When an email hit my inbox a few weeks ago about the opportunity to witness Athena Calderone, the chic culinary queen, and Chef Ludo, the lauded French restaurateur, cook together in Ludo's home kitchen, there were only two words I uttered in reply: Hell yes! You see, we've dined multiple times at Ludo's famous L.A. hot spots (Trois Familia is one of our co-founder Hillary Kerr's favorite breakfast spots), and we're in awe of Calderone's stylish take on food, so we couldn't wait to see what magic awaited us when they combined forces.
As a self-professed cookbook collector, Ludo had invited Calderone to create two of his favorite dishes from her newly launched Cook Beautiful: Whole roasted chicken with sumac, roasted vegetables, and sesame labne, and roasted sunchokes with orange, Marcona almonds, and pecorino Toscano. Both of which felt very seasonal, especially given that it's Thanksgiving tomorrow, and there is a heady sense of holiday in the air.
And the best part is that we captured their conversation while they were cooking and it was quite an informative (and hilarious) chat between Calderone and one of her idols. Scroll through to the end for the exclusive recipes.
ATHENA CALDERONE: First off, thank you for cooking with me from Cook Beautiful. Okay, so you briefly mentioned to me how you first were "inspired" to cook. It is not exactly the answer I expected to hear—I love your candor—care to elaborate and share your tale?
CHEF LUDO: I was not the best kid. I got kicked out of school. When I was 13, my dad sat me down and told me I had to choose one of three jobs: 1. a hairdresser, 2. a mechanic, or 3. a cook. I would begin my apprenticeship immediately. I loved to eat and had spent time with my grandmother in the kitchen, so I picked a cook. But know that at my time, there was nothing high-end or luxurious about being a cook (chef). It was no different than being a street cleaner. Many times, I was ashamed to tell my friends or others that I was a cook. I was not proud. I worked 16 hours a day. It was not what it is now. I didn't know I would ever truly be a "chef." I was a cook, plain and simple.
AC: And what was the genesis to where you are today?
CL: Fortunately, I loved the kitchen when I got there. It was brutal work, but I thrived. I think it had the discipline I needed. The kitchen saved me for sure. Turns out that I had a natural talent, and with many, many years of training with the best chefs in France, I developed the passion, and my mentors gave me the opportunity that allowed me to become who I am today.
AC: Any advice you would offer your younger self starting in this industry? Any advice for me? I know, I know–no restaurants. Ha!
CL: If you lose the passion, change what you do. And yes, no restaurants.
AC: How would you describe the food you create to someone who has never eaten at one of your restaurants?
CL: Good? Ha, ha. It really depends on the restaurant. But it is all based on French technique. At Petit Trois it is classic, classic, classic, French bistro food. Trois Mec is more playful. It is based on French technique but really brings ingredients and flavors from around the world onto the plate. Ludobird is fried chicken my way. Trois Familia is a fun collaboration of what French-Mexican breakfast looks like to us.
AC: What is the core value represented in the food?
CL: Taste. I don't serve because it looks pretty. It is all about the taste.
AC: How has America informed your cooking style?
CL: America opened me up to so many flavors I had never experienced. As you know, I am French, and when I came to America 21 years ago, I was really, really French. I did not know many international flavors. France was pretty close-minded at the time.
Moving to L.A. and having such a rich international culture, I experienced so many new flavors. I had never had a jalapeño, never tasted wasabi, never had Chinese food (until P.F. Chang's that is). It was so mind-blowing to experience these flavors for the first time. I learned to incorporate these flavors into my food using French techniques.
AC: What first shocked you most about the difference between the French and American eating habits?
CL: The lack of importance of the "daily meal." It was a fast-eating culture in America with a lot of snacks all day. In France, life happens around the table, in America people eat to live. I didn't see the joie de vivre that celebrated and included food. Things have started to change, but 21 years ago, it was much different.
AC: If the home cook were to learn just three tried-and-true cooking techniques, which are most important?
1. You need to cook with the seasons. Don't open a cookbook and just choose a recipe. Make sure the best possible ingredients are available when you want to make the dish, e.g., don't waste your time making an asparagus dish in the winter.
2. When you decide on the seasonally appropriate food, get the best possible ingredients. The freshest fruits and vegetables. The best possible protein you can afford. A good recipe cannot overcome bad ingredients.
3. Don't believe a recipe 100%. Use it as a guideline. Make sure you are tasting along the way. Many times, I find that a recipe may need a little more acid, little more salt, little less fat to truly be a dish that I love. You are cooking for your tastes, so have the confidence to make changes. Develop and use your natural instincts.
AC: Okay, let's talk butter. Apparently, I am cheap… Educate us all on why nine tablespoons are necessary for a roast chicken.
CL: You need enough butter to not only flavor the chicken, but you have some left over to use as a sauce or little topping. Plus, it makes it a little more French.
AC: And let's also talk basting while we are at it. Shed some light on the importance when roasting a chicken
CL: Basting is the best way to infuse a flavor into the meat of the chicken. It also helps to ensure the meat is moist. Whether it be a butter baste, chicken stock, lemon oil, it doesn't matter. Just shower the bird with love the entire time it is cooking.
AC: Five ingredients you couldn't live without?
2. Fleur de sel
AC: Late-night indulgence after a night in the kitchen?
CL: I don't really eat at night after the kitchen. I usually just want to take a shower and watch a little French TV to decompress. I will admit to eating cold pizza out of the box when it is left by the kids.
AC: So you gave me the greatest honor in saying that my roasted sunchokes recipe could easily make its way onto one of your menus. Can you speak to what you like about this dish?
