After the Closing of his acclaimed New York City restaurant, Cello, Laurent Tourondel changed direction 360 degrees and began creating a series of relaxed but stylish eateries. Now his French-influenced, casual fare is found in many states, with distant countries on the horizon. His distinctive group of restaurants — BLT Market, BLT Fish, BLT Steak, BLT Prime and the newest, BLT Burger in Las Vegas — have put this “thinking man's chef” on the culinary A List. Tourondel kept RH contributor Libby Platus amused as he shared the logic behind some of his decisions and actions.
RH: A great surprise awaits the customer soon after sitting down at BLT Steak LA. Giant mushroom-shaped popovers are delivered to the table. They are delicious and will surely encourage customers' return. Why popovers?
Tourondel: Neiman Marcus is where I picked up the idea. I said, “This is fantastic!” And I don't know why only Neiman Marcus does it. It took me a long time to figure out the recipe. I was trying to give the customer something better than the dried-out bread that many steakhouses have.
RH: Why did you wait to open BLT L.A. until after White Plains, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico?
Tourondel: The L.A. property was not ready. We had other offers in between, so we took them.
RH: What made you decide to go to Puerto Rico?
Tourondel: The Ritz-Carlton.
RH: Are you planning to hook up with one major hotel chain, the way Jean-Georges Vongerichten signed with Starwood?
Tourondel: If the deal is good, why not? We are opening at the J.W. Marriott in Scottsdale and, like Jean-Georges, we are going to open at a W in Atlanta.
RH: What factors do you look for in a deal?
Tourondel: The main goal is to have exclusivity and to be able to choose the location. Of course, financial conditions and the facility are important, too.
RH: Would you want complete say over what is done in that space?
Tourondel: It's not only my decision. If it were just me, I would do only one restaurant and run away. But it doesn't work this way. Sometimes, a hotel is more traditional and classic like a Ritz-Carlton or hip and trendy like a W; the needs and location are different in each hotel.
RH: Dubai and Qatar are experiencing mind-boggling transformation through massive development. Would you open in the Emirates?
Tourondel: If they ask me to go, I'll move over there and never come back. No. We had some offers, but they were not good enough. Only one restaurant is not the thing to do. It would have to be for many restaurants. It takes a lot to control a restaurant in another country. The chefs that are there now have more than one restaurant.
RH: Since that region is primarily desert, what is the source for the meat and produce?
Tourondel: It's funny you are asking that because I have been researching where to get products for Dubai, Qatar and Kazakstan. Most of their products come from Asia, Australia and New Zealand. It's only 24 hours' turnaround. Just like the time from the fish market in Tokyo to BLT Steak LA. It's here! It's still fresh.
RH: The concept for BLT started after your highly regarded Cello in Manhattan fell apart in 2002. A financial backer pulled out and left you a “chef without a restaurant.” You spent a lot of time traveling and regrouping. What was your thinking with BLT?
Tourondel: I gave up the fine dining experience. I have had many offers since the closing of Cello to do fine dining and I don't want to, I want to stay away from it. It's too much maintenance. In all ways: financially, time-wise.
RH: How is BLT different than fine dining?
Tourondel: I'm having fun doing what I'm doing. And I'm happy about it. I have more liberty with what I can create and it doesn't have to be very precise. I am not trying to put four different ingredients or flavors on a plate, here it's a combination of flavor. I can play more. I don't do tastings any more. It's more casual, no tablecloths, no carpets. People do not have to dress so much. It's like everything else you do in life, I did fine dining for 20 years of my life. At some point you want to change.
RH: Your website has a direct link to Zagat for people to vote. Are you making your customers into PR agents?
Tourondel: Yeah well, it's a free country. Everyone is allowed to vote for whatever they want. People take Zagat very seriously. And I do. We were rated number one in Zagat in New York for awhile.
RH: There has been a lot of talk about the variety of your sides. How important are sides and appetizers in customer return/loyalty? Do people get hooked on them?
Tourondel: I believe so very much. It is good to give people options. What makes a difference is preparation. A lot of classic steakhouses use a hot water table for their sides and serve from it just like a canteen. This is not what we do. We provide something in season. We have poached green beans, tossed with garlic and olive oil, very simply, or perhaps a grilled tomato.
RH: Many restaurants are sort of lonely in the middle of the week. Some in Los Angeles have come up with special evenings; like Suzanne Tracht's Jar has a mozzarella night; others have a melted cheese sandwich night or a family night. They are very popular and have quite a following. Are you planning anything similar?
Tourondel: It's too early for us to do something like that. I think we have the demand right now. The restaurant is new. I'm sure there will be a day when we are going to do that.
RH: Every chef has a particular approach to cooking steaks. What is your take on steak?
Tourondel: We grill it first for the flavor. Then we broil it for the crust. We season the steak with sea salt and black pepper. We have seven sauces, including chimichurri, BBQ, three mustards and Roquefort.
RH: How often do you visit each restaurant?
Tourondel: As much as I can. I'm here for the opening for awhile, then I'm going back to New York for a week to visit the other locations and change a couple of menus. I'll be back here at the end of the month to open for lunch and brunch.