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An interview with the mastermind of BLT, Laurent Tourondel

by Matt DeLucia

February 1, 2008

    photo of: Laurent Tourondel

The fallout from the WorldCom debacle earlier this decade did more than bring down a fraudulent company, it also touched countless lives and affected many businesses. After it declared bankruptcy, shareholder suits obtained nearly $6 billion from a variety of sources, including investment banks, former board members and auditors of WorldCom. One former board member was Rick Adams, the former founder of the groundbreaking Internet company UUNet, which had been absorbed by MCI several years earlier. Adams owned a 65-seat restaurant called Cello, which became a victim of the foreclosure acquisitions. It was shut down immediately while its chef, Laurent Tourondel, was participating in a dinner event in Venezuela. The way he found out was by receiving a phone call from the New York Timesí purveyor of restaurant gossip, Florence Fabricant. Tourondel was crushed, and he was suddenly without a job. The restaurant that Tourondel had opened in the spring of 1999 had employed up-and-coming chefs like Pichet Ong, Jean-Francois Bonnet, and Damon Wise. It had also received three stars from the New York Times, yet suddenly it was closed forever on August 3rd 2002. Angry and confused, the staff went their separate ways, and Tourondel decided to spend time traveling around the world. ďIt was rough on me for a while,Ē Tourondel remembers. ďI needed to take a break. I had nothing planned after that anyway, so I just traveled. I was not cooking, I was exploring different parts of the world about food.Ē

At that point, Tourondel could have gone back to France, or he could have returned to Las Vegas where he had worked before, but he ultimately decided to keep his home base in New York. ďItís a good challenge; New York. It has a lot of competition, it has people who are very talented and I like the challenge of those people.Ē While he traveled, he worked on a business plan so he could return to New York in his own restaurant, one that no one could take away from him. He refined the proposal and kept improving it as he kept traveling, experiencing different cuisines and cultures; he had plenty of time. The proposal he wound up with was for a restaurant that was closer to Cello than to the one he would eventually open Ė it was a proposal for BLT Market. But it still required an important ingredient Ė a suitor.

    photo of: Laurent Tourondel Nantucket Bay Scallop Salad/Watercress/Endive/Jasper Hill Blue Cheese/Caramelized Walnut

Jennifer Baumís PR agency had represented Tourondel when he was at Cello. Their matchmaking expertise generally revolved around bringing together press and customers and the restaurants they represent, but in this case Baum brought together a chef (Tourondel) with a plan, and an owner (Jimmy Haber) in search of a concept for a space he owned.

The matchmaking went awry at first Ė Tourondel presented his proposal but it was decided that the location was not suitable for the idea, so he tried again, modifying what he been working on for so long. The revisions were essentially a blueprint for BLT Steak. ďI think my partner was having a question about me doing a steakhouse instead of a fish place. They were concerned about me doing something with meat! But for me it was time to do something else - I definitely wanted to do something other than fish.Ē The proposal was accepted, and the two partners opened BLT Steak in 2004 at 106 East 57th Street. A year later Tourondel and Haber opened BLT Fish, and BLT Prime soon followed. Then in the summer of 2007, the restaurant that Tourondel had originally proposed to Haber, BLT Market, opened in the Ritz Carlton hotel. Tourondelís BLT franchise has been expanded with satellite projects such as BLT Burger, which opened in New York City two years ago and will be opening at The Mirage in Las Vegas this spring. BLT Steak outposts in Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, Dallas and White Plains will soon be joined by Los Angeles, Miami, Scottsdale and Atlanta. Of these new restaurants, Los Angeles will be the first, scheduled to open in March.

    photo of: Laurent Tourondel Poached Maine Lobster/Gnocci/Fennel-Buddhaís Hand Lemon Beurre Blanc

Tourondelís revolutionary ideas didnít just sprout from his travels after Cello closed. They were the result of his continual career decision to train with the classic masters throughout the world so he would have a solid basis with which to find his own cooking style. He credits Joel Robuchon for teaching him ďThe perfection of food,Ē and from the Troisgros brothers he learned to respect the large variety of products they used, many of which Tourondel had never seen or worked with before. With the Troisgros brothers, he was a pastry chef, an aspect of his career that he said was a critical part of his development as a chef. But it was Jacques Maximin who helped him foster creativity early in his cooking career, working in a kitchen at Restaurant Ledoyen alongside two executive chefs who had earned the highly coveted Meilleurs Ouvriers de France (Best Crafts worker of France) award, along with other talented chefs including Francois Payard.

NYRI: What was it about your experience working with Jacques Maximin that you feel was so instrumental to advancing your career?
Tourondel: I think Maximin was at a point in my career where I began to really see a different picture of what cooking was, and what was creative. The guy had superior creativity. I think that first of all, it was my first really, really big kitchen. When I say it was really big, we had 60 cooks and chefs in the kitchen. I was running garde manger where I had 12 people under me. For me it was like walking into an Escoffier book, where I was entering into a world that I had only read about and I never realized still existed. I donít think there were any kitchens like that in a proper restaurant - not in a hotel, but in a proper restaurant - anywhere else. 60 people in the kitchen, it was unreal, it was 400 covers a night. We have a saying in French, we say ďLe folie de grandeur,Ē the craziness of grandness. It was truffles everywhere; there were no cost limits on anything. I was cooking with no limit.

