Chef Ludo Lefebvre Talks Wine Pairing And His New TV Show - Exclusive Interview

To your average American foodie, French cuisine is a wonderful, but unsolvable, enigma. The questions abound: such as, why does steak taste so much more delicious when it's just a little bit bloodier than we should feel comfortable with? Or will you seem "basic" if you order the onion soup at a Parisian cafe? Most perplexing of all is wine pairing: how are you supposed to figure out if you should order the cabernet or the sauvignon blanc with that chicken cordon bleu?

Happy to dispel some of these mysteries is culinary luminary Chef Ludo Lefebvre, a veteran of "Top Chef Masters," PBS' "The Taste" with Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson, and, coming soon, a judge on the new TBS cooking competition show, "A Rat in the Kitchen." In an exclusive interview with Mashed, the Michelin star-winning French native offered tips for choosing the right wine (although, if you want to take the guesswork out completely, you can shop his new Chef Ludo Lefebvre's Vin de Table Collection online.) Lefebvre also shared his dreams for Chez Maggy, a restaurant he's opening in Denver in early 2022, and explained why you're better off grocery shopping without a specific recipe in mind.

Here's the right way to pair wine with food, according to Chef Ludo Lefebvre

How do you figure out which wine will pair best with your food?

That is a very good question. How do you pair the right wine with the right entree? First, you need to try the food! Most of the time I'm in the kitchen, but I work with my sommelier with that. I'll create a dish and the sommelier will tell me what to pair. I mean, I know a little bit about wine, but not like my sommelier! Not everybody has a sommelier at home [though].

But how to pair the right one with the right food ... it's about tasting, definitely. Tasting and tasting and balance — to balance the food and the wine together between the acidities, the fats, the fruit. But that comes with experience.

[I recommend] the app Raisin. It's a good app ... They [tell] you about the wine. It's a lot [about] natural wine too. It's good to have apps with you when you go into a restaurant, too. Most of the time, you have a sommelier. The sommelier knows very well about the wine. Definitely. But it's good to have apps sometimes.

Do certain proteins go better with white wines, and others are better with red?

Most of the time the wine [pairs] very well with the local food. Like, I'm from Burgundy, and Chablis goes well with escargot. Those escargot are from Chablis aiguillette. They're close together. They grow together.

I'll work a lot with my sommelier, with Emily. She's amazing, because [when she tries] a dish, she tells me what ... goes with what, and what and what. It's amazing, what sommeliers can really do. [They] are pairing wine and food together. You know? But most of the time, like I say, what grows around together, they go well together. Like you go to Burgundy, you take a red wine Burgundy, order a Boeuf Bourguignon. You're safe with that. Or a good pate. Just use the local food and local wine together. You'll be okay. Local food: local wine!

Do you find that with other foods, the ingredients that grow closely together taste best together?

Yes. If you put a butternut squash with apple, they're all [grown in] the fall and they work very well together ... what you find in the [farmer's] market usually is you [good] together. All the fruit, the vegetables ... Nature will tell you what to do.

You have shared with Mashed a recipe for Steak Au Poivre to be paired with 2019 Urluberlu Syrah. Why did you choose that pairing?

I make steak — everybody loves steak au poivre, it's very French. It's a good sauce, it goes with everything, with fry or spinach. Steak with spinach is very good too ...The Syrah is very peppery, so, very spicy! So, it matches very well [with] the steak au poivre. It needs something with a good body, like dark color, black color. And peppery, spicy wine with the steak au poivre is great.

Chef Ludo Lefebvre discusses French restaurants and his new Denver endeavor

What food should Americans order at a French restaurant?

It depends on menu, but I would say a good onion soup, a steak tartare. I mean, if they go to a classic French restaurant they should definitely eat their onion soup, or steak tartare; escargot. Try that. Try the classic dishes together.

And if you're at a fancy French restaurant, the froufrou French restaurant, most of the time it's a set menu. So, your chef cooks for you. And [that's a] good thing now. We do a lot of wine pairings, and I love it. I love to go to the restaurant and have a wine pairing. I love it. The discovery of a lot of different wines with different food! ... I like that most of the time, the sommelier and the chef know what they're doing and you're discovering a lot of wine you're not used to ... That's why I learn a lot about wine with wine pairing, most of the time, especially with classic food. I also love natural wine now. And it pairs very well with classic French food. It's very fun. It's very fun to work with natural wine and French food. 

You are opening a new restaurant, Chez Maggy, in Denver. Can you share the details with Mashed readers?

