we have taken our entire team to another continent. Latin America has a dream store cupboard of fruit, spices and, obviously, the best cocoa in the world. It’s been a real inspiration.”

‘Cooking Up a Tribute’, produced by BBVA will premier at the Berlin International Film Festival on 10 February.

Chef Profile: Dominique Crenn

This is an extract from an article I wrote for the first US edition of FOUR – The World’s Best Food Magazine. You can read the full version by visiting four-magazine.com.

On Dominique Crenn’s right forearm is a tattoo of a young girl gazing up at a winged piglet swooping past her flowing hair. “Pigs can fly,” the chef explains, giving the proverb a French twist. “It’s a reminder that you can do anything you want in life. Anything is possible.”

Dominique – beautiful, tall, and slender, with pixie-like hair, large, dark eyes rimmed in kohl, and a natural feminine elegance about her – is sitting in the dining room of her San Francisco restaurant, Atelier Crenn. Since opening the space in 2011, she has become synonymous with her innovative and deeply personal style of modernist cuisine, which has not only won her numerous accolades, including Iron Chef USA, Esquire and Eater’s Chef of the Year, but has also seen her become the first and only woman in the USA to be awarded two Michelin stars.

Dominique’s food is a personal rendition of her memories and feelings, her love of nature, and her consciousness of the environment. Imaginative, fiercely seasonal, and sustainable, her tasting menus are a showcase for her creativity, which takes diners on an unapologetically emotional journey through flavors, textures, and scents. “We think of an experience, a memory or emotion, and try to recreate that with our food,” she says.

Walk in the Forest A case in point is her signature dish, ‘Walking Deep Inside The Woods.’ Inspired by childhood walks through the forest with her father, it comprises a lightly burnt pine meringue, edible soil made from basil and pumpernickel, a variety of wild mushrooms – sautéed, puréed, pickled, and dehydrated – as well as hazelnut praline and foraged herbs. Through robust, yet delicate, flavors and textures, the artistic plate evokes the sense of the forest, its dampness, earthiness, and sweetness, transporting the diner deep into the woods. “It’s sweet and savory, that’s what life is about,” she adds.

Growing up in France, Dominique was raised between the “luxury of Versailles” and the “ruralness of Brittany” by her adoptive parents, who introduced her to the joys of fine food at a very young age. While her mother taught her the secrets of rustic home cooking, her father, a prominent politician, took her to some of the country’s top restaurants when dining out with his best friend, Albert Coquil, a famous French food critic. “I had my first tasting menu when I was eight or nine years old and I loved it,” she recalls. “I decided then that I wanted to be a chef.”

After graduating from university in Paris with a degree in economics and international business, Dominique moved to the USA in 1988 to follow her dream away from the ‘old school’ ways of French kitchens. She first trained at the Stars restaurant under the tutelage of celebrated San Francisco chef, Jeremiah Tower, whom she credits with making her the chef she is today. “His philosophy was very much in line with what I thought a kitchen should be. He was about sourcing the best ingredients and creativity but also about involving his team in the process.”

Following stints at restaurants including Campton Place, 2223 Restaurant, the Park Hyatt Grill, and becoming executive chef at Yoyo Bistro at the Miyako Hotel, she moved to Indonesia in 1997, to become the country’s first female executive chef at the InterContinental Hotel Jakarta, where she headed up an all-female brigade. However, after less than a year, her stay was cut short by the country’s political unrest.

Dominique returned to California in 1998, working at the Manhattan Country Club in Manhattan Beach for eight years, and then at Abode in Santa Monica, before returning to San Francisco in 2007 to head up Luce at the InterContinental Hotel, where she gained her first Michelin star in 2009. Although she had the freedom to cook her own food, pushing boundaries by combining classic European ideas with modern techniques, she felt that her hands were tied in the corporate environment of a hotel restaurant.

The decision to go out on her own came after a life changing moment in 2009, when a freak accident nearly ended Dominique’s life. “I fell in my bathtub and almost sliced through a main artery in my leg,” she reveals. It was then that she got her tattoo and really started to take her career into her own hands. “I decided to open my own place, a place that would be more than just a restaurant. It would be my house, my living room, a place where I wouldn’t do what was expected, but where I would do my thing.”

