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It's not by accident that Ludo Bites has flourished in the age of the blogosphere. Even if Gold, LA Weekly's Pulitzer-winning critic, hadn't liked it, the place would have built up a fanatical following because of its limited access, its star's culinary sex appeal and the fact that you get to spend so much time hanging out with him at the dinners. "It's an intimate atmosphere, really fun," says William Chi, a financial analyst who blogs for the foodie site fooddigger.com. "It's like a family get-together. I feel like I'm being welcomed into their home every time I go." The crowd, largely the kind of wired-in foodies who write and read most online food media, are exactly the sort of customer who will find out about something like this, flock to it, write about it in mouth-watering detail, and thus renew the cycle.
Few chefs have been able to use every medium as effectively as Lefebvre has: he's on TV, playing up his villain role on Top Chef: Masters; he has a high-concept cookbook that is packed with beefcake shots. (Los Angeles Times critic Leslie Brenner went off the deep end in her review, saying, "He's the guy your girlfriends warned you about ... He's beautiful, with his white teeth and downy beard and all those vivid tattoos. The gold earring is set off by a nose stud.") Most important, he's got a tight coil of foodies who follow his site, his Facebook page, his Twitter feed and his e-mail list, and all can be counted on to reserve seats for Ludo Bites the second a location is announced. Like his generational cohort David Chang, another talented chef who has used the media to supreme advantage, Lefebvre has the skills to produce food that is more than equal to the sum of its hype; but he's gone even further than Chang in releasing himself from the traditional strictures of his profession.
As Gold tells TIME, "Ludo is doing food on its own terms. When you owe so much money to your investors, your food becomes about something else justifying volume, managing expectations. Ludo has taken a heroic first step for the creative chef who takes food more seriously than the restaurant power structure." Ludo isn't making a lot of money now, but he's getting by. And even if Ludo could get a big place with no strings attached, the chef says he doesn't want it: "What scares me is to sign the lease for 20 years, and to stay for 20 years. This pushes me to stay creative, stay stronger."
He'll have to, without any big-name (or big-money) backing. Ludo is running on a high-octane mix of charisma, testosterone, culinary brilliance and the Will to Power. He may crash; he may sell out. But right now, he's out there, doing new things and helping to reinvent the way we eat. For better or worse, he truly is the Chef of the Future.
Josh Ozersky is a James Beard Awardwinning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. His food video site, Ozersky.TV, is updated daily. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.