Chef David LeFevre is a native of Wisconsin but has logged countless miles on culinary adventures to the world’s most exotic destinations. Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, he often assisted his mother in the kitchen, which may have been the unwitting genesis of his future career as a chef. “I loved to eat and realized that if I knew how to cook, I could eat anytime I wanted,” he remembers. However, the Midwestern teen enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to pursue a career in industrial engineering—about as far as one can get, geographically and philosophically, from the great kitchens of the world.
After meeting some chefs at various restaurant jobs, LeFevre left the structured world of engineering to focus his energy on succeeding in the culinary world. He enrolled at the renowned Culinary Institute of America. He interned at super chef Charlie Trotter’s celebrated restaurant in Chicago, where he made enough of an impression on his mentor to land a job as tournant at Trotter’s Las Vegas venue after graduation in 1995. The Las Vegas restaurant was a few years ahead of its time, and when it closed the young chef looked to the other side of the Atlantic for inspiration.
With Trotter’s support, LeFevre traveled to France to refine his classical skills in some of the world’s most exalted kitchens. The list of apprenticeships on LeFevre’s résumé reflects a veritable constellation of Michelin stars, including such rarefied venues as the late Bernard Loiseau’s restaurant, La Côte d’Or, Restaurant Jean Bardet and Roger Vergé’s Le Moulin de Mougins. When he returned, LeFevre moved to the Windy City in 1996 to work as a line cook at Trotter’s flagship restaurant, where he quickly advanced to sous chef and, subsequently, executive sous chef.
In addition to his grueling responsibilities in one of America’s top kitchens, LeFevre also participated in over 50 national and international culinary events, cooking for celebrities, heads of state and at the James Beard House. His recipes and the artistically plated food he prepared have been captured in several of Trotter’s award- winning coffee table cookbooks, and he contributed to the production of the PBS television series, Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter. Traveling the world as a representative of Trotter’s, LeFevre acted as a liaison and assistant to some of the biggest names in the culinary world, such as Alain Ducasse, Michel Trama and Gordon Ramsey, arguably the most influential toques in the world today.
Anxious to explore new cuisines, flavors and exotic locales, LeFevre began two years of intensive globetrotting in 2002, immersing himself in the culinary riches of Southeast Asia, Japan, Australia, the Caribbean, and Europe. Teaming with leading hoteliers and restaurateurs on four continents, the young chef consulted, made guest chef appearances and conducted promotional events in destinations as diverse as Singapore, Bangkok, Stockholm and Tokyo. His fascination with the cuisines of northern Africa, Southeast Asia and India has already begun to influence his cooking. Although he never abandons the classic French technique he refined at the sides of the great masters, LeFevre is constantly open to new, exciting flavor combinations from the far corners of the globe.
In 2004, LeFevre was recruited for the position of executive chef at Water Grill, where he looks forward to fully establishing the restaurant as one of the premier destinations for sophisticated seafood dining in North America. The 32-year-old chef’s approach eschews excessively heavy sauces, relies on the freshest, highest quality seafood and vegetables, and focuses on clean, bright flavors with citrus, spice and herbal overtones. While his dishes are artfully plated, he favors presentations that reflect forms found in nature, as opposed to contrived geometric structures. LeFevre’s core philosophy is promising news indeed for Water Grill diners: “I always try to exceed the expectations of my guests…also to exceed the expectations of my crew…and especially of myself,” says the ambitious, introspective chef.
Interview with Chef David LeFevre of Water Grill - Los Angeles, CAAntoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
I started cooking with my mother growing up. She was a great cook. I was always the kid at school with the pita bread and falafel sandwich with organic soda. All I wanted was a bologna sandwich and potato chips, but my mom wouldn’t have it. Also my grandparents were very inspiring. My grandfather would put a pot of water on the stove and we would then leave to pick corn at the farm. On the way home I would have to husk the corn in the car so when we got home the water would be boiling and the corn would only be off the stalk for 10 minutes from plant to pot!
AB: Who are your mentors? What are some of the most important things you’ve learned from them?
Charlie Trotter. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear his voice in my head. Charlie taught me the little details that blow away the expectations of the guest. With him, there is always something else we can do to be better – he is aware of everything. He taught me that there are so many different facets – it’s not just working in a kitchen. Charlie let me participate in cookbooks, consulting, out-of-house events and product development.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
I like bright, fresh flavors. I want flavors to pop in your mouth. I like to use acidity, vinegars and citrus to balance the richer elements on a dish. I like our guests to feel satiated, but not as if they can’t move afterwards. During tasting menus, I think it is important for the guest to want just one more bite of the previous dish so it keeps them anticipating the next.
AB: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like?
Fresh wasabi. It has an amazing fresh bite without a harsh burn, and it finishes sweet. Preserved lemon is incredible with seafood. Tonburi has a great earthy flavor and texture and is nice with raw preparations. Sumac, because of the tartness and acidity.
AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
My Japanese knives. Masamoto and Aritsugu have used the same metal and the same wood for hundreds of years. You can’t beat it. Also my shark skin wasabi grater. It’s the ultimate tool to get that perfect grate. With both of those tools you have incredible histories, craftsmanship, design, and even ergonomics. Sometimes tools from 100 years ago are better than the most cutting-edge technology.
AB: Is there a culinary technique that you have either created or use in an unusual way?
I think that I humbly do adaptations and combinations of dishes and ingredients. I don’t think I could be so bold as to say, “I created this dish.” I merely do my take on ingredients and concepts that have been practiced by hundreds of chefs for hundreds of years, in most cases.
AB: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
Why do you like to cook? Why did you leave your last job? It tells me what they’re looking for. What’s your favorite type of seafood? I have my sous chef screen all potentials and then I do a second interview with anyone who makes it past that point. I like to walk very fast during a tour of the restaurant to see if potential candidates keep up. I know it sounds crazy, but I need to see that they are eager and have a great energy about them.
AB: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
Don’t worry about titles or how much money you are or aren’t going to make. Concentrate on the people you are working with and their commitment to excellence, the product you are working with, and how much you will develop in each position you take on. Never take a job you are comfortable with. You should have that nervous energy going into each service.
AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
DL: The Joy of Cooking
. It’s so old school, and it’s got great basics. Moosewood cookbooks remind me of my mom. All the Trotter books are dear to me. A Japanese cookbook by Artisugu, the knife maker. It covers everything from how to wash your cutting board to how to stand and tie your apron correctly – the Japanese are so precise!
AB: What cities do you like for culinary travel? Which is the most interesting city for culinary travel?
Singapore and Chang Mai are awesome for great cultural food, but San Sebastian is probably my favorite city of where I have visited.
AB: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
Thinking outside the box, getting all your senses involved, using different tools. It’s all very interesting as long as it tastes great. I personally love to see reemerging old classics.
AB: Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years?
I see myself in beautiful surroundings, in a less metropolitan and slightly smaller restaurant with a highly personalized cuisine. I want to be involved in all aspects of the restaurant: design, service, wine, architecture, flatware.