She opened Atelier Crenn as a homage to her father, who passed away in 1999. Modeled on the studio he painted in and showing some of his works on the walls, it is a workshop of the culinary arts, a modest, homely space where diners come to share the chef’s personal creative expression. The restaurant is small and intimate, seating just 40 people, with a formal yet relaxed atmosphere, no tablecloths and an open door into the recently renovated kitchen. Her cuisine, entitled Poetic Culinaria as her menus are written like poems, brings together the ethos of farm-to-table cooking, as she works directly with her producers, as well as international influences inspired by her travels, and contemporary cooking methods, which have seen her food described as molecular gastronomy. “I hate that term,” she snubs, however, refusing to be pigeonholed. “I don’t believe in perfection, I believe in evolution and with that in mind I have to embrace new techniques. But I’m not a molecular chef.”

Molecular or not, Dominique’s inventive menus tell stories and a dinner at Atelier Crenn is nothing less than a truly memorable experience. Throughout the night, she racefully moves in between kitchen and dining room, greeting customers and guiding them through the journey of her menus, which comprise a parade of beautiful, tiny dishes that not only please the eye and entice the palate, but also provoke the mind.

As a woman who has succeeded in a very male-dominated industry, Dominique is unsure why there aren’t more female chefs cooking at her level. “There are some amazingly talented female chefs in this country, who are much better cooks than me,” she says. “But I don’t know why they haven’t gone the way I have gone.” She adds that chefs of a certain status have a responsibility to encourage women in the kitchen. “But I have to be careful, because I don’t want to be drawn into the gender bias. I don’t want people to look at me as female or male; I just want them to appreciate what I do.”

Looking ahead, Dominique is hoping to publish her first book, which “won’t be just another coffee table book with pretty pictures, but something that will raise issues and inspire dialogue.” She softly hints at a project on the East Coast as well as a second San Francisco restaurant, a space that will bring together the community, “that’ll be a restaurant but not a restaurant, a home but not a home, with croissants, cocktails, art, books, music—something that has never been done before.”

With so much happening, however, Dominique remains grounded and focused on keeping Atelier Crenn constantly evolving. The final question remains: Will she make history as the first woman outside Europe to gain three Michelin stars? “I think it’s possible,” she smiles, looking at her tattoo.

Follow Dominique on Twitter @dominiquecrenn and @ateliercrenn

Where to eat out in Nashville

Nashville may be most famous for being the hometown of country music but beyond a music mecca, it is also a fabulous food destination, with a thriving restaurant scene. I spent two nights in Nashville and didn’t have a bad meal. Here are my highlights.

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lockelandtableDinner at Lockeland Table 
Dining at this East Nashville neighbourhood restaurant feels a bit like eating in the home of a good friend. But don’t let the cosy interiors and laid back atmosphere fool you: chef-owner Hal M. Holden-Bache’s high-end comfort food far exceeds even the most accomplished home cooking and landed Lockeland Table a nomination for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant Award in 2013. The distinctly Southern-accented menu is both rustic and refined. Dishes like chicken liver pate in a jar made with Benton’s bacon fat and served with peach preserves and grilled Tuscan bread ($9.50); or rack of lamb with fingerling potato-bacon-and-kale hash, kale, pickled grape and feta salad, and kale verde ($27). There are also wood fired pizzas like the Pig – Italian crushed tomato, homemade sausage, pancetta, pepperoni, ham, home-smoked mozzarella and pepperoncini ($14), and the peach cobbler dessert with ice cream ($7) was about as delicious and comforting as it gets. Portions are massive so don’t over-order.
1520 Woodland St, Nashville
+1 615 228 4864
lockelandtable.com