CL: I love the different textures of the salad, the contrast between the raw and roasted sunchokes. It was very colorful bright and truly a beautiful dish. A super-simple salad seasoned lightly but perfectly flavored. You chose the perfect ingredients for the season.
AC: Okay, so you are admittedly a cookbook addict. Tell us about your epic cookbook wall. And do you actually cook from them, read from them, and appreciate their beauty?
CL: I read every cookbook, usually a few a week. I can't travel as much as I would love to, so cookbooks open my mind to food, cultures, flavors, and techniques I can't experience on a firsthand basis. I don't really "cook" from them, but I do get a lot of inspiration from them.
AC: Your ideal meal is… With…
CL: At home with my family, practicing table manners.
AC: What is your go-to weeknight meal at home for your family?
CL: During a warm evening, we will typically grill out. Fresh grilled veggies and meat. Nothing complicated. If we are inside, it is roasted chicken, spaghetti marinara, crepes, or a simple omelet and salad.
AC: Last life-changing, food experience?
CL: My first meal at Le Chateaubriand will always be the life-changing moment in my career. Everything about it, the experience, the food, the attitude…
From Cook Beautiful by Athena Calderone, published by Abrams © 2017.
"My first experience with sunchokes coincided with my inaugural visit to Franny's, the Brooklyn restaurant that almost single-handedly shifted the way I think about food. Our waiter suggested I order the sunchoke starter, and I admit I was utterly confused when the knobby little nuggets, which look like something out of Hogwarts, were set down in front of me. But once I tasted them, I was hooked! Sweet and nutty with a creamy interior, they're fantastic paired with bright and sharp flavors like the Cara Cara oranges, pickled shallots, and pecorino Toscano in this recipe. The little roots, also known as Jerusalem artichokes, do vary greatly in size and shape. Make sure to cut them into relatively equal pieces so they roast at the same rate."
2 pounds sunchokes, rinsed, dried, and quartered
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
1/4 cup Pickled Shallots (recipe follows)
1 Cara Cara orange, zested and supremed
1/4 cup salted Marcona almonds
Pecorino Toscano cheese, for shaving
Flaky sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, for serving
Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Spread the sunchokes on a baking sheet and drizzle them very generously with oil.
Season with salt and toss until evenly coated. Roast the sunchokes, tossing them halfway through, until they're deep golden and crispy, about 40 minutes.
Allow the sunchokes to cool slightly, then toss them with the shallot, orange segments, and almonds.
Sprinkle the sunchokes with the orange zest and shaved cheese. Season with flaky sea salt and freshly cracked pepper.
"I like to keep a jar of these bright pink flavor bombs in my fridge. They add a zippy tang to tacos, grain salads, and roasted vegetable dishes. Apple cider vinegar can be substituted for the white wine vinegar here."
Makes: 1 cup
3 medium shallots, thinly sliced
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp. sugar
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 serrano chile, minced (optional)
Place the shallot slices in a small bowl. In a small saucepan over medium-low heat, bring the vinegar, sugar, salt, and chile (if using) to a simmer, swirling the pan to help the sugar dissolve.
Pour the pickling liquid over the shallots and let them cool to room temperature. Use immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
From Cook Beautiful by Athena Calderone, published by Abrams © 2017.
"Even after I found my confidence in the kitchen, the idea of roasting a whole chicken continued to intimidate me for years. Finally, one night, bored with my usual family dinner rotation, I decided to try it—and I couldn’t believe how easy it was! With almost no prep time, you get a delicious, no-fail, one-pan dinner that’s quick enough for Wednesday and impressive enough for Saturday night. This version gets its Middle Eastern flavor profile from one of my new favorite spices: sumac. The ground berry’s rusty hue might lead you to think it has a peppery taste, but in fact it boasts a tangy, lemon-like flavor that’s incredibly versatile. The labne—an ultra-thick, creamy yogurt—is another delicious Mediterranean touch. If you can’t find it, Greek yogurt is a fine substitute."
Serves: 2 to 3
1 4-pound chicken
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and softened
2 tsp. kosher salt, plus extra for seasoning
3 tsp. sumac, divided, plus more for serving
3 lemons, halved
3 heads garlic, halved
4 carrots, peeled and quartered
4 small Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed and quartered (about 1 1/2 lbs.)
2 small yellow onions, quartered
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Freshly cracked pepper
1 cup labne, or full-fat Greek yogurt
Toasted sesame seeds, for serving
Flaky sea salt, for serving
Place the chicken in a large roasting pan. Using your fingers, gently separate the skin from the flesh across the breasts and drumsticks. Rub the butter between the skin and the flesh.
Rub the salt and 2 teaspoons of the sumac all over the chicken. If time permits, refrigerate the chicken, uncovered, for at least six hours and up to overnight.
Preheat the oven to 425ºF. Squeeze half of one lemon over the chicken and place it inside the cavity along with a half head of garlic. Scatter the carrots, potatoes, onions, and remaining lemons and garlic around the chicken.
Drizzle the vegetables and chicken with the 1/2 cup oil. Sprinkle the vegetables with the remaining 1 teaspoon sumac and season with salt and pepper, tossing until the vegetables are evenly coated.
Roast, tossing the vegetables occasionally until the chicken and vegetables are deep golden and cooked through and the chicken registers 165°F in the thickest part of the thigh, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Allow the chicken to rest for 10 minutes before carving.
Drizzle the labne with oil and sprinkle it with the sesame seeds, some pepper, sumac, and flaky sea salt. Serve it alongside the chicken.
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