Published Writing Samples
Profile of Dr. Mark Lew for Keck Medicine Magazine
USC Research Finds Clues to Genetic Instructions
Elegy for My Dad in my hometown paper, the Frankfort State Journal:
Corporate Profile of Home Depot for Workforce Management Magazine:
Excerpt from Crave: the Feast of the Five Senses
By Ludo Lefebvre with Martin Booe
The Education of a French Chef
When I was thirteen, I told my dad that I wanted to be a chef. I might as well have told him I wanted to be an elephant trainer; cooking was a profession nobody in my family had followed, and he had more conventional jobs in mind for me. But he also figured that being a chef was better than being a juvenile delinquent, which had been my previous career choice, and one for which I showed a lot of promise. I had already been kicked out of two schools for locking one teacher in a storage closet and throwing another’s handbag out a second story window. I was angry, rebellious and always getting into trouble.
So he called his friend, Jean-Pierre, who had a small restaurant called Maxime in our village of Auxerre, in the region of Burgundy, where the men of the village gathered daily at noon and whiled away the lunch hours drinking copious quantities of wine and neglecting their wives. It was a pleasant place where everyone knew everyone, and its comfortable terrace overlooking the river certainly encouraged leisure -- as if Burgundians needed any encouragement in that direction. Anyway, Jean-Pierre agreed to take me on in the kitchen, which dished up simple, classic Burgundy dishes like coq a vin, steak béarnaise and wonderful potato gratins.
My father figured that two weeks of sweating my buns around hot stoves in cramped conditions, washing mountains of pots and pans, chopping bushel baskets of vegetables, and generally being treated like a slave, would cure me of my ridiculous ambition. And hopefully point me toward a more sensible profession. So for two weeks, I chopped, scraped, washed, and did all of the grunt work of the kitchen. The hours were long. I would return home at the end of the day looking like some gothic warrior, my hair matted in animal fat and my face caked with flour. But I liked the energy in the kitchen, and within a few days, I made up my mind: one day, I would be the one giving the orders. To me, being a chef seemed like being the conductor of an orchestra. All of that shouting, barking and clanging translated into a beautiful, musical feast and I wanted to be the one waving the baton.
At the end of the two weeks, Jean-Pierre gave me 200 francs and I felt rich and proud. I went straight to the village store and bought my own knife. When I got home, Dad called me into the living room. “So, Ludovic, after all that grunt work, I’d imagine you’re ready to think about a real job.” I told him no, I’d decided to become a chef. It was the first time I ever saw my father speechless. Still, he took me at my word.
My grandfather, it turned out, was an old friend of Marc Meneau, whose Restaurant L’Esperance in St. Pere Sous Vezelay had won three Michelin stars. Meneau agreed to give me a one-month tryout, and off I went to the village of St. Pere Sous Vezelay, 40 miles from Auxerre, to work for free. Though located in a village of 200 in the middle of a forest, L’Esperance was a rare opportunity. It was decided that I’d finish college (the equivalent of high school in America) and go to work for Meneau. This brought about an almost magical change in my attitude. I studied hard and my grades improved dramatically. I stopped causing trouble. I now had something to work toward. Six months later I was accepted to the Castle culinary school in Dijon. I would spend one week a month studying there and three working for Meneau. I was fourteen.
Any chef of Meneau’s stature would be papered with requests from experienced chefs to learn at his elbow, and I was lucky to get a tryout. Dad gave me enough of an allowance support me in fine style in a flophouse eight miles outside the village. Mornings I hitchhiked to the restaurant while my fellow residents passed the days drinking and watching porno movies, which was a good way for them to spend their time because they had to save their energy for the fist fights they would have later in the evening. It was a good thing I’d discovered cooking because compared to my neighbors, I would have been a failure as a juvenile delinquent.
I was scared to death of the flophouse denizens (I was even afraid to take breakfast with them in the communal dining room), but I was more scared of Meneau. True, the flophouse guys might slit my throat to steal five francs for a cheap bottle of wine, but Meneau had a real way of wielding psychological terror. My grandfather had not told me that my tenure with Meneau was an audition, and that after 30 days I might well get canned. It was better not to know, or I would have been even more nervous.
My first day of work, I showed up wearing jeans and a t-shirt. “Why are you dressed like that?” Meneau snarled. “You look like a bum!” He grumbled some more and found me a chef’s jacket that was 6 sizes too big, that I flopped around in until I got my own. Meneau was a large man with a booming voice, and a hush came over the kitchen whenever he passed through.
The kitchen itself was tiny, and with 25 chefs at work, about to burst from overcrowding, so I was exiled to the corner where the garbage cans were. I spent my first shift sitting on top of the garbage cans, cleaning game, learning as I went along. As it happened, I was still exhausted from running a 40-mile marathon the day before, and after an hour I passed out cold in the kitchen. I came to find the kitchen crew encircled around me, looking at me like I was a hopeless case.
I can’t explain the kind of magical transformation I went through when I was in the kitchen. Through most of school I was contrary, rebellious and sullen. But here in the restaurant, ordered around like a private in boot camp, I was a fountain of “yessirrs!” and “right away sirs!” “Never stand there with your arms folded like that!” Meneau screamed at me at the top of his lungs (this was his normal speaking voice.) “There’s always something to be done!” He only had to tell me once.
I was in awe of Meneau’s chefs and their neurotic obsession with perfection, and even at my young age, I realized that to work in a three star restaurant, food soldier that I was, was a rare opportunity. At first, I was always on the verge of disaster. I was always afraid of being shouted at for chopping the carrots too large, or failing to master the myriad of prep work fast enough. Once I was asked to fetch a crate of lobsters from the storage room. It was bad enough that I was terrified of lobsters; their claws weren’t bound and I was sure they would snap off my fingers. But when I tried to open the door, the key broke. With no idea what to do, and certain that as punishment Meneau would fling me into a lobster pot full of boiling water, I went to Fernand, the old pastry chef, who had become kind of an uncle to me, and begged for advice. Together, we quietly broke into the storage room and got the lobsters.
I worked six days a week, never taking off a single holiday, including Christmas. For four years, I returned at night to the dismal flophouse and listened to my radio in my room while the young criminals watched their pornos in the TV room. In some ways, the work was grueling, but sensing my shared obsession with food, Meneau’s chefs gradually took me under their wing and began to teach me.
One night as I was leaving, Meneau took me aside. “Your hands are like gold,” he said. “I’m glad to have you in my kitchen.” I didn’t expect this kind of praise and I could barely respond. As time went on, I told him I wanted to go to the United States. “You’re too young,” he admonished me (not the first time I would be told this.) “But I think it’s time for you to move on.” He arranged a meeting with Chef Pierre Gagnaire, another three-star chef, whose Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire was in Saint-Etienne. In France, it’s normal for chefs eventually to kick their best apprentices out of the nest to gain experience with others. I guess you could say there is a kind of communal commitment to enriching the culinary gene pool. Meneau had not only taught me much; he had taken an interest in my future...