Executive Insights | October 2010 | By Sam Oches

Pedal to the Metal

Top Chef Masters star Ludo Lefebvre’s new food truck is proof that mobile food concepts are catching up quickly to traditional quick serves.

The acclaim for chef Ludo Lefebvre is vast: Classically trained in his homeland of France, Lefebvre studied under some of that country’s best chefs before moving to Los Angeles in 1996. After his move to the U.S., Lefebvre was the head chef of a top-rated L.A. restaurant by the age of 25; helped two restaurants become Mobil Five Star–rated; was nominated for the James Beard Rising Chef Award; and appeared on both Top Chef Masters and Iron Chef.

So it seemed only natural that the chef would want to open … a food truck?

“It’s definitely another challenge for me, but food is food—why not cook good food on the street?” Lefebvre says. “What really excites me is to cook for the masses, to cook for everybody with a truck.”

LudoTruck, Lefebvre’s venture into the food truck world that was supported by food truck consultant Mobi Munch, soft launched in June before hitting the streets regularly in August. The truck is part of a grander strategy from the French chef: Growing his “pop-up restaurant” concept LudoBites, which operates only for a short time in various locations.

But Lefebvre’s new vehicle is also part of a bigger food truck trend that is turning the entire foodservice industry on its head. Fine-dining and quick-service concepts alike are adapting to the fact that good food can arrive on four wheels, and increasingly, the general public is embracing it.

Taking Off

Having lived in France until he was 24, Lefebvre didn’t exactly grow up surrounded by street food.

“In France, you can eat a sandwich on the street; you go to the bakery and you buy a sandwich,” he says. “Or you have some crêpes. But that’s it in France. So I was really introduced to street food more here in America with the food truck.”

The fact that Lefebvre moved to Los Angeles, the capital of American street food if ever there was one, didn’t just introduce Lefebvre to the food truck scene—it threw him into the fire. More than 100 trucks cruise the streets of L.A., dishing out everything from tacos to banh mi to grilled cheese.

Lefebvre says he didn’t invest too much in the thoughts of opening his own truck until this year, when he was invited to take his LudoBites pop-up concept to February’s L.A. Street Food Fest. It was there that Mobi Munch offered to sponsor him, and the wheels just started to spin.

“When Mobi Munch approached me to do the truck, I thought, ‘Why not?’” Lefebvre says. “I can bring gastronomic food to the streets.”

It didn’t hurt that Lefebvre had already seen skilled chefs successfully take their culinary expertise on the road.

“I really admire Roy Choi,” he says, referring to the chef behind Los Angeles–based Kogi BBQ, one of the best-known players in the food truck business. “He was really the first chef to … put good food on the street.”

The rise of “celebrity” food trucks is not lost on Mobi Munch, an upstart food truck business that provides operators with the infrastructure necessary to get their trucks up and running. Ray Villaman, the cofounder and president of the company who was once executive director of the California Restaurant Association and has worked with national quick-service chains such as Boston Market, started the company with fellow food businessmen Josh Tang and Aaron Noveshen in 2009.

Villaman says “high-visibility chefs” are the perfect match for creating popular food truck brands. In Lefebvre, the Mobi Munch team saw the perfect opportunity to get its project into the public eye fast.

“He saw the space of mobile gourmet food fit along the lines of what his goals were,” Villaman says, “which was getting his food out to the masses in a convenient, mobile, flexible manner. So we decided to partner with him. We run the truck; he does the food.”

The process of transitioning Lefebvre’s skills and experience into a truck-based concept took about five months. From the beginning, though, there was never a question about what food would be served out the truck window. And it had nothing to do with Levebvre’s French culinary background.

“At that time I was looking to do a fried chicken concept,” Lefebvre says. “At Ludo Bites, I started to work on some preparation with fried chicken. The first one I did was a fried chicken on the bone fried in duck fat. We evolved the dish into a street-friendly version with no bone, always thinking how to make it easy to eat for people in the street.”

Lefebvre says his chicken is “hand food,” essentially a chicken nugget that is brined, dipped in buttermilk and flour, then tossed in spices before hitting the fryer.

He adds that just because it’s fried chicken from a truck doesn’t mean it’s low in quality. Using his fine-dining expertise and combining it with what he says are “fresh” and “natural” ingredients, Lefebvre says LudoTruck ultimately provides the same kind of top-notch experience that a sit-down restaurant might.

“You know the thing is, on the truck, I’m cooking fried chicken, but I’m still using the same technique I do at the restaurant,” he says. “All of the best techniques I learned in France with all of the best chefs. I don’t jeopardize on the quality.”

The beauty of LudoTruck, Lefebvre says, is that it accomplishes both of his goals of quality and reaching the masses. And it’s delivered in a format that can stretch the entire city of Los Angeles.

“Now I reach a different customer: foodies, people who don’t have too much money but want good food, people who have a lot of money but still want to come to the truck because of our fried chicken,” Lefebvre says. “It’s pretty amazing to just serve in the street and to put people together. That’s what food is.”