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Food & Dining

Pop-up restaurants make their mark – even in Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 03:36 PM
TAMPA -

Unless you've lived in Los Angeles recently or are a fan of "Top Chef," there's very little chance you know Ludo Lefebvre.

But for hardcore foodies, Lefebvre is a rock star.

Like other innovative chefs who have yet to break big in the public consciousness, his influence is being felt across the country, including in the Tampa Bay area.

Lefebvre's pioneering example of creating temporary "pop-up" restaurants has spread across the United States and inspired chefs such as Jeannie Pierola of Tampa to create their own instant-eateries. (Her Kitchenbar concept opens for a third time Tuesday in South Tampa.)

Trained in French kitchens and celebrated for innovative cuisine and an unorthodox rise to prominence in the late 1990s at restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Lefebvre became well-known among West Coast food fans when he opened LudoBites in 2007 with a raft of eclectic and funky food. Think chocolate foie gras cupcakes and soft-shell-crab-stuffed cornets.

Reservations are only available online through Open Table. Thousands of seats sell out within hours of locations being announced on Facebook and Twitter.

"The LudoBites model is the epitome of the 21st century marketplace, where the chef, not the restaurant, is the name of the game," food writer Josh Ozersky wrote in Time magazine.

Lefebvre's public profile, already raised from notoriously volatile stints competing on Bravo's "Top Chef Masters," is getting another boost by starring with his wife and business partner Krissy in the TV series "Ludo Bites America" on Sundance Channel.

The show follows Lefebvre as he sets up makeshift restaurants across the country. In Omaha, Neb., they mash-up down-home soul food with French flavors and techniques. In Mobile, Ala., they open a lunch spot that serves southern comfort food. For a pop-up in Denver, the couple opts for a wild game eatery. The show airs at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays.

Frustration with fine dining constraints and repetition of menus that spurred him to go the pop-up route, Lefebvre said.

"I wanted to see more of America and experience its local cuisine," said Lefebvre. "I couldn't do that while working in a restaurant full time, so I decided to take my restaurant with me."

The idea of being at a fixed location spooked him, forcing him to consider new ways of serving haute cuisine to customers at a relatively affordable price.

"I did not understand why I cannot rent for one year like renting a house," Lefebvre said. "Signing a lease for 10 years or 15 years or 20 years is scary to me."

In his wake, notable chefs such as Jose Andres, Jason Atherton and Stephanie Izard have debuted their own versions of the pop-up.

But Lefebvre's version of the pop-up concept shows signs of staying power, said Rene Lynch, food writer for the Los Angeles Times.

"It's a brilliant model because it builds word of mouth and allows the chef to try out ideas on customers who are along for the ride," Lynch said. "Customers feel like they get in on the ground floor of the next new thing."

The concept also is attracting more adventurous patrons, who tend to be as forward-thinking as the food in pop-ups are, Lynch said. Delays, waiting lists and problems with service are tolerated in a pop-up in ways they never would be by customers dining in a permanent restaurant.

Snafus can "work in the chef's favor," Lynch said. "They don't have to serve up perfection. They just have to serve up memorable food."

Pierola, whose Kitchenbar runs until Aug. 27 at the on-hiatus Restaurant BT on MacDill Avenue in South Tampa, has never met Lefebve but feels a debt of gratitude.

"I owe him so much," she said. "That one idea has changed the total trajectory of what I'm doing."


jhouck@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7324

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