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If you have ever made a road trip in France, you have probably heard the station 98.2. The signal does not stop on the entire A6 motorway that goes from Paris to Lyon. His name is Nostalgie and they play French pop from the 70s, like Gilbert Montagné, and classic Bee Gees and Michael Jackson. For any American traveler it is the ideal soundtrack during a vacation in France. For chef Ludovic Lefebvre, a time machine.
Ludo hums a 1977 theme, Je vais à Rio, by Claude François, while a shower drenches the A6 and we advance all cars on our way south of Paris. Ludo knows the road well. Raised in Burgundy, he cooked for years in the capital.
Chef Ludo cooks with Helen Johannesen and Molly Kelley © Linda Pugliese
But that was two decades ago, before he became famous, first in Los Angeles and then in the rest of America, for its experimental cooking pop-ups, its fried chicken food truck and its hard trials in culinary reality shows. And, after that, for his French mini-empire of restaurants with Trois Mec and Petit Trois, to which he will soon add another Petit Trois in Studio City.
We go with the director of drinks of the Trois group, Helen Johannesen, and his sommelier, Molly Kelley, to make a prospecting trip through the world of wine. We are heading to Burgundy, one of the most famous French wine regions in the world, but also more hermetic.
Despite being the spiritual home of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, if you are not an experienced collector or do not know someone who knows someone, it is difficult to access the best wines.
The great castles, so appreciated in the Loire and Bordeaux, are few and far between. This is a humble region that reveals its charms, more than in guided tastings, in the stone walls that you see when you drive through the countryside or when you drink a drink in the restaurant that someone in the area has recommended . It is also where Ludo was born, where he was expelled from school and where he later found his redemption in the kitchen.
Views from Avallon Abbey, a medieval walled city in the heart of Burgundy © Linda Pugliese
During these three days, Nostalgie is the station that Ludo continues to tune while we trace a route from his hometown, Auxerre, in the north, to Côte de Nuits and Beaune, in the south, making stops in six villages, tasting amateur wines and of purists and eating very well.
The landscape of northern Burgundy is lush and undulating. The beauty is calm. It requires attention … and a guide. Fortunately, we have both.
Helen and Molly are here to discover their favorite winemakers and update the wine lists of Petit Trois and Trois Mec; Ludo, to get in touch with his roots, as he did almost every year.
It seems logical, therefore, that the first destination on our list is an underground cellar. In the basement of his grandmother's house in Auxerre, Ludo hid Chablis's boxes from an oenological project that began years ago and in which he had no high hopes.
Before arriving, he insists that we recharge our strength at the Brasserie Lipp in Paris so that Helen and Molly try the classic French service . Helen finds the house wine Mercurey, a Burgundy with excessive oak; Still Ludo is delighted with the mediocre food and lazy service.
A street of Chablis © Linda Pugliese
This becomes a dynamic on our trip. While Helen and Molly have come to try the newest, Ludo looks for the most traditional. In Lipp he opts for the tartar with frites, a pale tartare with Dijon mustard and yolks and the pronounced spicy Tabasco. A clear influence is noted with that of Petit Trois. At a time when the rest of the modern American chefs were deconstructing and becoming conceptual with theirs, Ludo opted for the classic.
It's been a couple of hours of lunchtime when we arrived in Auxerre. It is a quiet city with a river and a very well preserved medieval center, with half-timbered houses and crooked cobbled streets.
Recreational boats are moored along the Yonne River pier, full of three-star hotels and outdoor brasseries. “I have slept in that church, ” says Ludo pointing to the medieval cathedral of Saint-Étienne.
We approached his grandmother's house and went down the steep stone staircase to a vaulted basement, which during World War II was connected to a maze of tunnels, to retrieve some of his bottles of Chablis. We hope to find something worthy enough to serve in their restaurants, but they have too much acidity and tonicity for abandonment. Ludo shrugs and we continue our way.
Hostellerie du Moblin des Ruats in Avallon © Linda Pugliese
Every time he returns to Auxerre, Ludo goes out of his way to eat at Le Rendez-Vous, run by the first chef he cooked for.
Before, we rinse our palates at Le Maison Fort, a club (now closed) with a table football table and a pool table in a centenary building. The owner offers us a glass of aligoté, the white table wine of Burgundy. It does not look anything like Petit Trois or those that make up the Trois Mec cards, rather it is a worker's drink.
"My father and his friends took it for lunch, " Ludo says, hurrying a glass, just as when, as a child, he stole it to sneak out with friends . It is dry, with notes of apple and little else, it does not serve to talk about it, only to quench thirst. After teaching us how to play football, he is inspired: "We have to get one of these for the new restaurant!"