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Pinewood SocialBrunch at Pinewood Social
This stylish new all-day restaurant is housed in an expansive 13,000-square-foot former trolley barn with soaring ceilings and exposed-brick walls near the Cumberland River overlooking Downtown Nashville. Customers can hit the bowling alley, pick up a brew at the Crema coffee stand or indulge in the reinvented American fare from culinary director Josh Habiger. The mouthwatering breakfast menu features the likes of Reuben benedict, with corned-beef tongue, sauerkraut, poached egg and thousand-island dressing on rye ($13); smoked trout omelet  filled with cream cheese, capers, sprouts, dill and green onion ($12); and the heavenly fluffy buckwheat waffles with apple butter ($9). Later this summer, a pool, Airstream pool bar and bocce court are set to open at Pinewood.
33 Peabody St, Nashville
+1 615 751 8111
pinewoodsocial.com

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merchantsDinner at Merchants
Occupying a restored brick building amid the bars of lower Broadway, this restaurant once housed the Merchants Hotel, built in 1892. Many of the original features remain: fireplaces, wainscoting and custom sconces, giving s sense of history right in the heart of Downtown Nashville. Spread over two storeys, the second floor features a formal dining room with hardwood floors, brick walls, and ceiling fans and a menu of traditional meats: roasted chicken, pork, yellowfin tuna, steak and short ribs. Meanwhile on the ground floor, the bistro serves burgers, salads, and sandwiches next to creative, contemporary takes on comfort food favourites such as fried green tomatoes with spicy pepper jam and house pimento cheese ($9); or chicken fried chicken with smashed yukons , garlic studded spinach and country gravy ($18). The chocolate cake for dessert was big enough to defy four of us.
401 Broadway, Downtown, Nashville
+1 615 254 1892
merchantsrestaurant.com

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Loveless CafeBrunch at Loveless Café
A 30-minute drive southwest of Nashville towards Memphis, Loveless Café is where you head for the full-on Southern comfort-food experience. Founded in 1951 by Lon and Annie Loveless and more recently synonymous with the late Carol Fay, aka the “Biscuit Lady”, it’s renowned for its country breakfasts. The famous biscuits are served with homemade preserves but beyond these are Southern classics like fried chicken and catfish. The signature country ham – house-cured to be outside of refrigeration for up to 90 days – has a salty kick that compliments fried eggs to perfection, while other staples include three-egg omelets; pancakes with bacon; fried catfish and smoked boneless pork chops. And before hitting the road, stop at the store for a few take-home jam, ham or biscuit mix.
8400 Highway 100
Nashville
+1 646 9700
lovelesscafe.com

Beneath the Whites: Ori Menashe

Ori Menashe by Sierra Prescott

Ori Menashe is the chef-owner of Bestia, one of Los Angeles’ most celebrated restaurants, which has won numerous awards, including Zagat’s Best Newcomer in 2014. Located in the Arts District in Downtown, he runs Bestia together with his wife, pastry chef Genevieve Gergis. The duo serve up an Italian-influenced menu of rustic dishes, with an emphasis on both seasonality and nose-to-tail cooking.


What’s your earliest food memory?

When I was 14, we went on a family holiday to Switzerland and when we crossed the border to Italy we went to this farm for lunch, where we I had a mushroom pizza that was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted. Back in Israel or the US, where I grew up, I got so used to Pizza Hut or Dominoes, I had no idea that pizza could taste so good. It was that moment that I was first drawn to Italian food.

What’s your favourite smell?
The smell of my wife.

What’s your idea of comfort food?
A Georgian dish called Hingali, which my grandmother used to make. It’s a dumpling made with ground beef, lots of black pepper and garlic and it goes really well with vodka.

What’s your favourite cookbook and why?
Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. It really made me understand the process of bread making, which I now love.

What do you never cook without?
Olive oil.

What’s the worst thing people can do to food?
Overcook it.

What’s the worst thing that’s ever gone wrong during service?
We had a fire in the kitchen at Bestia, when the hood of the wood fired oven caught light. It stank the whole restaurant out and we had to throw all the food away and close the restaurant for a day. We had so many angry customers after that who had lost their reservation. We had to push the next night’s service to 450 covers, which was really stressful, and send out loads of free food to make it up to everyone.

When are you happiest?
I’m really happy right now. I almost gave up cooking a few years ago because I felt like I was going to burn out. I took a break and went travelling and rediscovered my love of cooking and I’m so happy to be where I am right now.