NYRI: Was Maximin making much of a profit at that time at his restaurant?
Tourondel: No, he wasnít, it wasnít about making money, it has never been about making money with him. It was always the passion of the food and the products and the creativity, and I think I learned a lot about that. And it was there when I first became interested in pastry. I became more and more involved with that, and I worked in pastry at his restaurant. I also learned detail - the food was very detailed and very meticulous. It was very fine at the time, very fine French dining, yet it was very modern also.

    photo of: Laurent Tourondel Pistachio Crusted Venison Loin/Chestnut/Braised Red Cabbage/Cranberry

NYRI: You worked with the Troisgros brothers in France and here in the U.S. at CT Restaurant. As a chef what did you learn from that experience?
Tourondel: Working with the Troisgros family was pretty amazing. With them, it was the respect of the product more than anything else. It was pretty amazing, everything from the mushrooms and all the porcinis, and during the winter it was all of the game, because I had never done that before. It was my first time feathering 100 partridges per service. It was starting at 7:00 a.m., staying in the afternoon with no breaks, and working all through the night 6 days a week. It was very rough. And I was also the garde manger, so we used to do hare, partridge, pheasant, woodcock, all those sort of things, so it was just a lot of work.

NYRI: Do you think that learning pastry has helped you in your career, knowing about it?
Tourondel: Yes, 100%. I actually love pastry, and I think that itís always been something where if I would not be a chef, I would be a pastry chef. Iíve designed the pastry menu for most of my restaurants, but I think itís a hobby for me more than anything else. Pastry chefs donít like me very much!

NYRI: You seem to have carefully selected who youíve worked for during your career, was that good luck or careful planning?
Tourondel: I always focus a little bit more on the traditional side of cooking, because I wanted to have a good base so I could be creative myself, and not just duplicate what other people do. I donít know if it makes sense, but if I learn the best cooking by the famous ones, the best ones, I just think after that itís easier to create your own style rather than going to someone who is already up there with a style - where do you go after that? So I never went to work for a guy who was competitive-crazy with food. I always went to work for a pretty classic one.

    photo of: Laurent Tourondel Chocolate Feuilletine/New York Street Praline/Coffee CrŤme Glace

NYRI: have you ever experimented with fusion cooking?
Tourondel: Itís not a style of cooking that really interests me at all. But I think itís good, because they actually make us use different techniques, and I think thatís good for the evolution of cooking. But itís never been my style of eating and cooking. Iíve always wanted to focus on one style of cooking and I think thatís good for a chef, because when you know one style, you can create your own style. When you learn different styles you can get confused, and it could become a gigantic mess. So thatís the way I directed my career as a young person, and I knew what I wanted!

NYRI: Do you have trouble keeping organized and keeping track of everything thatís going on in your life?
Tourondel: Yes, sometimes I catch myself, like this morning I was doing something, and after two minutes I was doing something else. So I went back to it, and after two minutes, again I was doing something else - it was unreal! But I have lists, and my Blackberry - thank God the Blackberry exists, because itís like my second family.

NYRI: What can you tell me about your source of ideas and inspiration?
Tourondel: My biggest source of creation is magazines. Iím not a guy who goes and reads cookbooks of other chefs, for the simple reason that sometimes itís too technical and it reflects a certain style of that chef. I only really follow the trends of customers, people who want to eat, and by going through magazines, it reflects what people eat. I have subscriptions to magazines from the U.K., from Australia, Japan, France, any kind of food magazine from all over the world. I read probably seven or eight magazines a week. If itís interesting Iíll also read it, but I donít have much time to spend doing that. I think itís a great source of information, because when you know the trends, sometimes you can make it better, and make it your own. I think it gives you good ideas. The pictures are better than reading.

    photo of: Laurent Tourondel PPan Seared East Coast Halibut/Caramelized Cauliflower Puree/Hazelnut Sauce

NYRI: You have a large kitchen in your home in Harlem, is that where you do your testing?
Tourondel: Yes, Iím actually testing soups tomorrow on my La Cornue range. I always cook every weekend, because Iím just so busy in my restaurants going here and there. I just have to make time for me to cook a little bit on the weekend, so I donít lose the hang of cooking. It keeps me going!

NYRI: Besides new BLTís, are there any new projects youíd like to talk about?
Tourondel: Weíre doing a new project with Trump, and itís supposed to open at the end of the year or the beginning of 2009. Itís going to be in the Trump Hotel in SoHo, itíll be two restaurants, two concepts, and a bar. It will be something different from BLT.

NYRI: Are you concerned at all with the number of restaurants that you oversee, and whether or not there may be a slight drop in quality in any of them?
Tourondel: Unfortunately, I think that when you grow, you have to accept the fact that you have to lose something in quality. I donít think there is any other way to do it. Iím not saying quality in terms of the food, but in terms of having an eye on whatís going on every day in every restaurant. I donít think you can do that, itís not possible. You can find someone you can teach to be you, but itís never you.

NYRI: I understand youíre a fisherman going back to your youth when you fished for Walleye pike with your father. Any good fishing stories youíd like to share?
Tourondel: The last time I fished was in Puerto Rico, and I caught a sailfish, a big sailfish. I think theyíre not authorized to bring the fish on the boat to kill the fish. So they basically catch the fish and release it. So we caught the fish, and they brought it to the back of the boat, because we wanted to take a picture of it. There were five or six of us. The fish was so big, there were two of us holding the fish and it was shaking the guys really hard! They brought it to the back of the boat for the picture, and the tail swung right at me, and it came about an inch from my nose! I was very scared, very scared!

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