By: Vanessa Packer
Photography by: Sasha Israel
“IT’S NOT A TREND, IT’S A LIFESTYLE,” remarks Laurent Tourondel when referencing the new wave of health conscious restaurants and current trends toward vegan and gluten-free eating. Over a freshly made vegetarian burger he features on his menu at LT Bar and Grill in Manhattan, Chef Tourondel goes on to explain his personal foray into the world of veg-centric healthy eating. “I’m fascinated about it,” he muses. “If you eat those things on a regular basis it has to become part of your life.” In recent years, the classically trained French chef has focused his attention away from the tasting menus and the Michelin-starred restaurants of his early career and towards serving broader audiences at LT Burger and the popular Arlington Club, which breaks out of the tradition steakhouse menu by offering a full raw bar, inventive sushi and incredible (read: healthy!) side dishes. “The world changes, everyone changes, we have to see what is going on around us,” Chef Tourondel continues when discussing how he designs new menu concepts. Is there a health-focused restaurant in his future? “Who knows what my next phase is, maybe it’s healthy food.” In between trips to Paris and Sag Harbor, bonberi caught up with the busy chef who discussed his inspirations, favorite travel escapes and must-haves for an at home, chef-approved kitchen.
When you grew up in France, what did your mother used to cook for you that you loved?
Healthy stuff. We only cooked what was in season because we were eating from what grew in the backyard. I was raised in Central France, in the middle of the country, all that we ate was seasonal from the garden. No strawberries in winter, it was only two months a year. Winter we ate a lot of potatoes. It was all very organic. We ate animal protein, but not a lot maybe 4 ounces. Here they eat 16 ounces sometimes! It’s out of proportion. My grandmother would make a carrot salad, she would shave the carrots from the garden. It tasted like a carrot not like cardboard as they often do when you buy them at the grocery store here. She would put a vinaigrette with garlic and parsley on top. It was very simple and so delicious. I picked up that, and I make it in my house, but I add ginger juice. It’s healthy and really good.
You’ve seen so many food trends come and go after years of being in the restaurant business, do you think this is just another trend?
No, it’s not a trend, It’s a lifestyle. It can only grow from where it is now. I travel a lot, I just came back from Central Asia. You don’t see the health food movement growing there they way it is here, but whatever picks up here in New York goes to Hong Kong, London, Paris. Paris takes a little longer because the French are very stubborn with their food. It’s been around for a while in New York, it didn’t just start yesterday. It’s good that people are more aware and conscious of that now.
What do you think of the Vegan movement and the movement toward healthier eating?
I’m for it. Healthy eating makes you feel better, and you see the difference in your skin.
Do you get more wheat-free/gluten-free requests?
No. You hear about it more, and it’s available in more places, but we have no more requests then before. People, when they go out to eat, still want to eat. Often they will eat around the wheat or gluten item, they don’t bother mentioning that they are gluten intolerant. For example, one of my partner’s here, his wife will come in and eat a burger, but with no bun. We get more vegan requests, so we offer a lot more vegan options. At LT Burger in Sag Harbor we have a couple of different vegetarian burgers, with different bases ranging from tofu to wheatgrass. Sag Harbor is really the vegan village, you can see from the locals, they are very into juice and yoga.
Do you juice?
Yes, I had juice yesterday. I made one with beets and beet greens, lemon, celery, and grapefruit. I started to make my own juices and offer them at in The Hilton Hotel on 6th avenue. The juices do very well with the customers there. We have ‘The Reviver’ and ‘The Kickstarter’ I like juicing a lot. I wish I could have someone do it for me in the morning, because it’s so messy. That’s the only problem.
What process do you use when making the juice? Cold Press or Centrifugal?
Since you have LT Burger in Sag Harbor, do you go to the Hampton’s a lot?
Almost every weekend. It clears my brain to be out there. I shop at Provisions market, and I always see a product I don’t know about, a grain from South America I’ve never heard of that’s completely weird.
Do you consider it more now when you are designing a menu or coming up with menu items?
Not yet. It’s the opposite of what I am doing right now between having a steakhouse, and my LT burger restaurants. It’s in the back on my mind and it is definitely something I will do in the future. I don’t know when, but I always read articles about it because I’m fascinated about it. For me, it’s a lifestyle. For some people, once and a while they try to be healthy, but I think if you eat those things on a regular basis it has to become part of your life. You have to be into it. It’s not so bizarre anymore, and I think it’s cool.
Are you starting to eat more like that yourself?
This weekend, I went to Citarella in East Hampton and bought only vegetables. I ate only veggies all weekend.
What did you make?
I like to cook very simple at home. I made egg whites and roasted tomatoes with parmesan cheese. I combine them into the egg white so it melts the cheese, it’s delicious. I eat seven grain bread with it. I drank juices all weekend as well.
How do you feel after you do that for a weekend?
What are some other things you make regularly?
I never cook the same thing. Most of the time I have no idea what I’m going to make. I go to the supermarket and I grab stuff and try to cook different all the time, but mainly healthy and simple.
Are there places you travel to that inspire you to incorporate into your cooking?
Where in Asia?
All over. I always pick up stuff in Tokyo, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur.
Did you find something in South East Asia that was particularly special or different?
There is an interesting blend in Indonesia. They get fruit from Bangladesh and India, and then influences from Hong Kong and China. Singapore was really interesting too, I loved the food there. Japan is great, but sometimes some of the flavors are too foreign for our palates, it can be challenging.
