If you’ve been following the third season of The Taste on ABC, you’re familiar with contestant Vanessa Lauren of Team Bourdain. Eliminated on last week’s semi-finale (ep. 6), Vanessa has somewhat since defected to Team Ludo – in the sense that since taping this season’s episodes, she’s been in Ludo Lefebvre’s kitchens at Trois Mec and now Petit Trois. I sat down with Vanessa Lauren and Chef Ludo the other day in anticipation of The Taste finale, which airs tonight.
While getting eliminated on the show and making her rounds with the hugs and good-byes, Vanessa recounts Ludo telling her to come to the restaurant the next week, when he’d give her a job. Vanessa started out staging for 3 weeks at Trois Mec and then moved to Petit Trois, where she now works.
If you’re unfamiliar with the L.A. dining scene, Trois Mec is the joint venture between the Animal guys, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo, and Ludo Lefebvre. It is consistently on the country’s top restaurant lists, a feat for fine dining in Los Angeles, and has received notoriety from its pre-paid ticket system. Petit Trois is the little brother French Bistro next door and completely iconic in its own aim, with 100% bar seating, no reservations, and an omelette that has already achieved legendary status.
I talk with Vanessa about her rise to cooking reality TV fame and how that’s transitioned to working at one of Los Angeles’ most beloved restaurants:
Q: When the mentors were staking out their teams and you auditioned with your Turkish Koftas, you were wanted by all of them [Anthony Bourdain, Marcus Samuelsson, Nigella Lawson, Ludo Lefebvre]. How did that feel?
Vanessa: That was the best moment of my life. I didn’t know going in there if anyone would pick me. I didn’t know about my skills in general and that’s why I went on the show in the first place. People say I cook good food but you don’t know. I was a private chef before. And I’ve had a little bit of experience but I haven’t really gotten super into it until now.
Q: And how was having Bourdain as a mentor? What did you learn?
Vanessa: Having Bourdain as a mentor was incredible. When I was on the stage and they picked me, I knew going in that I wanted to be on Anthony Bourdain’s team because our personalities are very relaxed, passionate and we’re both very nostaligic about food. It’s about the community, it’s about the culture. That’s why I related to Anthony the most. But when I saw Ludo fighting for me I almost changed my mind. I was shy, and it was surreal. You see these chefs on TV, and [then suddenly] you get to be up close with them.
…I learned [from Bourdain] to keep things simple. Nowadays people are making food beautiful, amazing looking, using gastronomic techniques. But when it comes down to it, it matters how it tastes. even those bites, you have to have the perfect balance of each bite. [I learned] not to care so much about the technique or how it looks. Just, if you put it in your mouth does it taste good?
Q: You started out at Trois Mec, but then moved over to Petit Trois and that’s where you work, now. What about the French Bistro that is Petit Trois draws you over the fine dining nature of Trois Mec? And what have you learned from Ludo?
Vanessa: I staged for three weeks at Trois Mec, but I wanted more action with Petit Trois. I like the vibe in there. It’s very Parisian. I lived in Europe for awhile so it’s going back to that place where it feels very authentic. I love that people sit next to each other and they’re strangers and they’ll share their food. And that doesn’t happen with a lot of restaurants. In bistros in Europe, that’s where it’s at. A lot of people go in by themselves and dine in there. I look forward to working every day. Everyone’s in their own space in L.A., but here you don’t have your own space. You’re next to strangers. It’s a great kind of environment.
People get that dynamic here, and I love all the feedback [because they’re right there]. The feedback is what feeds me. That’s what keeps me going. … We have that communication and open-ness, even though we have to be professional. It’s such a small kitchen and we have to be able to do everything. It’s not that I’m being trained on one thing, and that’s all I’m doing. I have to learn everything. And we change the menu a lot. We get to do different dishes and the menu changes all the time. That keeps it interesting.
Q: How hard was it to learn to make the famous omelette?
It’s funny because that omelette is so easy now. To get it perfect, to have it the standard where Chef Ludo wants, it was very stressful. I’m not going to lie. I had a moment where he’d come by and I’d get nervous. It took just a couple of tries, but you don’t have time to try because it has to be perfect. I went home and made air on one side of the egg. And then I came in and I did it.
Q: Ludo, I noticed that on TV you’ve developed this crazy French guy TV persona. What’s going on? Is everything OK? I just saw the episode with Javier [Plascencia].
Ludo: You know TV. Someone pissed me off that day. Let me tell you something, Esther, I didn’t watch any episode of the show. I don’t want to see what’s going on. I never watch myself on TV. I was so surprise they put me on the show and I’m so mad. I hate watching myself on TV. I was surprised with the show, you know how I was mad. They want to show all the emotional parts.
Q: Do people meet you and think you’re an asshole because of TV?
