With his classic French training and decades of restaurant experience in Paris, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Chef Ludo Lefebvre is a wealth of culinary wisdom. As a judge and coach on the new ABC show The Taste, he’s passing on his knowledge to a group of professional and amateur cooks, all vying to create the best-tasting dishes and survive a series of elimination rounds.
We asked Ludo all about his traditional training, his successful pop-up restaurants, and what he looks for in an aspiring chef. Read on for his responses — and learn about the rivalries on set!
How did you become interested in a cooking career?
I fell in love with cooking as a little boy spending time with my grandmother in the kitchen. By the age of 13, I knew I wanted to be a chef.
What inspired you to join The Taste?
First and foremost, the idea of working with Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson was pretty amazing.
I have so much respect for Anthony. He and I had such a great time in Burgundy when I filmed with him for No Reservations. It was an honor to be asked to work with him again.
And Nigella. Well, what can I say? I used to watch Nigella Bites years ago. I loved the way she talked about food. It was the first real manifestation of food porn before food porn became such a trend. And so naturally, I was super excited to meet her and be able to work with her.
I was also super excited about the show concept because the contestants are getting a chance to learn something and get better. The idea of the blind tastings made the competition seem fair and intriguing.
You’re a classically trained French chef. How did that influence your role on the show and your approach as a judge?
Well, clearly I am “The French Guy” and Nigella is “The English Lady.” I think it’s really interesting that the mentors come from such diverse backgrounds and experiences. It would be boring if we were all classically trained French chefs. That cultural difference absolutely played a role, in a fun way. I am definitely intense and passionate. But what Frenchman isn’t?
As far as my training goes, I just tried to use as much of it as possible to help prepare my team for the challenges. My classical French training could also be seen as a disadvantage, depending on the challenge. But you will have to wait and see how that plays out.
What do you look for in other aspiring chefs?
When I was choosing my team, the most important thing for me was to examine both the technique and the taste. A contestant may have one great technical skill, but the taste may be off. Or they have amazing technique and they cook something perfectly, but maybe the seasoning is a little off.
But if they understand at least one of the principals early on, I can teach them the rest.
You run some popular pop-up restaurants. What do you like about that style of cooking and dining? What’s exciting about it?
LudoBites has allowed me the freedom to do exactly what I want. It’s not an easy way to run a restaurant because you’re always working in a borrowed kitchen and never have enough time to prep. But it’s been an amazing experience seeing how customers have embraced trying new things and shown their complete trust of the chef.
How did competing on Top Chef: Masters prepare you for The Taste? What was the most important thing you learned?
Do what you know how to do – this is not the time to take huge risks. But execute what you know perfectly. Know where you come from and be able to back it up with a story. But also acknowledge that some things are just out of your control.
How was this experience different? Any specific challenges?
First, I am on the other side of the table.
On The Taste, the contestants did not have ridiculous, crazy tasks. Rather, they experienced a new cooking style each week with time (at least a little bit) to learn the staples of that cuisine. The challenges are smart and are really about cooking and creating a dish that ultimately tastes great. It’s not about how horrible the conditions can be for the contestants. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still very difficult and the clock is never your friend, but no one was asked to make a meal out of a vending machine.
Were there any hilarious or outrageous moments on set that come to mind?
I kind of liked the battle of the set trailers between Anthony and Nigella. Everyone was so competitive throughout the competition, so the rivalries carried over to everything. I don’t know if I can pick a winner, are ties allowed?
Is there anyone who gave you a chance in your career, whom you’ve considered a mentor?
The great Marc Meneau gave me a chance as a boy. I was young and I left home to study under him. He taught me to cook. He instilled the love of cooking in me and taught me discipline in both the kitchen and in life. I was a punk when I started. I still call him today for advice and guidance. Everyone needs a mentor.
What’s the best cooking advice you’ve ever received? The best you’ve ever given?
The answer to both is the same – TASTE EVERYTHING!
What was the most valuable advice you gave while working on the show, and to whom?
TASTE EVERYTHING – TO EVERYONE!
What’s next for you after The Taste?
I am opening a new restaurant in Los Angeles in early 2013 with two great chef friends of mine – Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo. I am really looking forward to collaborating with them to create something special.