In the chummy, good-natured environment of Top Chef: Masters, Ludo Lefebvre really stood out--not for his cooking, but for his emotional volatility and tendency to babble excitedly in his fractured, French-accented English. Top Chef: Masters generally has the tone of a mutual admiration society filled with people who wouldn't mind the bragging rights that come with the chance to see your beloved colleagues go down in flames all around you, but because the people on the show have already made it, there's no way they can pretend that the stakes are as high for them as it is for the sweaty, paranoid nobodies on Top Chef prime. Ludo was a rare exception to that rule, and he didn't seem to be pretending. He really seemed to feel that, if Gael Greene put a forkful of his food in her mouth and made a face, men in black would rappel down from the ceiling, crate him up, and ship him back to Burgundy, if not Gitmo. Highly strung and profane, with puppyish looks and watchful, nervous eyes, he was part Jean Valjean, part Wild Man of Borneo. A reality TV star was born.
Ludo lives and works in Los Angeles, where, instead of maintaining a stable home base, he does "pop-up restaurants" under the name Ludo Bites. He parachutes into established venues and, relying on the aura surrounding his famous name, takes over the dinner service for a few weeks, then moving on to the next port of call after the local nest of foodies has been drained. The idea behind his Sundance Channel series is that Ludo, with the assistance of his wife Krissy, hits the open road and takes his act to such exotic locations as Santa Fe and Mobile. The variety doesn't vary much. Lupo and Krissy land wherever they land, declare that some local cook is a living legend in his special niche, and sample this worthy's signature dish, whereupon Ludo will extravagantly claim that the barbecue he's had in Raleigh or the gourmet hot dogs he's sampled at Biker Jim's in Denver has revealed to him the ultimate glories of American regional cuisine.
Then, after they've tracked down a venue, Ludo will take the place over for a one-night special event, and, through the magic of social networking, all the local food nuts who are willing to suffer the disgrace of being on television for the sake of learning for themselves just what Ludo's all about will kick the doors in. To pad out the hour, Ludo may do something outrageous, like shoot a buffalo and wolf down its heart, perhaps as a special treat for any Game of Thrones fans in the audience. But the really outrageous stuff is supposed to come out of the kitchen, in the form of [A] Ludo's dishes, some of which seem meant as a challenge to the timid palettes of the provincial diners, and [B] his screaming fits whenever something goes wrong, or he thinks something is on the verge of going wrong, or he detects "attitude" in the manner of one of his subordinates, or maybe just when his balls feel itchy and he doesn't want to scratch them on camera.
Both these elements are mostly disappointing. Ludo isn't a very creative cusser--maybe he's stymied by the language gap--and his profane rants, which all seem to be pitched on the same level, quickly grow tiresome. (Your attention may quickly shift to marveling over how the rants themselves are presented. Because accent and awkward word choices present a problem when it comes to understanding what he's saying, his speech is sometimes, but not consistently, subtitled. Whenever he has a tantrum, the subtitles seem to appear, though in these scenes, it's often easy to tell what he's saying. It's especially easy since the Sundance Channel doesn't censor spoken language, so his "fuck!"s and "shit!"s are clear as a bell on the soundtrack. Hower, when Ludo says "Shit!", it appears in the subtitles as "F@ck!" and "Sh!t!" Is Sundance in possession of the results of some study that shows that people are twice as likely to have a heart attack if they read dirty words on their TV screens than they'd be if they just heard them?) As for the menu, Ludo may have seriously underestimated what people are willing to stick in their faces and claim to have loved if it'll get them on TV. In North Carolina, he served blood pudding and head cheese, and the people just begged for seconds.
Tonight's finale is livelier than the other episodes in the series that I've seen, maybe because it's set at Redondo Beach, not that far outside Ludo's usual stomping grounds. There, Ludo and Krissy set out to find a venue where they could offer an evening devoted to celebrating California's love affair with Mexican cooking. Ludo professes to be unfamiliar with the cuisine itself; "In France," he says by way of explanation, "we don't have Mexican food." But the fact that he was more familiar with the basic terrain the culture surrounding it than he was with buffalo hunts made him feel comfortable enough to join forces with a restauranteur--Lisa, the proprietor of a family joint called Casa Pulido--who, while moderately respectful of his celebrity and the TV cameras that follow in his wake, didn't really buy into the "pop-up restaurant" concept and plainly thought he might be nuts. For their part, Ludo and Krissy seem underwhelmed by the restaurant and its regulars. "It was not a young crowd," is how Krissy puts it. Ludo, who leaves the diplomacy to his wife, expands on the theme by saying, "At some tables, it looked like they were going to die before they paid the bill."
At Ludo's insistence, Krissy nervously plans to book a couple hundred reservations, in order to make this "the biggest Lupo Bites ever," a phrase that Ludo repeats many, many times, usually managing to somehow squeeze an "h" sound into the word "ever." While Lisa loiters on the sidelines, passive-aggresively sorta objecting to everything going on under her roof, Ludo prepares his menu and enlists the aid of two sous chefs, one of whom is the smirking, chignoned Sydney Hunter, recently seen disgracing his family name and bringing shame on his ancestors as a contestant on the abominable Extreme Chef. Rest assured that Ludo will scream at him before the night is out, but he does his best work--maybe the best work of his TV career to date--when animal rights protestors gather outside the front of the restaurant, enraged over the inclusion of foie gras on the menu. Eager to make friends, Ludo sticks his head out the window and yells, "Hey, you have nothing better to do in life? I love foie gras! I'm gonna make a lot of foie gras tonight!" "Two, four, six, eight," the protestors chant, "keep that cruelty off your plate!" "Foie gras!" Ludo chants back at them. "Foie gras! Foie gras!!"
In the end, the service breaks down, people have to wait upwards of forty-five minutes for a table or their food, the bad blood between Lupo's team and the restaurant's usual management keeps boiling over, and still nobody in the dining area will say anything bad about the food. Still, the backstage tension creates the first hint of dramatic tension in the history of the show. Lupo Bites America was, overall, a disappointment, but there are real possibilities in concept of documenting how the pop-up restaurant gimmick works. I wouldn't mind seeing them try another season, especially if they drop the "Zees Land Ees Your Land" angle and just stick to the Los Angeles area, looking on while the business plays out as it usually plays out. Ludo has ideas and untapped entertainment potential and, unless an awful lot of people are lying to the camera, can apparently cook like a song of a bitch. He doesn't need to become the Charles Kuralt of foie gras enthusiasts, too.