Ludo: Some people hate me because they think I’m an asshole with the team. I want my team to win. I want to be a good mentor so it’s stressful. My team was very challenging this year.
Vanessa, how about your experience with being on TV?
Vanessa: I like the feedback that I get. I had a great experience. I think the feedback is very good.
Q: Which feedback? People you know? And not? Do you read the comments section on websites?
Vanessa: Yeah, people I know, and I read the comments.
Ludo: No, I never. People who are miserable in life, people judge you and they don’t know you at all. Long hours, lots of pressure. It’s not easy, TV.
Vanessa: It’s not really cooking.
Ludo: You need to be very strong in your head. It’s like being an athlete. TV is not easy.
Vanessa: The people who made it to the finale are very good competitors. It’s very hard, it’s a lot of pressure. Some people think they can do it, but you don’t know how hard it is unless you’re in it.
What was the shooting schedule like?
Vanessa: Five weeks, six days per week. From 5 AM and we get off at 4 every day. That’s why I can do any job now. [At Petit Trois,] we start at 9 AM – luxury hours.
Q: Are there certain strategies involved?
Vanessa: I gave Gabe my strategies. He used them!
Ludo: Of course there are strategies. You need to be a good cook, but after you have to look exactly for what you want to look for in the mentor. All the mentors, we all have different approach with food. We all have different palate. Anthony likes spicy. Marcus, I don’t know what he likes, I don’t understand him, I don’t know his style. Nigella is English. And I’m French. It’s hard. It’s very difficult for the contestants to cook. You can be a good cook but you have to be very, very smart with your choice.
Vanessa: That’s what I was trying to do was cook for Anthony – that was my strategy. I knew if I cook food that he liked, he would save me. And obviously it didn’t help me. My strategy didn’t help me in the end.
Q: How did Vanessa come to work in your kitchen and how has she worked out? Did you spend time with her at all on set?
Ludo: I didn’t spend time with her. But Anthony always speak good about her. She has a good palate and she’s a good cook. She came to spend a day here with us. After, I called Mr. B[ourdain] and ask him what he think. He said to me, “Yeah you should hire her. She has a good palate, good technique. You should try her. And you should give her a shot.”
So you’ve had four months, and how have these four months been?
Ludo: She’s done a great job, doesn’t complain. She works super hard. She does her job, she is very passionate and she wants to learn. That is the most important thing.
Vanessa: Yes, Chef.
Ludo: It’s good thing for her. It’s not easy to work here. Last time in New York when I saw Tony he was very happy she was still with me. All the mentors – we all care about the contestants. Vanessa wasn’t on my team but I cared about her and I care about everyone on the show. I’m not an enemy. Everyone’s great cook, not easy. If some contestants want to come start with me I would say, “Yes.” That’s my job. I’m a mentor. To teach people. Vanessa got the best reward from the competition. She is working here.
Vanessa: Yeah, I feel like a winner.
Ludo: She didn’t get the money and I don’t know how long she’s going to work but she’s going to learn a lot and get inspiration and I know she’s going to be very successful cooking.
Q: So what about this finale? What can we expect?
Ludo: There are two of them the finale. It’s a very very good finale. Some good dishes, it was very hard to decide between. Take time to choose the winner.
We don’t know who’s cooking what. Nothing is fixed. The finale was very difficult for us. We had 3 good cooks in the finale and this year of course the winner was very good. I would hire all three of them for sure, right away. And it was very difficult to make our decision. It was a very, very good group.
Q: What about new menu items at Petit Trois? Will you ever serve a burger?
Ludo: If you want to have a burger you can see my partners, not me. Go to Animal not here. I’m never going to do a burger. There’s a burger everywhere. I love burgers, don’t get me wrong. I love In ‘n Out. I want to do a white trash one with thousand island. Like In ‘n Out with animal style. That’s the kind of burger I like. It’s easy, inexpensive. Good, simple thing is always good. I don’t like fancy cheese, fancy ketchup. The best ketchup is Heinz. That’s it.
Anthony Bourdain also chimed in on his thoughts about his mentee:
“What viewers missed about Vanessa, was that her food consistently tasted good. Her decision making as far as her food and ingredient choices was generally sound. She showed surprising versatility and range relative to her teammates. Her seasoning was instinctively good. And she showed sensible restraint. That’s the bottom line. Any drama or backstage nonsense was something I never was exposed to or considered. She was a solid cook who clearly enjoyed cooking and was willing to work hard. Even my rival Ludo recognized this and gave her a job. At the best restaurant in LA by the way. Where I hear she is doing well. The rest is noise.”
The new menu items at Petit Trois now include Cassoulet, Fresh Sole, Leek Salad with Sherry Vinaigrette, an Endive Salad (only two days per week), and now Foie Gras Terrine thanks to the recent re-legalization of the bird’s liver.