What makes you sad?
I don’t get to spend enough time with my wife.

What do you most dislike about yourself?
I’m never 100% satisfied with what I do. In some ways that’s a good thing because it pushes me to always get better but in some ways it’s also a bad thing because when something goes wrong during service it really affects me in a bad way.

What would your superpower be?
Mind reading.

What’s the most disgusting or weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I once ate a wild crow, which my friends and I shot while we were out hunting. It had a funky taste to it but it wasn’t terrible. I’d definitely have it again.

Where did you have your best meal this year?
Toturaku in Los Angeles. It’s a restaurant you have to be invited to and they only serve 20 people at a time. They specialise in all this raw meat and it’s the most unusual but amazing place. It’s a really great experience and totally different to anywhere else in LA.

If there was one restaurant you wish you’d opened, which would it be?
There is a restaurant called Diana in Nazareth in Israel, which does exactly the kind of simple Middle Eastern food I love. If ever I wanted to take a step back from life, I’d love to run or even just work there.

Follow Ori Menashe on Twitter @bestiaDTLA

Chef profile: Ludo Lefebvre

This is an extract from an article I wrote for The Caterer. You can read the full version by visiting thecaterer.com

Displaying ludo8small.jpg

Ludo Lefebvre is pretty badass. With his full-sleeve tattoos, pierced ears, scruffy facial hair and sly smile, he epitomises the rock ‘n’ roll chef. But the surly exterior is misleading and underneath he’s surprisingly mellow, easy to talk to, honest and fun.

He doesn’t hold back, doesn’t care too much about saying the wrong thing and, refreshingly, doesn’t take himself too seriously either. There’s no trail of emails from his publicist demanding questions in advance, there’s nothing he refuses to discuss, and we’re given a generous four hours for the interview and photo shoot – an eternity in Los Angeles celebrity terms.

We meet at Trois Mec, his restaurant in Hollywood that has taken LA by storm. Voted by Zagat as one of the 10 hottest restaurants in the world right now, it may be a far cry from the temples of haute cuisine Lefebvre grew up with, but by breaking all the rules of what a high-end restaurant should be, it is right at the forefront of a new movement of fine dining that is redefining LA’s restaurant scene.

Trois Mec, French for three dudes, opened last April in collaboration with Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, two of the LA restaurant community’s biggest names, who together run Animal and Son of a Gun. Trois Mec is a mainstream restaurant with the sense of a secret underground supper club. Hidden away in an inconspicuous strip mall behind a petrol station, it is housed in what was previously a cheap pizza joint. The original yellow ‘Raffallo’s Pizza & Italian Foods’ sign remains, along with a piece of paper stuck to the door stating: “Closed. No more pizza”.

Once inside, however, the remnants of the past are no more and the space is modern, clean and elegant. There are just 24 seats, no tablecloths and a counter lining the open kitchen. You do not reserve a table at Trois Mec – you buy a ticket online at 8am sharp on the alternating Fridays the restaurant releases its tables. Your ticket encompasses the full price of dinner – $97 (£59) per person for a fivecourse set menu, including tax and tip. Wine is paid for on the night, with a full pairing priced at $49 (£30).

Although Trois Mec may seem like it’s trying very hard to be different and trendy, Lefebvre’s reasoning behind the concept makes complete business sense. The ticket system allows the restaurant to control costs (Angelenos are notoriously flaky, but if they’ve paid in advance they’re almost guaranteed to show up) and the strip mall location means low overheads, which allows Lefebvre to make his dinners affordable to a wide audience. “High-end restaurants are expensive and there aren’t enough people to support them. I want to be accessible – I want to cook for everybody,” he says. “Besides, high-end restaurants can be boring, too. These chefs take themselves so seriously; they’re not cooking for their customers, they’re cooking for the press, for Michelin stars. High-end restaurants are vehicles for chefs’ egos. I know that because I have been there too.”

