By Michael Nagrant
You can run Laurent Gras over, but you can’t stop him. Though Gras, the chef of L20 in Lincoln Park, was hit by a car while cycling earlier this year, he’s already resumed a nineteen-hour work day and kicks out four-hour bike rides on his days off. In the last two months he also picked up best new restaurant honors from Esquire magazine and Newcity. I checked in with Gras to see how he was doing post-recovery and to see what was afoot at Chicago’s high-end seafood emporium.
Tell me about the cycling accident.
I was on my road bike and after four or five hours of cycling, I was coming back to the city and…when I got to the middle of the intersection I got [hit] by a car at about forty [miles per hour]. I had seven broken ribs, one of my lungs collapsed, [I had a] fractured pelvis, a big cut in my back. I [had] to go to [the emergency room] and have surgery. It was a horrible accident. I’m still recovering.
You have an incredible arsenal of cooking tools at L20—a special bread oven, a distiller, a Hawaiian ice shaver. Are you a gadget guy?
I’m very into technology. Everything I have is very specific. My bike is BMC, Swiss made, [with] all Campagnolo [components], and it’s all carbon…I know exactly what I like. Everything I’m using in the kitchen is a tool, but it’s a tool that I put a lot of thought into and did research to make sure what I was looking into is what we needed to achieve the result we wanted. For me, to have a lot of tools allows us to be much more precise and to bring technology to young cooks and give them a structure of organization they can easily follow.
So it’s not about having toys, but about having better food on the plate?
Yeah, putting a very consistent application into whatever we do.
Along that same line, you use molds and stencils to construct your plates. A lot of people talk about cooking as art. Is there any tension for you between using a stencil and wanting the freedom of creativity?
When I develop a recipe, I bring the ingredients out, and I measure as I feel them, and I don’t use stencils. If you look at the staff, you have twenty cooks serving a hundred meals and ten plates for each guest, and if you don’t have the structure, it’s going all over the place. I love the freedoms, but I don’t think we can be free in the kitchen and be free for everybody. You have to have some constraints, but it works better.
So, none of your cooks try to be Jackson Pollock…
No, I’m the only one who can be Jackson Pollock.
You spent twelve years working with Alain Ducasse. How did you know when it was time to leave?
When we got three [Michelin] stars in Paris. I said, ‘What am I going to do?’ We’ve been together for twelve years. We achieved a lot. I think it’s time for me to move on. I was tired about France, I was tired about the rigid structure. Success is much more conventional [in France]. In the States, when you have talents, people appreciate it. Whatever I opened [in Paris] I would be [considered] the student of Ducasse for the next twenty years.
These days you see a lot of young chefs opening restaurants. Opening your own place at 43, you were very deliberate with your career path. Do you think you have an advantage?
Life is a long way. Work is a relationship, a marriage. Cooking is a long road. It’s not because you peel wild onions that you know how to peel an onion. You learn to peel an onion when you peel 500 pounds of onion. To butcher fish, you need to butcher 10,000 pounds to be an expert. There are so many things you need to learn to lead people. I think some people mature very young. You need to feel yourself and what’s right for you.
What made Richard Melman [of Lettuce Entertain You] a good business partner?
For him, opening a seafood restaurant was more of a luxury than a financial goal. When your financial partner…has that understanding, it’s a very different world. With the economic situation we are facing…I’m sure if I was a partner with a banker, it would be a huge amount of stress.
How has the current economy impacted L20?
The economy is [reducing our business] thirty percent. You need to make adjustments and cut profit margins as close [as possible]. That’s what it is. It’s hard.
On your blog, you’ve talked about tableside service and huge family-style presentations. Is there still a place for that kind of dining?
I think there is. You bring a whole striped bass and…cut it tableside, [that’s a great feeling]. It’s for families and special occasions, something to offer to guests. I believe in the grand cuisine. Molecular gastronomy hasn’t replaced any of that.