Sunday, June 9, 2013

LudoBites: The Wonder Years

Foie Gras Croque Monsieur from LudoBites 2.0

He's been called "The King of the Pop-up."  A "Celebrity Chef." A "Culinary Rock Star."

He's been both a contestant and a judge on "Top Chef Masters," the impassioned star of the reality series "Ludo Bites America," and most recently the most vocal (and subtitled) of the mentors on ABC's prime time cooking competition, "The Taste."

But to us, the tight-knit dining community in Los Angeles who knew him in the beginning of it all, when he was searing scallops and frying foie gras croque monsieurs behind the counter of a bakery in the shadow of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, he's just Ludo.

The man before the food truck, before the TV series, before the titles.

This past week, LA Weekly's esteemed restaurant critic Besha Rodell reviewed Trois Mec, Ludo's newest venture, a collaboration with Vinny Dotolo and Jon Shook, the culinary duo behind Animal and Son of a Gun. Her prose sang of the "ridiculously delicious" potato pulp, the vegetables plated in "an exact dance of contrast and compliment," the backwards cream puff described as a "pure white fantasy," and of Chef Ludo Lefebvre and his command over it at all from his perch on the kitchen line.

Reading her words, the vivid brush strokes that painted an image of the intimate 24-seat dining room in my head, I was transported back to my first experiences of LudoBites four years ago this June, a time when many of us in the LA dining community were first discovering Ludo together.

Much has been said of Ludo's culinary influence in Los Angeles and in the nation as a whole. When the tattooed French chef originally brought his knives to Breadbar in the fall of 2007, he and his wife Krissy broke all the rules of what it meant to have a restaurant. Together, they invented the pop-up, creating an entirely new genre of culinary experience. Cutting-edge, avant-garde food that didn't give a fuck about white linen tablecloths or coat checks.

But that story's been told before. What hasn't been mentioned is the effect that Ludo and LudoBites had on us -- the writers, bloggers, and those in and adjacent to the restaurant industry in LA who were brought together through the roving pop-up and its guerrilla cuisine.

During those early versions, there wasn't a complex reservation system - be it a lottery or a ticketing system. It wasn't an easy reservation, but it was still conceivable to call a week before and worm your way into a five top at 8:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, which was precisely how I experienced LudoBites 2.0 for the first time on a balmy June evening in 2009. It was rowdy fun, even if I was, to say the least, unfamiliar and somewhat apprehensive with the concept, flavors and preparations.

As it would turn out, I would return a week later under entirely different circumstances -- for a private food blogger dinner where I was seated adjacent to two bloggers who I'd previously only known via the prose and pictures they posted to their sites. There was a general sense of euphoria at the table that night, perhaps because of the free-flowing wine, perhaps because of the energy from Ludo, or perhaps because of the shock-value of the dishes that dazzled our tongues and enlivened our senses in ways that many of us had never experienced before. At least not from a cube of watermelon.

Over the course of ten courses, each photographed more than a sequined starlet on the red carpet, friendships were forged. And four years later, those two bloggers, Sook from Yutjangsah and Cathy from Gastronomy Blog, are still two of my closest friends in Los Angeles. Sook and I later returned for LudoBites 3.0 at Royal/T together with Sarah from The Delicious Life, who I'd only previously met in passing and whom Sook had also met at LudoBites 2.0. Once again, after another rowdy evening spent divvying up foie gras donuts and escargot-topped hangar steak, Sarah became more than just the hyper-successful blogger I'd put up on a pedestal.

There are more examples here. Of a subsequent dinner I shared at LudoBites 4.0 with Esther from e*star LA, Caroline from Caroline on Crack and Lindsay from LAist where we ordered the entire menu; of the excitement that would envelop the dining community whenever a new run was announced; and of the deliriousness with which we'd devour the posts, articles and reviews about our Ludo. However fast his star rose, there was a sense that we were all in it together, forks fighting for our right to his foie, and for the immeasurable fun of it all. Packed around a communal table, dinner at LudoBites was always the best time -- assuredly so under the watchful eye of Krissy and the dramatic presence of Ludo, who always made the time to acknowledge us. To make us feel special. To make us feel relevant.

Even if that someone was a blonde-haired blogger from the OC with a very pink blog.

LudoBites helped shift the paradigm of our significance in LA's dining culture. Ludo and Krissy embraced us, heard our voices and didn't bristle at the sight of our DSLR cameras. They knew what we were only just discovering -- that we were all a community and that there was power in that communal table.

Remembering back to four years ago, to the girl who cringed at the sight of sweetbreads and balked when presented with steak tartare, I feel oddly nostalgic for those early days when we were all still figuring things out. When we were just excited to be there, lugging our cameras around at a time when it was still an anomaly to be carrying them into a restaurant at all. When we didn't know what was to come. And when Ludo was wholly ours.

The French chef with the tattoos who brought us together over foie gras croque monsieurs in a bakery in the shadow of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.


Gastronomer said...

Has it been four years already?! There's still so much to come! xx

Diana said...

Cathy - Crazy, right? And yes, still much more to come! Starting with... two hot tickets to Trois Mec!

Eliza said...

I can't believe it's been 4 years! Although we didn't meet until Domaine LA, I'm pretty sure I saw you at a table of 6 at Royal T when I was there. I remember a tall, skinny blonde... at a table of 6. You stood out :)

Diana said...

Eliza - Haha, I'm sure it was me! And I was probably preoccupied with the caramelized curry peanuts... remember those? So addicting!

Unknown said...

It is crazy how time flies. Even when you're not having as much fun as miso lardo ludo times. I'm glad we met at Ludo. ;)