THREE-STAR MENTORS
Lefebvre got his first job in a professional kitchen at 14 and, right from the start, spent his formative years working under some of the most renowned chefs in France. His apprenticeship was spent with Marc Meneau at his then three-Michelin-starred restaurant L’Espérance in Vézelay, Burgundy. From therehe went on to work with Pierre Gagnaire, who first encouraged him to “experiment with spices and unusual flavour combinations”. After serving in the French army as personal chef for the French minister of defence, he joined Alain Passard at L’Arpège.

“All of them were very different,” he says. “Marc Meneau was very classic, Pierre Gagnaire very modern, and Alain Passard, he was the first chef to cook vegetables. Now everyone is doing it. What I learned from all of them was the importance of consistency. Every day is a new day, but the food has to be the same – it has to be as good as the day before. Being creative is easy; being consistent is so difficult. To find the best ingredients every day and to manage your team and get the best out of them, that’s what makes a great chef.” He goes on to say that running a kitchen is much like running an army. There have to be rules in place, he insists, adding that his kitchen at Trois Mec is run in the “traditional French way”. “I am very strict. I push my chefs a lot.”

COMING TO AMERICA
Lefebvre moved to the US in 1996, when former mentor Meneau organised a job as chef de partie at L’Orangerie, one of LA’s, and indeed the country’s, most acclaimed French restaurants. “It was always my dream to live in America,” he says. Despite speaking hardly any English, he was promoted to executive chef within a year and overnight became one of LA’s most celebrated chefs, gaining a reputation for combining old world simplicity with exotic new world flavours.

“It was good and bad,” he says, suddenly looking serious. “I was only 25 and very young in my head. I had so much to learn about life, about food and about how to manage a kitchen. Being a chef is not just about cooking – it’s about being a leader and making an example. It’s about teaching your cooks how to cook. At 25 you don’t know enough about cooking to be responsible for teaching somebody else.” This was followed by two years at Bastide, another of LA’s most distinguished French restaurants, cementing Lefebvre’s status as one of the city’s top chefs after he became the only LA chef to receive the prestigious Mobil Travel Guide Five Star Award at two restaurants.

LUDO BITES
But after Bastide closed for refurbishment, Lefebvre decided not to return and famously became the chef without a restaurant, running a series of pop-ups called Ludo Bites. “The idea came from nowhere,” he shrugs.“I really wanted to buy my own restaurant but it’s very, very difficult. It was very stressful for me to find the right location. Landlords wanted to take advantage of me and everything was very expensive.”

Ludo Bites started after a friend, who owned a bakery-café called Breadbar, asked Lefebvre to help put together a dinner menu. Instead, he took over the space for three months. “It was a big risk for me because it was totally different from the froufrou, high-end restaurants I had come from. It was fun and very accessible, but it was a big challenge for me to get it right,” he says.

The pop-up was a runaway success, dubbed a “transforming moment in the Los Angeles restaurant scene” by the city’s most feared food critic Jonathan Gold. What started as a menu of simple small plates soon evolved into an elaborate chef’s tasting menu and reservations were so sought after, Ludo Bites once crashed the Open Table website. “After the success I realised that the business model was very good for me. It was just like renting an apartment,” Lefebvre says. He continued to run the pop-ups for five years, between 2007 and 2012, in nine different incarnations across LA and once in Hawaii. Ludo Bites was turned into a cookbook, a television show called Ludo Bites America, and an online series called Ludo Baby Bites. Branded the pop-up pioneer, Lefebvre became a celebrity. And after appearing on a number of TV shows, including Top Chef Masters, Hell’s Kitchen and Iron Chef America, he joined the judging panel of ABC’s culinary reality show The Taste, which premiered in the US in January 2013 and in the UK earlier this year.

REDEFINING FINE DINING
Lefebvre has said that his favourite restauant in the UK is Dabbous, and that is probably the closest thing London has to Trois Mec. Like Dabbous, Lefebvre’s food adheres to a philosophy of simplicity where the ingredient is the star of the show. Techniques and theatre happen in the kitchen, but what’s on the plate is understated, delicate, playful, interesting and, most importantly, delicious.

