Famed chef Laurent Gras, fresh off receiving three Michelin stars yesterday, broke the news earlier today that he won't return to L20, the restaurant where he earned that accolade. Instead, Gras will permanently reunite with his wife, Jennifer Leuzzi, at their home in New York, where plans for a new project are already in motion.
Gras just landed in Chicago for tonight's big Michelin celebration and Eater Chicago caught up with him to discuss why he left L20, receiving his third set of three stars, his New York plans and, of course, cycling.
So let's talk Michelin first – this is the third time you got three stars, right?
Yes, the first two times were at Alain Ducasse (in Paris and Monaco). The Michelin gave me another 10 years to study a little bit more and revise my style [laughs]. The last time I get three stars was in '97, so that's 14 years ago. I kind of missed the Michelin by a few years [in New York and San Francisco]. The wait was a good wait. When you get rated three stars it's a pretty nice reward as a chef.
Were you surprised you got three stars? Were you anticipating that
I was very confident on getting two stars because I'm a French chef and have worked for 15 years with great French chefs, two and three stars, and I know what is the standard. I was pretty confident for what we're doing. You can never expect three stars. It's the recognition of what you've done. You cannot try for three stars. They just came.
What was your reaction when Jean-Luc Naret called?
It was a very emotional reaction. It's a pretty short phone call, two or three minutes. A few words and then, "the Michelin is giving L20 a three star rating." So I said "fabulous." It was very emotional. You can't go around the emotion. For a chef, three stars is a life of work, a great recognition. When you know there are only 93 restaurants in the world, it's a great reward.
Chicago was shocked when the news broke you were "taking a break" from L20 – how long had you been thinking about leaving?
I resigned my position in July and worked closely with Rich Melman to make sure the restaurant would stay open and they could organize and move forward. I don't need any break.
So that wasn't true, the story they put out there that you needed time off for personal reasons?
Nobody ever called me about that. It was a story.
What did you think when you saw that in the news?
You know, I just agreed with Rich to support him.
Now you're moving back to New York. What's your plan?
I'm already in New York. I'll be working on a very interesting project, Downtown, maybe more casual. Is it going to be a three star? Maybe not. I love cooking, it's my passion.
Will it be French or seafood or something totally different than we've seen in the past?
I love seafood. I love sashimi. I love the Japanese influence. So I think it'll be a combination of that.
What's the timing?
It'll be a little be of time, a few months I would say before a project can be finalized.
Obviously this could either be a really good time for you to leave L20 or a really precarious time – how do you see it?
I think it's a very good thing and the timing is right, so the combination of both it's good to speak to that.
Are you going to take any personal time off?
I'm very active as a person. I am busy from early morning to late night in things I'm interested in like sports, research, cooking—I'll do some pop-up dinners. I'm a cyclist so I'll train myself a little bit more. That'll be it for the next few weeks.
When will you seriously start working on the project?
I'm already starting. I think it's a bit early to speak about this. I think 2011 will be a better time to discuss my project, but I'm very active. I don't need a break [laughs]. I'm very good, actually. I really am.
You said it'll be a smaller place, will it be more local like a bistro?
I'm not interested in bistro. [It'll be] smaller in size, maybe more casual. Not necessarily extremely luxury.
After all the fine dining you've done, it might be nice to take a step back and have it not be as fancy. Or is that not in your nature?
Every time I do something, it's 100 percent of myself and that's how I am. So whatever I do, I give everything I have. From the small projects to the big, it's 100 percent of me. I'm playing between the white and the black, meaning I push myself very hard.
Do you really bike all year round?
Yeah, yes I do.
I bike, too. What are some of your favorite rides?
You usually go to Highland Park, and then you have a lot of different roads you can take. I don't know if you do the Two Sisters – it's a 90 miles ride, pretty hard core. Everybody pushes hard. I can give you more information. Or you can come with me. I'll be riding over the next few days.
Yeah, I'm kind of a pussy when it comes to being cold.