In Le Rendez-Vous Ludo asks about Jean-Pierre Saunier, the chef who hired him when he was thirteen at the behest of his father. "I was a horrible child, " he says. “Very conflicting. Always getting into fights, ”he adds as we sit down.
A selection of Wassermans wines © Linda Pugliese
“I remember the first time I entered the kitchen. There was a lot of fuss. The chef screamed and I felt at home. ” The front of the restaurant is quiet, full of French vacationers. "See how everyone behaves, " says Ludo, seeing the staff effectively serving diners. “It shows that Jean-Pierre is in the kitchen. But don't think that he is worried about screaming if necessary. ” Jean-Pierre leaves; He gives her a hug and two kisses and when Ludo returns to our table, also a whip with a rag.
We drink Chablis Premier and Grand Cru, grown and bottled just eight kilometers from here. Acidity and minerality cut the fat and lift the sauces. Ludo asks for oeufs in meurette (poached eggs in red wine reduction). The sauce is tannic and thick. "I will definitely include them in the menu of the new Petit Trois, " he says. "This is a drug, " exclaims Helen.
It will be the first of three times in three days that Ludo asks for the jambon persillé, a terrine of pork with gelatinous parsley that is accompanied with salad. And so begins the repetition of the same dishes, such as when you go to Tokyo and try the ramen incessantly.
On a couple of occasions order andouillette, a bowel sausage that is served with rustic mustard and salad. And two others, chablisienne, a ham with spicy tomato sauce and some very tender boiled potatoes.
Ludo eats an ice cream of coffee liégeois, his favorite dessert as a child . It is as if literally downloading memories of sensations to reload, recode and reinterpret them in their restaurants. I ask which of them you would include in your menu in LA "Everyone, " he says. "Although the andouillette may not."
Dish cooked by Ludo at Becky Wasserman's house © Linda Pugliese
“I used to work summers here picking grapes, ” says the chef the next morning, when we drive by a road that winds through the interior of the mountains. "It was hard, but not as difficult as picking pickles, which are very spiny."
Unlike the large castles of Bordeaux, with its expanse of land, the Burgundy vineyards are a mosaic of smallholder plots that, historically, sold their wine in bulk to powerful merchants who ended aging in their wineries and then bottled it and sold under a single name.
It was not until the end of the 20th century when Burgundy wine became fashionable and the producers really became winemakers and bottled theirs. But there is a humility that remains.
The famous Chablis denomination only covers 33 km2 and visits must be planned several days in advance to enter a tasting room.
Helen wants to stop at the castle of a winemaker whose Chablis serves in Trois Mec. So soon we found ourselves drinking Chablis in Chablis. At nine in the morning. In the elegant 16th-century estate of Château de Béru we visited a tasting room in an old stable.
White wine from Château de Béru © Alamy
Athénaïs de Béru runs this place. He worked in finance in Paris before moving here in 2006, after his father, Count Éric de Béru, died. He spent several years making the transition to organic and biodynamic methods and is part of a new breed of winemakers who use the least amount of sulphites possible and minimal interventions.
In the corner there is a wine box full of fossils and rocks. The pretentious terms 'minerality' and 'salinity' seem more than appropriate to me when, digging through it, I run into a rock with small shells of embedded oysters. They found her in the vineyard right outside the barn door. 150 million years ago, this entire area was submerged.
During the next few days, while tourists sit in the sunny patios of the brasseries, we prefer to do it in hiding, in caves where glass siphons are submerged in barrels and in our glasses.
The talk about terroir is inevitable when we go down to the cellars to taste the wine that was enriched with nutrients from the soil around us. We tasted more than one hundred. By magic, despite using the spitter and splashing wildly, Ludo finishes the tastings with his white sneakers, pristine and without spots.
Through the streets of Avallon © Alamy
We change the elegance of the Château de Béru for the rustic charm of the medieval walled city of Avallon, where, in an alley covered in hydrangeas and sheltered by a hairy street dog, we visit Nicolas Vauthier in his Vini Viti Vinci winery. Vauthier wears shorts and a jacket while serving us a biodynamic and surprisingly complex wine . Background jazz is heard.
Sauvignon blanc is not filtered and is delicious. Vauthier wines are not wines with designation of origin, but simple vins de France, which are not linked to the rules of the AOC (Controlled Denomination of Origin), made with freedom and with the appropriate grapes. It is what even a French hipster would recognize as "très Brooklyn".
