Interview with Chef David LeFevre of Water Grill - Los Angeles, CA

May 2006

Antoinette Bruno: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
David Lefevre: 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?
DL: 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?
DL: 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?
DL: 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?
DL: 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?
DL: 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?
DL: 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?
DL: 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?
DL: 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?
DL: 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?
DL: 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.