In the thick of the delicious chaos at the SoBe Wine & Food Fest, DiningOut sat down for a conversation and refreshments with globetrotting, bacon-loving, French chef Laurent Tourondel at BLT Steak in the Betsy Hotel of Miami, just one of his 16 restaurants.
DiningOut: What’s your first memory of cooking—the moment that really sparked your interest—and who was with you?
Laurent Tourondel: I was with my grandmother. I think I was standing up on a chair and making chocolate mousse. I was six, maybe. My grandmother was not a professional chef, but a very talented cook. We lived in the French countryside then, and it was a wonderful way of living. The only thing we could cook was what we could get from the garden.
Did growing up in the countryside inspire you to cook seasonally and keep things local?
For sure. But in terms of buying ingredients—naturally-grown with no pesticides or anything—it’s very difficult in this country. And if you do, it becomes very expensive. Meats are also very expensive so sometimes we do specials—something that’s organic, grass-fed—but not everyone understands the cost.
Tell me about how you became chef to the admiral in the French Navy?
Well, it was mandatory that I go to the Navy, and they told me they wanted me to jump out of a plane with a parachute. I said, “I’m not doing that.” I told them that if they made me do that, I would run away from my country [laughs], and the guy says, “Okay, so what do you want to do?” I said, “I want to be on a boat. I want to be in the Navy.” Well, I never went on a boat, but I did become the chef to the Admiral Private Hotel, making croissants every morning, or foie gras—it was the life of the life! Amazing two years. Amazing.
What age were you when you moved to New York?
26. But I have lived all over the world—Moscow, Paris, London …
Which was your favorite?
I liked Moscow a lot, and I also like New York.
How many restaurants do you have currently?
16. I just opened a new one.
Where is that?
My new restaurant is in Kazakhstan.
Can I ask why Kazakhstan?
Actually the question is, why not Kazakhstan? There are sophisticated people there who eat well and travel a lot because there’s a lot of money in Kazakhstan. So it’s a good experience.
What kind of restaurant is it?
It’s a grill—a very sophisticated grill with a sushi bar inside.
When did you start serving sushi?
We started a couple years ago. I wanted to make the menu more approachable for women, so I added sushi and some lighter items. I needed to learn about sushi, so I took a trip to Japan and I came up with my own. For me, it’s all about textures and flavors.
I want to tell you a story about this dish. [Chef Tourondel points to a tuna tartare with avocado and micro-greens at the table]. It came about because one day I was bored at home. My restaurant, Cello, had just closed. So, I was depressed, alone in my apartment, and in the middle of writing my cookbook. I had all these ingredients left over because I was writing the cookbook, so I thought, “Let me cook something for myself.” So, I created this dish alone in my apartment. This was probably 13 or 14 years ago.
Do you have a single most memorable experience from your restaurants?
The worst drama in my career actually happened a couple of months ago during the opening of the restaurant in Kazakhstan. So, it was the opening day and the guy who owns the hotel where the restaurant is located invites 80 of his very rich friends—from the president of the country, to the minister, to the mayor. We were doing an eight or ten-course dinner, so 800 plates. Before the dinner at eight o’clock, the Black-Eyed Peas were playing, and the fireworks were going. So at seven o’ clock, I’m grilling stuff on the wood grill, and every plate is ready in the kitchen.
All my team is there—about 25 in the kitchen—and we’re waiting and suddenly, the power goes out. In my head, I’m like, it doesn’t matter, even if the power goes out I can still take my food into the banquet kitchen downstairs. And, then, one little ash of the wood grill goes up into the sprinkler system, and the whole kitchen explodes. An explosion!
Disaster! So how do you decompress after a big, high-stress dinner event like that?
I don’t stress a lot anymore. You have to take it as it comes, and fix the problem. I do lose it sometimes! But somehow you just have to stay in the moment. I take a lot of time to think about things so I’m not making decisions on the spot.
Do people realize that BLT and LT stand for you initials?
Not always. But it’s easy to remember. I gave it this name because of my initials but also because I remember seeing so many restaurants while I was in New York with names that were difficult to pronounce or remember.
Which one is your favorite?
This one—BLT Steak in Miami at the Betsy. Look at this! You wake up and you see the beach, and it’s a beautiful hotel.
So, what’s next for Chef Laurent?
I am currently working on a new restaurant concept for a property in New York City. Think wood-burning oven …
Tell me about family life.
I’m single. Divorced. Married to the same woman twice. I definitely tried. Twice!
Yes, I have one daughter. She is 15 years old.
Does she like to cook?
I am discouraging her! She is very good at making pastries, though.
Are you a dessert person?
Yeah, I love it. It’s my passion! [Chef Tourondel orders a panna cotta, crepe soufflé, and the carrot cake]
I am a pastry chef’s nightmare. To me, everything should be fresh—never frozen. That’s why when I build a kitchen, I don’t put a freezer inside.