With Lefebvre, a simple plate of potato pulp is elevated with butter, bonito flakes, Salers cheese and onion soubise to delicious effect; a dish comprising thin slices of avocado covering crab ceviche has an intense citrus boost and added crunch from buckwheat popcorn. Service is down-to-earth but informed. Waiters seem to outnumber guests, yet the atmosphere is relaxed, with French rap music in the background. In many ways dining at Trois Mec feels like being a guest at Lefebvre’s home. “I want people to feel like they’re in my house,” he says. “Trois Mec is about hospitality, about looking after the guest. There are too many casual restaurants now and I think people want more refinement.”

Indeed, Trois Mec cleverly embraces the essence of a fine-dining restaurant and combines it with casual dining by rejecting the usual formalities. “With Trois Mec I have the freedom to do what I want,” Lefebvre adds. “Of course I would love to have a Michelin star, but I’m not living by that and I’m certainly not following their rules.” However, he does bemoan Michelin’s absence in LA (the guide discontinued its LA edition in 2009, saying there was no real food culture). “LA has changed so much and there are so many amazing restaurants here now,” he insists. “New York is all about high-end, established restaurants, but LA is all about variety and young chefs and Michelin should be here.”

Lefebvre has a point – LA’s food scene is undergoing a phenomenal awakening and Lefebvre is a driving force who has helped to move it forward. Now chefs like Ari Taymor of Alma, Miles Thompson of Allumette, Josef Centeno at Orsa & Winston and Curtis Stone at Maude are all delivering tasting menus that offer high-quality ingredients and accomplished cooking in an informal setting and at an affordable price. “A year ago nobody was doing tasting menus. Now lots of chefs in LA are doing them,” Lefebvre says. “I guess it’s nice to be copied.”

This article was first published by The Caterer. Please visit thecaterer.com to read the full version.

James Beard award winning chef Dan Barber on his book The Third Plate

“As a chef you can’t be a flavour evangelist without being an environmentalist.”

This was the message from Dan Barber, co-owner and executive chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York and author of The Third Plate – Field Notes on the Future of Food.

In conversation with Evan Kleinman, host of the KCRW radio show Good Food, which has played a central role in bringing together LA County’s food community, the James Beard award winning chef and food activist discussed his vision for a new future of sustainable eating in America.

Based on a decade of researching farming communities around the world, Barber explained how his book The Third Plate proposes a radical new way of thinking about food that is rooted in utilising the whole farm, comprising an integrated system of vegetable, grain and livestock production.

The Third PlateBarber discussed the history of American cuisine and the the traditional “first plate” way of eating, in which a large cut of meat takes centre stage. He went on to say that the farm-to-table movement has championed the “second plate” way of eating, where the meat is from free-range animals and the vegetables are locally sourced. Although undoubtedly better for the environment, the second plate philosophy too is damaging as it continues to disrupt the ecological balances of the planet, and is ultimately not a sustainable way to farm or eat.

The solution, explained Barber, lies in the “third plate”, an integrated system of vegetable, grain, and livestock production that is fully supported by what we choose to cook for dinner. The third plate is where good farming and good food intersect, he insisted.

“The farm-to-table movement needs to be flipped on its head,” Barber said. “Instead of farmers growing what they know consumers will buy, the land should dictate what they grow and thus what we eat. Our diet should be responsive to the environment and not the other way round.”

While the third plate is a novelty in America, in Old World communities this way of eating is rooted in age old tradition. Barber described his visits to the southern Spanish dehesa, a region producing high-grade olives, acorns and the world-famous Jamón Ibérico. Here a farmer has been able to produce natural foie gras as his geese feed on the abundance of the land.

“The system is so delicate and evolved, which really fascinated me,” Barber explained. “The foie gras – so incredibly delicious – is a byproduct of the overproduction of nature and ultimately of farming in the right way.”

While Kleinman failed to really interview Barber and merely got him to discuss what he’d written in his book, which to those having already read The Third Plate would have been slightly boring as there was no opportunity to ask questions, members of the audience new to his philosophy would no doubt have had a fascinating evening.

Buy The Third Plate on Amazon.

Follow Dan Barber on Twitter @DanBarber

Chef Profile: José Andrés

This is an extract from an article I wrote for FOUR – The World’s Best Food Magazine. You can read the full version by visiting four-magazine.com.

