Los Angeles, California (CNN) — If there's one thing French-born chef Ludo Lefebvre loves, it's a cactus. But we'll get back to that later.
Lefebvre is also quite passionate about his restaurants in Los Angeles, a place he's called home since 1996.
Born in Burgundy, Lefebvre started working in French kitchens at 14 and was around 24 when he moved to Los Angeles. Shortly after arriving, he took the helm at one of L.A.'s most popular, traditional French restaurants, L'Orangerie. There he went on to win the first of many awards, The Mobil Travel Guide Five Star Award, in 1999. He did it again the following year and replicated the feat at Bastide in 2006.
A plate of canelé at Petit Trois. The small French pastry dessert has a soft center and crispy, caramelized exterior.
Later, Lefebvre and his wife and business partner, Krissy Lefebvre, literally took the show on the road, creating LudoBites, a series of pop-up restaurants around Los Angeles, where they rented restaurants that were closed in the evenings to showcase his take on modern cooking.
The prix-fixe menu constantly changed, sparking unprecedented demand (LudoBites crashed the OpenTable reservation site twice) and incessant chatter in the L.A. food blogging world. "It was like a circus. Ludo Circus," says the chef of that experience. For the past few years, Lefebvre and his restaurants have gotten plenty of acclaim: Petit Trois, a classic French bar with escargots and croque monsieur; Trois Mec, chef's prix fixe fine dining lair; Trois Familia, a family-friendly spot in Silver Lake that serves lunch, dinner and weekend brunch; and LudoBird, a fast-food concept that has outposts at Staples Center and Universal Walk.
Petit Trois on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley is where Chef Ludo starts his day with a quick check in and, of course, a coffee.
All have been the subject of multiple laudatory posts, reviews, articles and conversations among the food-obsessed digital cognoscenti. With his partners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo (yes, that Jon & Vinny), Lefebvre has fashioned a culinary empire, opening his second Petit Trois near his home in Sherman Oaks in April 2018. More recently, the trio announced plans to open a third Petit Trois -- this time in Denver, Colorado.
While it's clear that Lefebvre, a father of two, has a lot on his plate, he does seek out opportunities to enjoy L.A.'s distinct topography, whether that's riding his motorcycle to the desert or surfing in Malibu or Santa Monica. He also enjoys a few off-the-radar spots that reflect his passion, focus and curiosity.
Ludo Lefebvre on his motorcycle. When he has free time, he likes to ride to the desert.
Lefebvre starts his day with a check in and a coffee at the new Petit Trois on Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley. It's the ideal morning spot, with an array of expertly prepared French pastries and coffee from Tartine Manufactory. Choose to indulge in the Mec Muffin, a breakfast sandwich served on a homemade English muffin, or even better, the omelet that home cooks (including this one) have tried and failed to replicate a million times.
Los Angeles Chef Ludo Lefebvre shows us how to make a "Mec" Muffin.
Lefevbre loves all things Angeleno, "a boiling pot of cultures," is how he refers to it. He loves lunch at chef Kwang Uh's Baroo, a Korean restaurant in a nondescript strip mall on Santa Monica Boulevard.
"For me, it's one of the best restaurants in L.A. I love everything about Baroo. The chef, this lifestyle, the food, the ambiance. Chef Kwang is so good."
One of Lefebvre's other favorite L.A. places is the Cactus Store (aka Hot Cactus) in Echo Park, a tiny shop with a cult following (with over 26,000 Instagram followers).
Chef Ludo in front of Petit Trois on Highland Avenue. The restaurant is famous for its omelet and escargot.
Lefebvre is obsessed with learning as much as he can about the various species. "They have some cactus that are like 100 years old, and the shape, the flower, the texture, the look, for me, it's a lot inspiration. When I go to the store, it makes me happy."
While at the store, talking cacti with Christian Cummings, a partner at the Cactus Store, he picks up and flips through their photography book, "Xerophile: Cactus Photographs from Expeditions of the Obsessed," which turns out to be more than an apt title. "I cook with cactus, too," Lefebvre says.
One of the chef's favorite places is the Cactus Store (aka Hot Cactus).
It's 5 o'clock on a Saturday when Lefebvre arrives at Trois Mec, his tasting-menu, reservations-required restaurant hidden in another L.A. strip mall. This spot does have a sign, but it reads, "Raffallo's Pizza and Italian Foods" a remnant of the space's former life. Lefebvre decided not to bother changing it.
As a result, lots of confused diners have to pop into Petit Trois next door for assurance that they're at the right place. The brief confusion, however, is all but forgotten once diners enter Troi Mec and give themselves over to Lefebvre, to his "show."
"Trois Mec is a restaurant where you're going to be surprised," Lefebvre says.
He explains: "It's a French restaurant with French technique and all the culture of Los Angeles. I use all the ingredients of California. They can be a little bit Latino, it can be Asian. I love to play with all this ingredients and culture in my food."
The Trois Mec team is finishing its family meal, and Lefebvre puts on his whites. He reviews the evening's set menu, which not only requires a reservation, but payment in advance ($110 plus taxes and fees; wine pairings are extra).
Ludo Lefebvre talks ingredients with friend and Baroo co-owner Kwang Uh.
Industry friends suggested he was crazy to embrace a ticketing system where people are required to pay before they eat. But, he says, "it works." (A recent search for a table on Resy confirms this.)
Diners at Trois Mec are in for a unusual experience, conceived and executed by a chef who understands that restaurants are about more than the meal: "It's about the food, but also service, and we need to give an experience with service too ..."
"I want to create life in the restaurant," the chef says.
And life is good for Ludo Lefebvre.