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Laurent Gras a Michelin three-star chef, still in limbo at L2O

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Michelin director Jean-Luc Naret was able to talk by phone Tuesday with L2O chef Laurent Gras, now a three Michelin star chef, but Gras' (former?) boss wasn't so lucky.

"I called Laurent about an hour and a half ago and left a message on his answering machine, on his cell phone," said Rich Melman, Lettuce Entertain You honcho.

About three months ago, Gras told Melman he wanted out for personal reasons. Melman told him to take some time and think through things, and early this month, Gras left.

"I really, truly don't know [if Gras will return]," Melman said. "My feeling is we're going forward. I love the team we have in place. And we've already made many changes, so hey, if he comes back, I'm thrilled and if he doesn't, I'm going forward."

That team includes chef de cuisine Francis Brennan; Doug Psaltis, who trained under Alain Ducasse, and Jeff Mahin.

Those changes include -- well, Melman says it best:
"There were souffles I didn't love. I thought some of the sushi, the sashimi should be more understandable. Some of the sauce weren't punchy enough.

"There was a chicken dish that I absolutely loved with a foie gras sauce and you had the option of truffles with it, and Laurent would make it for me at Christmas and I'd say, You've gotta put this on the menu. And he'd laugh and wouldn't do it. . . We put it on the menu and it's been selling like crazy.

"There is a rosemary croissant, a little, tiny one that was the best roll. People would always comment to me about it. And Laurent liked changing it all the time, and we'd get all these complaints from people. So I put the croissant back. . . There's been many, many little things like that. But Laurent set the standard for what that restaurant is, was and will be, and in that respect, I won't change it."

Melman says he and Gras talked about Michelin's arrival in Chicago; Gras was certain he wouldn't get three stars. "He always thought one or two," Melman said.

Melman is pleased with all the stars -- the three for L2O, and one each for Everest and Tru -- but like any driven restaurateur or chef, it's not enough. "There's never a restaurant that I'm not working on. There is no such thing as a perfect restaurant, one that can't be better," he said.

Whether L2O gets better with or without Gras remains to be seen; Melman says he's giving Gras a "couple months" to figure it out. Gras is expected to be at tomorrow's reception in Chicago for the Michelin guide; Melman has other obligations.

"There's a good chance he won't come back," Melman said. "Let me put it this way -- it wouldn't surprise me if he didn't."

9 Comments

I cannot decide which I find more tragic: my great disappointment that Laurent Gras' genius will no longer direct one of my favorite restaurants or the pathetic and self-interested comments by several posters.

Whatever happened between Gras and Melman, we may never fully know; whatever happens with L20 after Gras' departure, we'll find out. But what this article and comments do make clear is that arse-licking and biased, if not deceptive, commentary (that would mean you, Fuller and Ellen Malloy, in particular) remain very much entrenched in restaurant journalism.

After reading and hearing everything I have, it strikes me that what we have here -- at least partly -- is a case of Melman jumping the gun. Had he waited until *after* the Michelin rankings came out to pressure Gras to "simplify" (to put it mildly) his cuisine, he might've rethought things in light of the 3-star ranking and left Gras and his vision alone. And then he'd still unequivocally have a 3-star restaurant with a new lease on life, instead of a 3-star chef who's gone and a lot of uncertainty surrounding the restaurant, and thus a possible failure to capitalize on the Michelin accolades. It's a bummer all around.

Hey "Johnny", how 'bout use your real name?? Why don't you grow up and tell Brennan and the other "minions" you don't like the chicken to their faces? Or better yet, go to NYC and work for Gras. Oh wait, didn't he call you? Oh that's right, he never even said goodbye to you. Remind me who signs your paycheck? It's for sure not Gras. It's Melman, you know the guy who invested millions of dollars in a restaurant that has failed to make a dime. And who's your chef now? Brennan is. He's the guy who was Gras' chef du cuisine in San Francisco probably before you were tall enough to flip a burger.
Be more mature. Understand that it's called the restaurant business because it's a business, not "hey, let's make food the majority of people don't understand and do 20 covers a night and not earn any money". Get on board Johnny, you just might learn something.

First of all congratulations to you Johnny and your fellow line cooks –any great Chef is made possible in large part to the amazing support team he or she has both in the back and front of the house; LG is no exception. No argument he is a great chef and the love for him among his line cooks (both now and historically) is one that can only compare to that of a cultish figure.

I am posting because I think it is important that some facts be made in response to Johnny’s post, specifically in reference to Francis Brennan. To be clear, I am not part of Francis’ camp, I no longer live in Chicago and I have no connection to Lettuce or Mr. Melmen.