For José Andrés running a restaurant is about telling a story. “What I look for is the story that inspires the menu, the place and the experience,” José explains. “I root everything I do in a story, something authentic, which could be historical or personal, and then I have fun with it.”

A chef with a larger than life personality, an infectious laugh and a mischievous streak—he famously pushed Anthony Bourdain’s head into a crate of peaches telling him to ‘smell it’—José is one of the USA’s most celebrated chefs today. He is the country’s face of Spanish food, responsible for introducing Americans to tapas by successfully challenging their conventional ethos that anything but heaping portions would leave them unsatisfied.

Presented with the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef Award in 2011, José is a household name thanks to his numerous books and TV shows, and an impassioned food activist who considers his celebrity status a great responsibility, his growing empire of restaurants, which started with a single tapas bar in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago, now spans across the USA and Puerto Rico.

So what sets José Andrés apart? A disciple of iconic Spanish chef Ferran Adrià’s elBulli, José’s food combines tradition with the avant-garde. It showcases both the old and new of Spain’s rich gastronomic heritage by reinventing classic ideas to create innovative dishes that both educate and excite but never intimidate.

Take his Olives Two Ways, for instance. Served in two parts, it comprises a helping of traditional olives, stuffed with piquillo pepper and anchovy, as well as an entirely modern creation: translucent balls of liquefied olive that explode in the diner’s mouth. It’s a dish that not only seems simple but involves a great deal of effort and technique behind the scenes, it also perfectly illustrates José’s philosophy of marrying tradition with modernity while at the same time providing the diner with something that is fun and enjoyable. “My food is about reimagining familiar flavours to create a totally new experience,” he says. “As a chef this is my way to give you something unexpected and special.”

Growing up in Catalonia, in northern Spain, the world capital of avant-garde cuisine, José, inspired by the local food markets, decided early on in life that cooking was his destiny: “I always knew I wanted to be a chef because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.” He attended the School of Restaurants and Hotels in Barcelona and trained at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants, most notably elBulli with now best friend Adrià, whom he describes as a ‘great mentor’. “Working at elBulli was like watching the big bang happening right in front of me,” he recalls. “We learned how to think beyond the ingredients in front of us and questioned why eating could not just feed our stomach, but also our brain and senses way beyond what we feel comfortable with. It had a big impact on me.”

In 1991, José came to the USA to help launch a short-lived Spanish-owned restaurant called El Dorado Petit in New York, before moving to Washington, D.C where he opened tapas bar Jaleo, together with now long-term business partner Rob Wilder and Roberto Alvarez. At the time, Spanish cuisine had virtually no presence in the USA, with few diners able to tell a croqueta from a tortilla, never mind grasp the concept of small sharing plates. “People didn’t know about tapas and the Spanish way of eating,” José recounts. “I remember I tried to explain to someone that I was opening a tapas bar but with my accent they understood ‘topless’ bar.”

Against the odds Jaleo was an instant hit with both critics and customers, prompting Wilder and Alvarez to hire José full-time to run the kitchen of Café Atlántico, an existing Latin Caribbean restaurant. From these humble beginnings, the chef started to inspire a whole generation of diners and chefs, alike. “When we opened Jaleo I was a young kid and I didn’t realise that I had this huge responsibility in setting the stage for what Spanish cooking would be,” José admits. “It didn’t happen overnight but soon what we were doing at Jaleo others were starting to replicate not just around the city but in other parts of the country, too. Now you see small plate concepts all over the USA but back then it was very different.”

In 2003, José used some of his own money to convert a corner of Café Atlántico into Minibar, a six-seat counter serving a menu of molecular gastronomy of the school of thought of his erstwhile mentor Adrià. The move put him in an elite group of chefs serving ground breaking dishes in the USA and saw his career skyrocket: he won the James Beard Award for the Best Mid-Atlantic Chef and became the host of a popular cooking show back in Spain, before hitting TV screens back in the USA. Before long, he renegotiated terms with Wilder to essentially take over the business and began expanding, initially across the Washington, D.C., area and then beyond, offering ever-different variations on the tapas theme. Today, his ThinkFoodGroup includes 16 restaurants in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami and Puerto Rico, ranging from fine dining to a food truck, employing more than 1,000 people and generating revenues of about $100m (£62.3m).