I'm excited. My wife, she's from Denver, and so I have a lot of family from Denver ... We decided to do a restaurant in Denver, a classic French restaurant in Denver. It's going to be like Petit Trois style, a little bit different, but it's going to [offer] also a lot of classic French dishes. There'll be a lot of French wine on the menu, definitely, to pair the food, but also we're going to focus also on natural wine, too.

What do you mean by "natural wine"?

Natural fermentation. They add nothing to the wine. That's what it is.

People might not be aware that anything is added to wine, aside from grapes!

A lot of people don't realize that we add things to wine. A lot of people don't know that. You're right about that. So, that's why they're confused with natural wine, "Why do we call that natural wine?" Because they don't add anything to the wine. You're right.

Does wine taste better when it's natural?

I mean, I feel the wine is more alive. You have a natural fermentation. I think the wine has more pep, more life. It's alive, the wine's still living ... It's crazy, it's still alive. I feel like that when I drink natural wine, I feel like the wine's still evolving in the glass. It's crazy. Some people are scared with natural wine because some smell very bad ...

And I fell in love with natural wine with my sommelier, Emily. She's very good with that. And she taught me about that. And now I'm just obsessed with that. And I'm from Burgundy. I love my Burgundy, but natural wine is fun. Like I said, it's alive in the glass. It's so much texture, so much flavor ... [It's] a sweet and sparkling wine. Like a kombucha. It's so good.

Has it been challenging to open a new restaurant in the pandemic?

It's very challenging now to open a restaurant. It's very hard to find the staff now, still people ... the waiters, all the staff are still very scared to work a little bit. People are sick a lot now. [They] don't show up to work because they have a little sneeze, they think they have COVID so they don't show up. So, we're always understaffed. It's not easy now. It's not fun.

But thank God we have the guests – -we have supporters. We have a lot of people come to the restaurant, it's good. It's good. The people really going out and supporting the restaurant business is good, but it's very difficult to operate now. And like I say because of the variants, the staff are sick sometimes, they don't show up. People don't want to work. They're scared. It's still scary. You know?

Is your new restaurant open?

No, it's not open. We're opening at the beginning of January. Voila! So, now I'm in process of hiring, [working] on the menu, finishing the design — a lot of things now.

This is what it's like to be a TV celebrity chef, according to Chef Ludo Lefebvre

You've been on so many shows: "The Taste" and "Top Chef Masters," "Hell's Kitchen." What was your favorite TV cooking experience?

Of all of them. I mean, I love competition. Definitely. You know, chefs love competition! My favorite one, I think, was really to do "The Taste" with Anthony and Nigella [Lawson], and Marcus Samuelsson. Because Anthony was so much about competition that I loved to compete against him all the time. All the time it was a little, "I'm going to beat you that time. I'm going beat ..." I mean, Anthony and I were just like so much about competition and we really, really pushed each other to compete. I loved it. It was fun ... I loved when Anthony got mad. I loved it. Or frustrated. I loved it!

What was Anthony Bourdain like in person?

I did a lot of shows with Anthony Bourdain. We did a few one together, but the best one I did with him is when we did "No Reservations" together, and we went back to my country to Burgundy. Anthony is very humble — a very nice guy. I mean, he was very smart and had a big heart. He loved everybody. Just to be around him and see how he was with people, it was a good example for me in my life, how to be with people, how to talk with people, and to really listen to people. He was really listening to everything about people. He was very smart about that.

We went back to my country. We went to eat in the house of my grandma, went to see my first chef where I did my apprenticeship. He met all my friends. We partied. We ate. I mean, we ate a lot with Anthony. Anthony was eating a lot! I don't know how he ate that much and stayed so skinny! So skinny.  It was just amazing to spend a week with him in Burgundy. I learned so much about life. He taught me lot about life, art, music. I mean, you can talk about everything with Anthony, and he knew a lot. He was like a Bible, a Bible of life ... And he loved this Coq Au Vin. He loved Boeuf Bourguignon and Coq Au Vin. And he was very passionate about cheese. He was obsessed with cheese. ... Obsessed with cheese and with wine, of course, but cheese — it was just like, oh my God, Anthony can eat so much cheese! He loved French cheese. But he was just so nice with everybody, like, I said. He was so open, he was amazing. I learned a lot with him, to spend a little time with him in my life, definitely.

And he supported me a lot, too. We did some features with him. And I did "The Taste" with him, here in America and also in England. And we did some food events together, some charity [events] together. Did a book together. I did "Mind of a Chef" with him also [on] PBS. He just was great. Like I said, I learned so much with Anthony, not just with food, but about everything, about life. 

