Hot L.A. chef Ludo Lefebvre, famous for temporary pop-up restaurants called LudoBites and temperamental appearances on "Top Chef Masters," has a new series on the Sundance Channel, "Ludo Bites America."
LOS ANGELES — Chef Ludo Lefebvre killed, skinned and gutted a 1,200-pound bison in Denver and took a bite of its still-hot heart. His wife, Krissy Lefebvre, caught the stomach-churning moment on her cellphone camera. So did a television crew for Sundance Channel that has been following the pair for a new reality show called “Ludo Bites America,” which premiered July 19.
“I felt I needed to do it to respect her, because I killed her,” said Lefebvre of the act, which could be considered the literal act of biting America. Later that night he used almost all of the bison in a variety of dishes, including bison tartare with parsley roots and Asian pears.
The series follows the Lefebvres as they attempt to do across the country what they have done so well in their Los Angeles home base: open temporary pop-up restaurants in unfamiliar locations to serve high-end food.
The Lefebvres recently finished taking reservations for the seventh LudoBites in L.A., which will be held in August at Gram & Papa’s restaurant downtown. On a recent Wednesday afternoon they filmed final interviews for the TV show there, a camera crew buzzing around the small, rectangular dining room.
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Besides launching a new LudoBites L.A. and wrapping the six-episode TV show — which took them to six American cities, including Santa Fe, N.M.; Mobile, Ala.; Omaha and Redondo Beach — they have 3-month-old twins at home.
“I feel beat up, exhausted — I want to retire,” said Lefebvre, his French accent so thick that Sundance used subtitles for him in the show even though he is speaking English.
But retirement isn’t likely to happen anytime soon for the chef, whose ambition and rugged charisma have made him a food-world star.
Despite the temper tantrums that fueled early TV appearances on “Top Chef Masters,” Lefebvre is careful about his image. Other networks came courting, he said, but only Sundance Channel offered the pair the creative freedom to mix an Anthony Bourdain-style travelogue (Bourdain’s “No Reservations” is Lefebvre’s favorite TV show) with a “Kitchen Nightmares” type of cooking scenario.
It’s a hybrid that seems well-suited to Sundance’s discerning, indie-film-loving demographic. But for all the highbrow food, there is still plenty of lowbrow drama to satisfy lovers of the salty reality genre.
On the first episode of “Ludo Bites America,” which took place in Santa Fe, Lefebvre is often shown yelling in the kitchen and at the restaurant’s staff. There is also a moment when he takes a malfunctioning scale into the alley and stomps it to pieces while cursing and screaming.
“The shoot takes seven days, and they put it all in 45 minutes. You don’t see the back story; you just see the screaming. I never scream for no reason. I scream because I need to,” said Lefebvre, wearing jeans, sneakers and a black chef shirt with “Ludo” embroidered on it in gold thread. He also has elaborate, full-sleeve tattoos, silver hoop earrings and a diamond nose stud.
“Opening a restaurant every week in a different city with staff I don’t know — it’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “If we fail in Mobile, it’s as real as failing in L.A.”
That’s because, said Krissy, the TV show is an extension of the LudoBites brand that they have worked so hard to cultivate. When in L.A. — whether popping up in a Culver City cafe or a shuttered restaurant in the Valley — LudoBites is a very difficult reservation to get, and it attracts restaurant critics from both coasts.
The concept has been so well received that the Lefebvres plan to turn LudoBites into a real touring operation and will stage one in New York and one in Austin, Texas, later this year. The show was a hectic dry run of their future endeavors, and Lefebvre said he learned much from the experience that he can use later.
“It’s my job as a chef to learn about the country where I cook,” said Lefebvre, who has worked in some of L.A.’s most exclusive kitchens, including Bastide and L’Orangerie. “To see the real American people and eat the food.”
In Santa Fe, he learned to make tortillas and use green and red chiles; in North Carolina, he discovered the majesty of barbecued pork; he ate soul food in Omaha; and, of course, he learned that bison meat makes for a great, lean rib-eye steak.
“I’m going to use buffalo meat at the next LudoBites,” he said, “and chiles.”
The learning was worth the emotional fatigue and the angry kitchen drama, said the Lefebvres, who celebrated with each restaurant’s staff after shooting — letting bygones be bygones.
Except in one city. Krissy won’t say which city, but she said she still feels bad about it.
“There is one location where we didn’t say goodbye at the end. It was so sad,” she said, suddenly rubbing her arms. “I just got chills thinking about it.”