Francis Brenan is smart, talented and without pretense, suffice to say he is a gem of a man and a hell of a cook. Perhaps more important for this discussion he was Laurent’s Sous for many years @ The Fifth Floor (where Laurent won FB Best New Chef). Laurent tapped him not once but twice to be his wingman– which demonstrates his clear trust and respect for Francis. Can you find another Sous of Laurent’s who came back for a second round – I doubt you can. To say Francis doesn’t “get” Laurent or know of LG’s vision, and philosophy is nonsense. Francis was on the ground floor when the vision for L20 was created and was behind the scenes with him for years prior to the opening. Francis is the prime example of one of those souls who dedicated his life and time and the early years of his first child’s life to helping Laurent achieve the great things he has– this moment did not transpire over the last 3 years. There are countless line cooks, like you, like Francis, who dedicated their soul to this Chef, whose dreams blended into his. You behave as though your team was his first but simply you are his latest. Laurent has a track record for working himself into complete exhaustion and then exiting stage left, leaving his kitchen behind. How do you know this did not happen this time? Is Mr. Melmen supposed to leave his $5.5 MM investment empty while Chef recharges his battery? This is a tough business and change happens. We all make choices in life and he made a choice to leave and the guy with the checkbook (the very one that paid your salary by the way) made his.

The true question out there is not why LG and Melmen broke up but will L20 remain the same place post LG? Of course not, nor should it. But to suggest that it will be anything less than great is quite simply arrogant and foolish. Perhaps it feels as though to do anything other than disrespect this new team would be to “cheat” on LG. You certainly would not be the first to have these feelings. I saw his entire line go through the same thing when he left them at The Fifth Floor. By the way he left for “personal reasons and to pursue other things” that time too. Sound familiar? To hope for another team to be successful is not to say that Laurent is anything less than extraordinary, nor does it mean these stars mean less. Francis is not why Laurent left, remember he stated it himself several times and so did Mr. Melmen, he left for personal reasons and left you behind. If you are bitter about that you have only one person to direct that towards.

For those of you who have pre-judged the next chapter in the L20 story book - quite simply you’ve cheated yourself out of what I have every confidence will be an amazing culinary experience. Trust me once you meet his food, you’ll be rooting for him also.


Before all the rumors spreads, let me clear something up for everyone. L2O did earn those stars. When the Michelin Guide was rating us, the chef was there and we were pushing to earn the stars. And we did. There is one Chef de Cuisine, Nathan.
Francis Brennan; Doug Psaltis, who trained under Alain Ducasse, and Jeff Mahin. are from corporate. they know nothing of the vision and philosophy of L2O and Laurent. Couple of those guys open up L2O and LEFT to do whatever they did. So they all joined Rich Melman and became his evil minions. they changed everything on the menu and is no longer the same. So the Stars belong to L2O and all the hard working staff, especially the people who dedicated their lives and time to work alongside Laurent Gras. Rich Melman only has his money to wave in front of people to get them to do what he thinks sells. Poach chicken breast and foie gras sauce does not belong on a menu at a restaurant of this caliber. All the changes that is occurring at L2O is no longer the vision of Laurent, obviously, but of a man full of money trying to save his investments and ruining peoples lives and driving a great restaurant down to become his next chain.

I worked at L20 for about 5 months before I quit. Melmen is a nice guy and Laurent Gras is a driven and amazingly talented chef who treated everyone who worked there like they were sub-human. That being said, this place belonged to Laurent Gras and won't be nearly as good without him. My advice would be to not ever work for Laurent, but be sure to eat his food if you ever have the chance.

Reading this makes me not want to eat at L2O again, even if Gras returns. The cuisine in that restaurant was entirely his vision, and it was extraordinary, if not immediately accessible. I realize Melman is a businessman above all else, but it's very sad to see his enthusiasm for, essentially, dumbing down Gras's cuisine. I feel privileged to have eaten there while Gras was still running the show, doubly so now since that era is clearly over.

Well, wow. I clicked on this to find out more about the Laurent Gras thing but really, what is so fascinating in this article is information revealing the brilliance of Rich Melman. I have actually been lucky enough to see him in action, at the opening of Osteria via Stato, where his incredible focused attention reminded me of Michael Jordan (who I was also blessed to see in action in a meeting or two). And it obviously continues here. I mean think of it, he is talking about a 3-star Michelin restaurant and instead of waxing on about being proud and all, he is drilling down to souffles he didn't love, sushi that isn't accessible and the need for a yummy chicken dish that sells. That is truly amazing. Rich Melman should have gotten his own Michelin something, maybe a honorary amazing restaurateur award or something.

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Janet Rausa Fuller

Sun-Times Food editor Janet Rausa Fuller is always thinking about her next meal.

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