What about when you are in New York, do you have favorite Asian spots you go to?
Yes for Vietnamese I go to Nha Trang on Baxter. For Bahn Mi there is a small spot close to the Police Building on Center Street, and for Dim Sum I go to Nice Green Bo in Chinatown
When you go back to France, what are some of the first meals you have or meals you look forward to having?
Always the salad. The lettuce taste different. The Bibb lettuce is another world. The chicken too is much more flavorful, they are raised different, and they are not mass the way they are here. All the vegetables are incredible in Europe, the flavors are better. The difference is noticeable from what is available here. My mother, she is not the best cook, but she puts stuff on the table and it’s always tasty and always has great flavor. The carrot, the tomato, maybe because I grew up on it so i’m nostalgic, but the flavor honestly tastes different. The Bibb lettuce there has so much flavor and here it’s only water. It has no flavor.
When you travel back to Paris, where are your favorite places to go?
Brassiere Lipp for a classic French dish of sausage served flat with onion vinaigrette. It’s a very traditional, and I always have it there. I have little restaurants in Montemarte I go to a lot. I try what is new too. Mexican food is doing well in France, because there are two destinations that seem very exotic to French people, Mexico and Thailand. That is what is in the mind of a French person. When you create something Thai or Mexican it’s going to work. Now they are having a Mexican phase. The Japanese phase picked up a bit in Paris, but not in the rest of France. Nobu closed, it just didn’t work.
In the kitchen, what ingredients do you use most often?
Italian olive oil, sea salt and pepper. But honestly, I think salt is over rated. Balsamic vinegar too.
What is a classic vinaigrette for a salad that you like to use?
Lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and red wine vinegar
What is something we can always find in your home refrigerator?
Everything, lots of spices. I’m always trying new things.
Is there a new seasoning or spice that you recently incorporated into you cooking?
Yes, it’s like a nut, but it’s hard to find. It’s the seasoning the Vietnamese use when making Pho, but it’s hard to find in this country. I don’t remember the name, but I make Pho at home and use it.
What do you put in your Pho?
Twenty thousand ingredients. It’s crazy. Two kinds of beef, soy beans, two kinds of basil, cilantro, thai chili, spices, marrow bones. They don’t eat it so spicy in Vietnam, but I like spice. Vietnamese food is probably one of the best cuisines for flavor.
Are there certain kitchen essentials you can’t live without?
I cannot cook without a cutting board, and I don’t like plastic cutting boards I use wood ones. I always have a Japanese knife in my kitchen for sure.
Why a Japanese knife?
Sharper, thinner blade, easy to handle. German knives are good too.
When you are working, what do you eat?
Terrible food, the worst. I never sit down, I’m always grabbing stuff on the go.
When you are good what do you have?
Salad, some sushi. I’ve been into sushi since opening Arlington Club
What is your favorite dish at Arlington Club?
It’s a sushi we make. Yellowtail nigiri wrapped with seaweed and brushed with a papaya jam on top. It sounds weird but it’s incredible. The jam is just rice vinegar, minced papaya and chopped fresh chili.
What’s your favorite dish at LT Burger?
The falafel salad. It has humus, tomato, watercress, and it’s pretty healthy too, but we fry and bake the falafel to give it the crunch.
What are your indulgences?
I indulge a lot. Chocolate is my go-to. Just a chocolate bar, like Lindt. They have one with orange and cocoa nibs, it’s incredible.
When you are with the guys in the kitchen, what do they eat?
Staff meal. An average staff meal depends on the restaurant. Here it’s hamburgers and pasta. Good leftovers.
Is there a particular chef that really inspired you when you were growing up?
Yes, the people I worked for in France. Pierre Daniere. He’s in Paris, and was always a trendy guy but also innovative and out there with good food. which is not always the case.
Do you like going to the Michelin type restaurants with the tastings and everything?
Not anymore. I had my phase when I was into fine dining in New York and I had the stars, but I left this world to do what I do now, to reach more the masses and not so much focus on the elite. I think there is clientele that eat both ways, but that way of eating doesn’t hit my passions anymore. Who knows what my next phase is, maybe it’s healthy food. I started writing about it, I had a health problem a few years ago and I went on a major diet, so I wrote a bunch of menus for a healthy restaurant. I don’t know how far you have to take it for people to not be annoyed by it. Can it be just healthy instead of vegan?
Fine dining used to get you excited, now what is making you really excited?
It’s a combination of creating something new, and making people happy at the end of the day. That’s what hospitality is about. Do you have to go all vegan to be a healthy restaurant? This is what I think about.
What was your first experience at an American Steak House?
Twenty two years ago at Sparks. Classic. First food in America and I though, “What the hell is this? It’s like a whole cow on my plate.” I was not even hungry when I saw the steak. the meat was amazing, but everything around it was mediocre. So it’s years after that, this is how I came up with the concept and my approach to doing a steak house. How do we avoid the frozen crab cake appetizer, the frozen creamed spinach? We don’t use cream, we do a puree spinach that has no cream.
Your restaurants do have amazing side dishes.
It’s something I focus on. I also like to incorporate a light appetizer, like raw bar, sushi or sashimi, something like that. I’ve been criticized for it because people ask, “Does the sushi and raw bar really go with the American steak house?” Who cares! The world changes, everyone changes, we have to see what is going on around us. Only French people keep eating the same for the last century. In New York there is such a blend of everything, so why not do it, it’s what people want.
What’s the most popular dish at this restaurant?
The burger. Give them what they want.