Each of his restaurants tells a different story and through its design, atmosphere and food they offer a part of history that connects his native Spain with the rest of the world. There is Jaleo, a traditional tapas bar that is about life in Spain and José’s childhood; Zaytinya, which by serving small plates inspired by the Eastern Mediterranean, taps into the ancient history that links Spain with the Middle East; Oyamel, which specialises in antojitos, the Mexican version of tapas; and China Poblano, which showcases José’s take on Chinese and Mexican cuisines.

Meanwhile The Bazaar by José Andrés at the luxury SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills—arguably his most ambitious project—combines five venues in one: Bar Centro, with cocktails and raw bar and caviar offerings; the Patisserie with exquisite sweets under glass cloches giving a sense of a grown-up candy shop; Saam, an intimate room serving a 22-course tasting menu; and Rojo y Blanca, two separate dining spaces, one comprising a vibrant traditional tapas bar, the other a minimalist contemporary restaurant.

With such a diverse portfolio of restaurants, is there one that stands out or represents José better than others? “That’s like asking me to choose among my children,” the chef rebuffs. “But if you ask me where I go to be inspired, I’d say that’s Minibar, which is my creative nerve centre, the heart that keeps my team and me moving forward.”

This article was first published by FOUR – The World’s Best Food Magazine. You can read the full version by visiting four-magazine.com.

Beneath the Whites: Dominique Crenn

dominique crennDominique Crenn is the chef-patron of Atelier Crenn in San Francisco. Growing up in France, she moved to the USA in 1988 to work at a number of restaurants in California before making history in 1997 by becoming the first female executive chef in Indonesia. She returned to the USA and eventually opened Atelier Crenn in 2011, where she has become synonymous with her innovative and deeply personal style of modernist cuisine, which has not only won her numerous accolades, including Iron Chef USA and Esquire and Eater’s Chef of the Year, but has also seen her become the first and only woman in the USA to be awarded two Michelin stars.

What’s your earliest food memory?
Eating tomatoes in my aunt’s garden in Brittany when I was four. It was the best thing that God ever created.

What’s your favourite smell?
Lavender.

What’s your idea of comfort food?
My mum’s roasted chicken.

What’s your favourite cookbook?
The Physiology of Taste by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

What do you never cook without?
Fish sauce.

What’s the worst thing people can do to food?
Being careless. Not knowing or caring where their food comes from and not respecting the cooking process.

What’s the worst thing that’s ever gone wrong during service?
We by mistake double-charged a customer and then found out via Twitter that it was a Michelin inspector!

Have you ever kicked someone out of your restaurant?
Yes. They came into the restaurant with an attitude right from the start. They had brought this big bottle of bad Cabernet Sauvignon and were rude to my staff so I asked them to leave. They wrote a very bad review on TripAdvisor but I didn’t care. I am very protective of my team and there has to be respect.

When are you happiest?
In my dreams.

What makes you sad?
Dishonesty.

What do you most dislike about yourself?
My impulsiveness sometimes gets me into trouble.

What would your superpower be?
Save the world! I would fly around and stop bad people from doing bad things, like Superman and Superwoman in one.

What is your guiltiest food pleasure?
Chocolate.

What’s the most disgusting or weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten? And would you eat it again?
Sea cucumber. And no, I will never eat that again.

How do you like your eggs in the morning?
Sunny side up or en cocotte.

Who would you most like to be stuck in a lift with?
Vladimir Putin – I would have a lot of questions for him.

Where did you have your best meal this year?
Atera in New York.

If there was one restaurant you wish you’d opened, which would it be?
Quique Dacosta in Dénia, Spain. I admire his mind, his knowledge, his thoughtfulness and his genius. He has created something that is unique and personal.

If you could travel in time, where would you go?
To the 1940s when everything was going on – all the writing, the music, the cars and the war, which changed people.

Follow Dominique and the restaurant on Twitter @dominiquecrenn and @ateliercrenn