Chef Ludo Lefebvre dishes on working with Nigella Lawson and Selena Gomez

What is Nigella Lawson like in person?

Nigella, she's a great lady, beautiful, very smart, and knows so much about food. She knows so much about food, everything about food! And she's so smart, but the most important thing is, like Anthony, she has a big heart. She's so nice with everybody. She doesn't want to hurt anybody. I mean, she just so nice. The competition show is not for Nigella! No. She's too nice for competition.

But she knows a lot, a lot about food, more than me. Trust me. You can ask her whatever you want about food. She knows the answer. I mean, she did so many cookbooks, TV shows — I mean, she's a Bible also, for food ... I'm very proud now to say, "Nigella, she's my good friend." I'm very happy to have her in my life. Definitely. We talk one time every month to catch up. It's cool. I like her.

What was it like to be on "Selena + Chef?" Was Selena Gomez what you expected?

It was fun. I mean, look, it was the first episode we did in the series. So, in the beginning, it was not very easy. Everybody was trying to figure out how to make the show work. But Selena, she was very open. She was listening — it was good. I was not expecting [anything] bad from her. She was listening. She was really into the process to learn and to do well. So, I think that's why she [succeeded at] her omelet. She did a good job for the first time ... I was very proud of her. It was great to just to teach somebody like Selena who doesn't know how to cook very well, and to teach her to do an omelet — and especially when she succeeded. I guess I'm a good teacher!

You know why I love to cook — because I love to teach. I think chefs, our first job is to teach ... to pass people all our savoir faire, all the things we know, it's really to teach people, all our techniques, our inspiration, [to] teach them how to pick ingredients. I mean, all these things. It's about cooking. And I love to do that. I love to teach.

Do you have any plans for new TV cooking shows?

I have a new show coming to TBS ... It's a funny name called, "Rat in the Kitchen." I'm a judge and the host is Natasha Leggero, the comedian ... and it's coming [to] TBS in January.

Chef Ludo Lefebvre's cooking advice for aspiring chefs

Do you have one piece of advice to aspiring chefs?

Practice, practice. Don't give up. I still make mistakes. I'm 50 years old now. I [have been cooking] for 35 years. And sometimes I do mistakes, too. I break a sauce. I go too fast or put in too much butter. I mean, mistakes happen in cooking. An example: an omelet, an omelet is going to be better and better. The more you practice, the more you're going to be better. It's like sport, like everything; music. The more you practice, the more you're going to be better. So, practice a lot! If you don't know how to do it, practice. And be patient.

How do you know how to choose the best ingredients?

The first job for a chef is to go hunting — hunting for good ingredients. That's our first job. If we don't have good ingredients, good produce, or anything good, you cannot be a good chef. So, the first job as a chef is for you to pick good ingredients. And for what? To get inspiration. I know it's boring, but to go to the farmer's market, and really go see what you have in the farmer's market, and you create your dish at the farmer's market!  Don't go to the farmer's market and say, "I'm going to make that," and that. Because maybe the tomatoes are not going to be good, so you need to change. I mean, I know it's easy for me to say that, but I really recommend people to do their menu at the farmer's market. But you need to love to go!

It's hard to go to the farmer's market and just see something and create dishes on the spot ... it's not easy. Still for me, too, sometimes, after 35 years of cooking, sometimes I struggle. But try to do that. Push yourself. Try to go on the spot and create a dish from there. You have the tomato here, you have the onions here, you have some cucumber here, or potato and try to put them together. Listen to nature, and it should work together. You know? Nature will tell you what to cook; what to do. Most of the time, fruit goes with vegetables during the fall or summer. You can really, really play a lot with combinations. And be creative — try new things. Play a little bit. Don't be scared to play.

Should people buy their spices at the farmer's market also?

Yes, if I see some at the farmer's market, I will buy in the farmer's market ... and I love spice. A little bit of spice in the food is good ... It's good to use the right spice, the right elements.

What would you say your most exciting career accomplishment so far has been?

I think it's to get a Michelin star. Definitely. I was very proud of that. Very happy for my staff. I worked for a long time, and it was a good accomplishment to get that. I think [that] also was the best time of my life was when I opened my first restaurant ... eight years ago, Trois Mec. I was very proud of that. It took me a long time to open my restaurant, and it was a good feeling to work for yourself. Scary, but a good feeling. And it's good. It's good to be scared sometimes.

Shop Chef Ludo Lefebvre's Vin De Table wine collection. For updates on his new Denver restaurant, Chez Maggy, follow him on Instagram.