1998 BEST NEW CHEF AWARD PROFILE
Q & A with Arlington Club's Laurent Tourondel
Laurent Tourondel may be a native of France, but his brand has become synonymous with American classics. Think burgers, fries and milkshakes at LT Burger in Bryant Park, and juicy sirloins and rib eyes at BLT Steak. Though he parted ways with E Squared Hospitality and the BLT empire a few years ago, he just recently returned with his own brand of steakhouse at Arlington Club and he's taken his famous Gruyere popovers with him.
"I love reimagining the great American stalwarts, using French technique and influences to make them my own," Tourondel tells us. "I get to have fun with really nostalgic comfort foods and turn them upside down with unique ingredients and twists." At LT Burger, that translates to American Kobe Beef Patties topped with Spinach, Truffle Paste, and Emmentaler Cheese, and Macaron Milkshakes with Almond Gelato and Marzipan — fare you're not likely to find at just any fast food chain or diner.
At Arlington Club (which represents his first venture with nightlife bigwigs the TAO Group), Tourondel focuses his efforts on unexpected sides and sauces, like Spaghetti Squash with Gorgonzola and Honey Butter and Jalapeno Chimichurri. "We took this opportunity to take each and everything we love about the steakhouse and make it even better," he said. We also spoke with the chef about his favorite guilty pleasures (besides burgers and milkshakes), why he doesn't bother ordering the Porterhouse at his own restaurant, and his biggest kitchen disaster. Teaser: it involves paying off the police to release a catering truck full of food!
What did you want to be when you grew up?
An architect. I've always loved design and building things, and I've been fascinated with architecture. That's part of the reason that we took such care when designing Arlington Club. We wanted the place to have a Beaux-Arts inspiration, reminiscent of the grandeur of the old Penn Station with vaulted ceilings and soaring steel arches. It's really beautiful and I'm lucky to be able to walk around there every day!
What was your first job in food?
It was as an apprentice in a Spanish restaurant called Don Quijote in the center of France. It was a different experience for me – the first time I had experimented with Spanish cuisine. It was a great learning experience.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
Cello. It was the first time I became the executive chef of my own restaurant, which is every chef's dream. It was the first time people really paid attention to what I was doing and it felt great to have that type of attention paid to the work I loved. I'm a chef, and having people enjoy my food is the best feeling in the world, even to this day. Thankfully, Cello was extremely well received by the public and critics, and it was the first time I was propelled into the national spotlight.
What was your biggest kitchen disaster?
18 years ago, I was working for a catering company, doing an event at Louis Vuitton in NYC for 1000 people. We only had 1 hour to setup, but had to wait for the store to officially close before gaining access. My assistant and I arrived early, in a truck with the food, so we could take advantage of every second to set up. When the store officially closed, I sent my assistant to have them let us in, but nobody was answering the door. We left the truck and started making phone calls to see what was going on, and the next thing we knew, the police started towing the truck with all the food in it! I freaked out and begged them to release the truck. Long story short, we made a quick trip to the ATM and paid them off and all was OK.
Out of all of your restaurants, why did you decide to take an executive chef position at Brasserie Ruhlmann in Rockefeller Plaza?
I love Brasserie Ruhlmann because I'm able to prepare French cuisine for guests who really appreciate it. My French influence works its way into the cuisine at Arlington Club, certainly, but Brasserie Ruhlmann is devoted to French cooking, so I'm glad I can work creatively with the team there and help develop their menu in a great New York neighborhood.
Since parting ways with BLT Group, what role do you currently play at the restaurants you opened with them?
I am still a consulting chef at select BLT restaurants.
How did you get involved with the TAO team, and how is their influence and energy reflected in Arlington Club?
Marc Packer came to me and asked if I wanted to work together on this project. TAO Group has created a reputation for the being able to deliver the whole package – they really are able to ensure that the entire guest experience, from start to finish, is top notch. It was an easy decision to make. I bring the same attention to detail in the kitchen, and Arlington Club allows us both to do what we do best. It's a partnership that's worked out tremendously well. The energy at Arlington Club is contagious and people keep coming back – not only for the food, but the atmosphere at the restaurant. And with the recent launch of brunch, it's been a place unlike any other in the neighborhood, delivering on all elements of the experience. We ensure that guests have an amazing time, and that they leave happy and full.
How are you attempting to reinvent the American steakhouse with Arlington Club? How does your concept differ from your other steakhouse restaurants?
We're not trying to reinvent the steakhouse, per se, but we are trying to bring our own twist on the concept and make it an enjoyable experience that both steak eaters and non-steak eaters can enjoy, namely by adding the sushi component. Guests love that they can come into a steakhouse and have so much more to look forward to than just their steak. And the sushi, fish options and raw items really add to that.
What's your favorite dish on the menu at Arlington Club right now? What's your least favorite (and yes, you have to choose)!
My favorite is the Cote de Boeuf. No question. It's basically a Ribeye for two. It is marbled and flavorful and we serve it with Bone Marrow, Flash-Fried Herbs, and Shoestring Potatoes. My least favorite is the Porterhouse because you can usually get a separate cut of Filet and Strip, but when cooked together the Filet tends to cook faster than the Strip, and the Strip has a nerve down the center that can become chewy. If you're deciding between the Filet and the Strip Steak, yes, get the Porterhouse, but if you ask me what steak to get for two, I will recommend the Cote de Boeuf for you, hands down.
You're really known for high/low cuisine… steaks and sushi at one end of spectrum, and burgers and shakes on the other. In your everyday diet, do you gravitate more towards fine dining, or towards comfort foods?
I'd say it's a mix. I love to treat myself, but I also love trying things elsewhere. I recently tried the Elotes Callejeros at La Esquina. It's a typical Mexican street food snack, and sometimes that type of casual dining really hits the spot. I live in East Harlem and frequent a local taqueria as well. I'm always trying to find new and interesting things to eat, and enjoy checking out what my fellow chefs are cooking up.
Describe your ultimate "splurge meal" at a restaurant other than your own.
Le Bernardin and Masa. Le Bernadin is just perfect, and I would happily leave myself in Eric Ripert's hands there. The Omakase tasting menu at Masa is also incredible. Those are my ideas of the most perfect splurge meals.
What are your favorite "guilty pleasure" foods?
Pizza from Motorino. The crust is bubbly and it's cooked in a brick, wood-burning oven. The Stracciatella and Cherry Stone Clam pizzas are my favorites. The freshness of the ingredients really comes through. They also have a location in Hong Kong, so I can enjoy it there when I travel to my other restaurants.
On a rare day off, what can we find you doing (and eating)?
I usually get up early and spend some time outside, maybe a run in the park. Then I'll check in with email to see if anything needs immediate attention. I love an Everything Bagel with Lox Spread, so I'll probably pick one up from a place in my neighborhood, then I'll spend the day visiting my restaurants, LT Burger in Bryant Park, Brasserie Ruhlmann in Rockefeller Center and Arlington Club on the Upper East Side – visiting, tasting, changing things, making specials, adjusting the menu for seasonal menu changes – and then usually out on the Arlington Club floor saying hi to old friends and new.
You're on your deathbed... sex or dinner? And no, you can't say both!
Sex for dinner... then stuffing myself before dying.