From Vauthier, Our trip is a master class on the heroes of Burgundy's natural winemaking . This new generation breaks the rules by playing with less known varieties and fermentation techniques and, at the same time, respecting the craft profession.
The next morning we visited Tomoko Kuriyama and the Guillaume Bott winery, Chanterêves, in Savigny-lès-Beaune. In the lower part of a house with a truly suburban environment is the laboratory where they vinify the grapes they buy from small owners, making vin de soif, wine designed to drink, and vin de cave, for cellar.
In Domaine Berthaut we meet Amélie Berthaut, who has taken the reins of the business. Use an ancient method, but use the magical language of biodynamic winemaking: "I believe in the moon, we try to touch the vines on good days."
Then we go to the small cellar of Sylvain Pataille and we huddle around a barrel under a light bulb to approve an allotment of vines recovered from a single vineyard, categorized as Premier Cru : limestone gravel, little clay and good drainage. The resulting aligoté doré is not simple: it tastes like honeysuckle, it is ripe but fresh and energetic.
We are here with Paul Wasserman, son of Becky Wasserman-Hone, a well-known importer of Burgundy who marvels at him. "After an enigoté like this, the chardonnays lose a lot." They are risky words in Burgundy, but if anyone can support them it is him.
At this point we are all a bit tipsy and, after leaving Avallon, Ludo confesses: “I don't want to go back to America. A house in Paris, a house in Burgundy… ” Alexandrie Alexandra, Claude François, another cheerful 70's disco song about a love of youth on the banks of the Nile sounds on the radio.
It's our last night in Burgundy, in the small town of Bouilland, where Ludo makes dinner at Becky Wasserman-Hone's house for the winemakers who joined the trip.
It is a stone building with a walled backyard, a modern kitchen and, of course, a well-stocked cellar. Bottles emptied for a long time, since 1865, line the dining room shelves.
In the Wasserman-Hone house the rocks indicate each property © Linda Pugliese
Behind the building, a gorge, home of peregrine falcons, stands in the forest. It was here, almost four decades ago, that Wasserman-Hone began exporting wine to the United States. Now it is one of the legends of the industry and continues to export some of the best and most peculiar wines of the region.
Although 40 years may seem like a lot, they are a blink of an eye for Burgundy. Farrah Wasserman, Becky's daughter-in-law, is in town. He has come from Brooklyn, where he works in a wine shop. As we sit in the vaulted dining room, he says: "Here they speak of the fourteenth century as if it had been yesterday."
Taking a tomato pie made with Comté cheese crust as an appetizer, I ask Becky what distinguishes Burgundy from other regions. Respond quickly: “Burgundy is still rural. They know the earth perfectly. When I moved here and started growing my own garden, people told me exactly where in the yard I had to plant strawberries. There is a deep respect. And, while wines can be celebrated and drunk by the rich, agriculture is hard and physical work. So when they relax, they go out to have fun. And they do it with wine. "
When we finish our meal, which includes Bresse à la crème poulet (cream Bresse chicken) seasoned with smoked paprika and chablis, Becky makes another note: “People don't realize it, but the grapes here have little flavor in themselves same. They are interpreters who express the terroir: where they are from and how they were treated while growing up. "
Looking at a completely relaxed Ludo, sitting with the winemakers, drinking brandy and counting battalions of his youth, I realize that instead of the grapes, I could be talking about him, and that the word terroir could easily be replaced by "home". In the end, what is a chef, but an interpreter of where he comes from and what he knows?
We left Bouilland at midnight. Nostalgie rings in the van. Loaded with inspiration to dump the menus of Trois restaurants and the new Petit Trois, and with ideas of new vintages to add to the wine lists, the team is exhausted but relieved to reach the southernmost point.
The next day Ludo will go to visit his relatives who are on vacation in Antibes. Helen will return to Paris and Molly al Loire to continue tasting wines. With a smile, Ludo pulls a ripe nectarine from his pocket while Toto's Africa bursts into the radio. We pass by a luxurious villa with private garden. Ludo slides the side door of the van, aims, raises his arm and throws the fruit, which the moon illuminates for a moment before returning to the ground again.
* This report was published in number 118 of the Condé Nast Traveler Magazine (June). Subscribe to the print edition (11 printed numbers and digital version for € 24.75, calling 902 53 55 57 or from our website ) and enjoy free access to the digital version of Condé Nast Traveler for iPad. The May Condé Nast Traveler number is available in its digital version to enjoy on your preferred device.