Chicagoist Grills: L2O Chef/Owner Laurent Gras

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Feb 9, 2009 4:00PM

Last week, we took an in-depth look into L2O, with an opportunity to get Stolpman into the kitchen to photograph some of Laurent Gras' menu dishes and the preparation of them, while Jacy explained some of the design aesthetics of the restaurant (located in the space formerly occupied by Ambria).

It was a rare opportunity for someone not involved with L2O to get inside the restaurant. Not that transparency was ever an issue; Gras and his team have done an amazing job in chronicling the restaurant's progress, from conception to present, by blogging about it. The content and quality of the blog are as consistent as the restaurant, and has led other chefs to start their own. It's that attention to detail and thought that have been hallmarks of the native of Antibes in the French Mediterranean ever since he started working in kitchens at the age of 18.

I was able to arrange a phone interview with Gras last week with the original intent of running it on Friday. However, re-reading my notes with Gras' answers, I felt that rushing an interview to the site for the sake of having a "get' would be a disservice to the subject. Marcus and I agreed to postpone running it until today. Today, we present it to you in full, discussing everything from the blog and his cooking style to what it was like growing up in a family that pressed its own olive oil.

Chicagoist: Have any customers told you that they decided to visit L2O because of your blog?

Laurent Gras: I don’t really know, to be honest. Normally, during the course of an evening, I rarely go on the floor to greet diners, I'm usually busy running the kitchen. But my staff is well-trained to answer any question, including those related to the blog.

C: I ask because your blog seems to go that extra length to pull back the curtain on your creative process, making some of the more progressive dishes you create accessible to folks who might ask, “How did he do that?”

LG:: The blog is a great way to share what we’re doing with the outside world, especially the process by which we’re sharing information with readers as to what we do what we do.

C: Have there been any moments since the doors opened where you took a step back and been surprised by the consistency of the reviews? They’re almost universally positive.

LG: I can’t say that I have. I went into this project with specific goals that we’ve been lucky to reach. (The reviews) haven’t changed what we do, or how we do it.

C: You’re pretty hands-on in the kitchen; in other interviews you’ve indicated you usually get 3-5 hours of sleep a night. Do you think you may be at the point where you can take a step back and let your sous chefs shoulder more of the load in the kitchen?

LG: Not really. And that isn’t my style. Even though the restaurant has been very successful, we’ve still been open for less than a year. A new restaurant need a leader who sets the tone in his actions. I’d be setting the wrong example by taking more time off at this point. Maybe in another year, I might revisit that.

C: While we’re talking about being hands-on, there’s very little that you don’t make in-house, from baking your own bread to preparing your own butter and crème fraiche. Was this an influence from your family, since your father still presses olive oil?

LG: I don’t think it’s an inspiration as much as it is a coincidence. I didn’t know at a very early age that I wanted to be a chef. Back then, all I knew was that my father and grandfather grew wheat, fruit and olives.

C: Do you use the family olive oil at L2O?

LG: No. My father presses so little of it. It stays in the family.

C: Besides fruit, olive oil and wheat, what other foods were part of the family table growing up along the French Mediterranean?

LG: We had a lot of seafood: lobster, sea bass, snapper, local fish whose names are difficult for me to translate in English. The fishermen would haul them in very nice catches.

C: And did being exposed to all this seafood inspire you as you become more confident in your cooking skills?

LG: Again, I think it’s more of a coincidence than an inspiration. I think you tend to cook what you know the best. In my case, it’s seafood.

C: Yet, your cooking style owes equal measure to both the classic French that you apprenticed under Alain DuCasse and Guy Savoy, and the more progressive modernism espoused by Ferran Adria, Wylie Dufrense and Grant Achatz. Where did your interest in, as it’s called, “molecular gastronomy” become piqued?

LG: As to when, I can’t really say. I’ve always wanted to expand the tools that I have available to me as a chef, so it’s natural that I pay attention to what other chefs are doing. I’m aware of some of the criticisms about (molecular gastronomy). But, like those other chefs, we’re using technology here to make food better. Any restaurant should be in business to showcase the food, not the method behind its preparation.

C: So how would you describe your style?

LG: It’s my own style. It’s like a straight line, only constructed of bits and pieces of those I worked with along the way that I made my own. There’s a little of Savoy, some DuCasse, some (Jaques) Maximin and (Alain) Sendersen. A chef sort of absorbs influences as he matures.

C: So when did you know that you wanted to be a chef?

LG: I took the culinary school route out of primary school. At 15, I went to Nice for study.

C: Did you have a passion for cooking when you started? Or did that come later?

LG: I’m hesitant to use the word “passion” to describe it, because I don’t think you have a passion for something when you’re younger. Or, at least, until you start to discover what you are happy doing. I went to culinary school because I wanted to learn to cook. Any passion I had for cooking came later as I became more confident in my skills.

C: So, if not “passion,” then how would you describe it?

LG: I don’t think you can have a passion for something at such a young age. You can be impulsive or obsess about something. But I think true passion comes with maturity to be able to recognize that from a passing fancy.

C: Well, your passion, along with your resume, has taken you from Europe to both coasts. What was it about Chicago that appealed to you?

LG: I finally decided that, after years of being an Executive Chef for others for so long, I wanted to be a partner in something. Rich (Melman, Lettuce Entertain You Chairman) and I knew each other for years and we agreed that the time was right.

C: Do you think that Chicago’s reputation as a steak-and-potatoes town allowed you the opportunity to immediately stand out once the doors opened at L2O?

LG: Certainly. Seafood, unfortunately, isn’t the first thing people think about dining in Chicago.

C: Given the hectic pace you keep at the restaurant, have you had an opportunity to check out any other restaurants around town?

LG: No. My daily routine is usually centered on L2O, the blog, or getting around 3-5 hours of rest.

C: Have you been bicycling at all this winter?

LG: Not really. It’s too cold, and I was already cutting back after I came back from my accident (Gras was involved in a bicycling accident in autumn). I have been sneaking some time at an indoor track and riding when the weather is nice enough. But if it’s around 23° outside, my fingers and toes get numb if I’m riding too long.