Chef Laurent Tourondel Dishes on the Past, Present and Future of BLT Steak

When Chef Laurent Tourondel began his culinary training in France at the age of thirteen, he had no idea that he would one day be a household name in the culinary world -- much less in America. "I don't think I meant to be this way," he says. "The goal was to provide a new restaurant, a different concept." 

Chef Tourondel's resume is impressive. He studied at Saint Vincent Ecole de Cuisine in Montlucon, France and worked under Bruno Tison at Restaurant Beau Geste, eventually landing in New York where he headed up the kitchens at Claude Troisgros' C.T. restaurant and Cello. If you went to Vegas in the mid-'90s (and still remember it through the drunken haze), you may have even spotted Chef Tourondel at the Palace Court.

After traveling the world, he founded the BLT Steak empire. The big news this month is that Tourondel recently split from BLT partner Jimmy Haber in what's described as an amicable parting. The pair divided up the restaurants with Tourondel staying on as Executive Chef of ten BLT restaurants including the one in Scottsdale.

I caught up with Tourondel yesterday at Scottsdale's branch of BLT Steak. He admits he doesn't know a lot about Phoenix, but says that one of his "favorite restaurants in the whole world" is here. Wow. Which one?

"Guess," Tourondel prodded, grinning like a Cheshire cat dressed neatly in a traditional button-down chef's coat. "It's not only famous here; it's famous all around the United States. Soooo big! You have one restaurant here that's like, WOAH! Everybody talks about it."

Find out Chef Laurent Tourondel's favorite local restaurant and read the interview after the jump.  

No idea? Tourondel offered a clue.

"It's Italian...a famous pizzeria." Yes, if you haven't already figured it out, Tourondel is a huge fan of Chris Bianco's nationally-renowned pies, and a self-described pizza freak. "I would travel to the end of the world to eat a pizza," he quips. 

Though there's no plan to add BLT Pizza to Tourondel's recently downsized empire, the chef has seriously considered opening his own pizza restaurant. "Probably one day for fun," he says "because I like [pizza] and I think I can make a good one."

BLT Steak's famous chalkboards.
BLT Steak's famous chalkboards.
Courtesy of BLT Steak

New Times: Why did you decide to open the first BLT restaurant?

Chef Tourondel: It's the dream of any chef to have their own restaurant. Sometimes it doesn't come true. Or maybe it comes true twenty times!

I thought about what the most American concept would be: the steakhouse. My way of thinking about a steakhouse is not only having good meat, but having good sides...fresh, seasonal vegetables, light appetizers.

NT: Why open a restaurant in New York, and not in your native France?

Tourondel: I was already there.

Maybe in the future, who knows? The market in Europe is ready for it. Nobody does it; I would love to [open a steakhouse] there one day, but it is a lot of work. 

NT: How involved are you with the menu here at BLT Steak in Scottsdale and at your other restaurants?

Tourondel: I'm constantly in contact with the chefs. I ask the chef to e-mail me a proposal. Sometimes they will not focus enough on the holidays, like they will plan to serve chicken on Easter instead of lamb. I tell them they need to have lamb and some chocolate eggs on the menu!

Each restaurant has its own touches, a slightly different menu based on what's local. Here you'll find jalapeno mashed potatoes, maybe a cactus beignet.

Tourondel adds his touch to classic American steakhouse fare like this Cowboy Cut Steak.
Tourondel adds his touch to classic American steakhouse fare like this Cowboy Cut Steak.
Courtesy of BLT Steak

NT: Do you cook what you love?

Tourondel: Always. There is stuff that I never cook in these kitchens. Oysters, for example. I don't like to cook oysters. I don't think you will ever see that on the menu. If the chef decides to run a special...I'll close my eyes! Chocolate and fruit, that's another one.

NT: There's a big national trend towards "alternative" meats. Will you be featuring lamb, rabbit, etc. on the BLT menus?

Tourondel: Maybe on the special board, but not on the menu. I don't think that's what people have in mind when they come to a steakhouse. As a matter of fact, when I opened BLT Prime in New York, I tried to have different meats. It was not so well received.

Some of the menus, we have duck and veal on it. They are the worst sellers! For every 700 filets, we'll sell 19 veal. It's good to have it so people have the choice, but you know...I do want to make money.

 NT: Where do you currently consider home? 

Tourondel: Everywhere! I'm based in New York, of course. But I've been gone for the last three weeks - in Miami, Puerto Rico, Vegas, Scottsdale. I've been separated from my partner recently, so it's a new thing for me. 

NT: You have a new cookbook coming out in October called 'Market' that spotlights fresh, local ingredients. What do you think about the movement towards organic produce?

Tourondel: Most of the time it's a great product. Sometimes too expensive to use in restaurants. 

It's not realistic to feed the country with organic product because it's too expensive and people cannot afford it. Feeding everyone with organic produce, it's impossible. They would have to create farms in every state, just for that state. 

NT: Is there a particular ingredient that you think is overused in American cooking?

Tourondel: Salt. Frying...oil. Herbs are the most flavorful thing in cooking. I think seasoning it well is good -- overpowering it and killing it is not good.

There was this time when two [French chefs] were picking these herbs on the mountain. I was very interested. I went to see one of them and asked him, 'Chef, why don't we work with these herbs? I'll never forget it. He says, 'if those herbs have been forgotten for this long, there's a reason. Think about it.' The next day I went to see these famous herbs, and it was horrible. Like eating grass. It was gross.  

NT: What's your opinion on banning certain ingredients and including calorie counts?

Tourondel: You know they're trying to ban salt in New York? The trans fat ban was good, but salt? I think there's a way to use it in moderation. If there's more than 14 restaurants, it counts as a chain and they have to put the calories on the menu. It's a steakhouse. Nobody wants that. Why would you want to scare people away?

NT: What advice do you have for budding chefs who'd like to fill your shoes someday?

Tourondel: You cannot look at it like when you finish school, you're gonna be a chef. It will take 10-15 years. I started when I was thirteen and I only came up into the chef group about ten years ago. You have to choose the style of the restaurant and what you're going to cook....specializing is very important.

Dining with a killer view at BLT Steak.
Dining with a killer view at BLT Steak.
Courtesy of BLT Steak

Look for new menu selections such as jalapeno mashed potatoes coming to BLT Steak's local outpost soon, as well as an Easter Sunday blackboard special featuring Maize & Chive Blossom Salad, aged NY Strip, spring lamb, Halibut Papillote with fava beans and choice of dessert. A three-course Easter Prix Fixe is also available for $60 per person. 

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