Top chef pops up in Raleigh

Staff WriterMarch 23, 2011 

Los Angeles chef Ludo Lefebvre has taken his "pop up" restaurant on the road, and Thursday it stops in Raleigh.

Lefebvre, a former "Top Chef Masters" contestant, will transform the downtown Raleigh restaurant Gravy into his take on a barbecue restaurant after learning from two of the Triangle's revered pit masters: Keith Allen of Allen & Son in Chapel Hill and Ed Mitchell of The Pit in Raleigh.

Lefebvre's Triangle visit is being filmed for a new show on The Sundance Channel, "Ludo Bites America." Raleigh is his second stop for that show; the first was Mobile, Ala.

In Los Angeles, Lefebvre, 39, pioneered the idea of a "pop up" restaurant. He and his wife, Krissy, a lawyer by training and her husband's marketing guru, take over a bakery or a breakfast-and-lunch spot for dinner service. They call their migrating restaurant, LudoBites.

By renting a restaurant for four or so nights, the couple are able to offer French-inspired food at more reasonable prices. Diners grab the hard-to-get reservations by signing up for an email alert or tracking the next LudoBites iteration on Facebook. Among his fawning diners are Pulitzer Prize-winning restaurant critic Jonathan Gold of LA Weekly and former Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl.

Last year, Lefebvre was profiled in Time magazine as a "chef of the future" for spurning the traditional route to chef stardom: line cook, sous chef, executive chef, restaurant owner. Gold told Time: "Ludo has taken a heroic first step for the creative chef who takes food more seriously than the restaurant power structure."

Trained in France

It's not as if Lefebvre didn't start on the regular path to kitchen glory. He trained for 13 years in France at several esteemed restaurants such as L'Arpege with Alain Passard. He moved to Los Angeles to work at L'Orangerie. At 25, he became the head chef and helped that restaurant earn a Mobil Five Star award. In 2001, he was a nominee for the James Beard Foundation's Rising Chef award.

Last year, he started his roving restaurant.

Despite the film crew's presence, the couple say Thursday's dinner at Gravy will be no different from their efforts in Los Angeles. Dishes will be priced between $9 and $19. Ludo will be chef, host and announcer. Krissy will be serving up an apple pie moonshine cocktail.

"LudoBites is very intimate," he says. "You can hear the chef screaming. You can see the chef take your order. You can see the chef clean the table. You can see the chef do everything. ... It's like you are in my house. I really want this connection between the customer and the chef."

The only difference is their schedule for pulling off this event is condensed. Usually, they have more than a week to prepare for their short-term restaurant run. They arrived in the Triangle Thursday and immediately began spending time with Allen and Mitchell and dined at Mama Dip's restaurant in Chapel Hill. They tasted moonshine and local beers. They visited Cane Creek farm in Snow Camp to pick out a pig for Thursday's feast.

Getting into Gravy

Initially, they hoped to take over The Pit, but the couple say the space is too large for their needs. Instead, Greg Hatem, owner of Empire Eats, suggested they use Gravy. Since Gravy's kitchen is too small for Ludo Lefebvre's prep work, he will spend Thursday morning and afternoon preparing his ingredients at the former Duck & Dumpling restaurant, which also is an Empire Eats establishment.

As usual, Lefebvre and his wife hope to pull this off in an unfamiliar kitchen with an unfamiliar staff but this time in an unfamiliar town.

"Somehow the magic always seems to come together," she says. "We hope we can have one night of magic in every town we visit."

Next stop: an undisclosed location in New Mexico.

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4848

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