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CHEF // An Education

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All chef David LeFevre wants is to make people happy, one diner at a time

Story by Megan Flynn

Photograph by Jennifer Chong

What do you get when you combine renowned celebrity chef Charlie Trotter, Madison, Wisconsin, industrial engineering, and a passion for food and people? The answer: Chef David LeFevre. What’s not included? Ego, arrogance, and the pomp and circumstance associated with fine dining.

Manhattan Beach Post (M.B. Post) restaurant, in Manhattan Beach, California, is the culmination of chef and owner LeFevre’s years of culinary experience, eye for design, and innate desire to connect with and help people. “I’m 40 years old and I feel like I’ve only just figured it out. The reason I’m a chef and the reason I own my own business is because—when it comes down to it, and I know this sounds a little rainbows and butterflies—I enjoy making other people’s lives better.”

Long before LeFevre came to the conclusion that life for him was about making others happy, he spent years in and out of restaurants, training under some of the best (but not always the friendliest) chefs in the world, traveling and cooking abroad, and developing a passion for food that extends way beyond cooking in a restaurant. Situated approximately 2,000 miles from his hometown, LeFevre (pronounced la-favor) has accomplished what so many people work their entire lifetime to achieve—doing a job he loves, surrounded by people he cares about, in a sunny location two blocks from the Pacific Ocean.

Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, LeFevre worked at various restaurants doing a multitude of jobs but never considered actually being able to cook for a living. “Once I realized I could make a living [cooking], that was that,” recalls LeFevre. He spent three years studying industrial engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, before enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. While he was in school, LeFevre had the opportunity to work under fellow UW-Madison alumnus, Chef Charlie Trotter, as an unpaid intern at Trotter’s award-winning (now closed) Chicago restaurant.

Described by LeFevre as being almost like boot camp, it was at Trotter’s that he learned critical skills about the preparation and execution of fine-dining cuisine. He stayed with the Trotter team and helped open the second restaurant in Las Vegas and then decided to stage (meaning to work for free in a kitchen to gain experience, similar to an internship) in France, where he expected to get the ultimate culinary experience. “It was great to be in France, learning the language, learning the system, but the food didn’t blow me away the way I expected it would,” says LeFevre. “[Cooking at] Trotter’s was really hard—like climbing Mount Everest every day. After you do that, France was like, oh, we’re just going to go over a hill today.”

After a year in France, LeFevre returned to Chicago and worked his way up to sous chef at Trotter’s while continuing to stage on all of his vacations. It was at that point that he realized he’d hit a bit of a ceiling within the Trotter organization, so he decided to travel around the world doing guest chef appearances with chefs he’d met at Trotter’s and during previous travels.

“Looking back, naïvety was probably the best skill I ever had,” says LeFevre. “Seriously, the audacity of a sous chef to call big hotels and say ‘I’m going to be in the area, are you guys interested in doing a dinner together?’ And they would ask, ‘Who are you?’ For some reason I had this idea that I had something to share, which, looking back was probably pretty arrogant, but I don’t think I went about it arrogantly.”

Upon returning stateside, LeFevre spent a short time working for Trotter and then decided to part ways for good, which led to his eventual hire as the chef at Water Grill in Los Angeles. “I interviewed at a bunch of different places, but I knew I needed to work at a place where they really knew how to operate a restaurant. At Trotter’s I learned how to cook. I learned about product, but I really needed to learn how to operate a fiscally sound restaurant.”

Six years later, with two coveted Michelin stars to his name (earned in consecutive years) that went relatively unnoticed at Water Grill, and with the economy in a state of upheaval, LeFevre knew it was time for a change. “I remember the day I had the epiphany and even wrote it down on my calendar,” recalls LeFevre. He soon connected with his friend Mike Simms, co-owner of M.B. Post and owner of the nearby beer-focused restaurant Simmzy’s. Together, they brainstormed the vision for a neighborhood restaurant with flavorful, well-executed—and affordable—fare and set to work opening M.B. Post.

“I wanted a place that had good food, good technique, but where there wasn’t any pomp and circumstance, and I wanted it to be inexpensive,” says LeFevre. “I wanted to be playful and cheeky with the menu and I wanted my personality to come through.” The menu’s subtitles include Pass the Bread, Eat Your Vegetables, and Meat Me Later. “And we made a choice to make the food really tasty. Everything has to be really, really flavorful.”

Well, sure, every chef wants their food to be flavorful. LeFevre explains that his menu, which changes seasonally or on the whim of a chef, is a reflection of all of the places he’s traveled. “I remember being in Southeast Asia and when I ate food it popped in my mouth, like, boom! For example, you can have a great steak and it can taste good, but if you put chimichurri on it, it’s going to really stand out. We use a lot of vinegars and acids. We do a lot of fresh herbs, a lot of fresh lemon and lime juice.”

A mishmash of flavors, textures, and spices, the M.B. Post menu features items ranging from savory bacon cheddar buttermilk biscuits to veggie dishes like grilled romaine and radicchio or classic roasted Brussels sprouts. Adventurous meat dishes include Vietnamese caramel pork jowl, barbecue Moroccan lamb belly, and duck meatballs. (All items subject to change and variation, of course.) And while the menu may seem like a garbled, incongruent mix of dishes—it works. “We often have an hour and a half wait for a table on any given night of the week (the restaurant doesn’t open until 5 p.m.), and we have the same neighborhood customers returning two—sometime three—times a week.”

LeFevre’s mantra of “humility, respect, and integrity” may also have something to do with the restaurant’s popularity. “If you’re being humble about the product and respectful to the guest and the product and having integrity about your approach, you do well.”

It’s this attitude that has perpetuated the growth of M.B. Post and also brought on the opening of a second restaurant, Fishing With Dynamite, two doors down from Post. The 36-seat space is seafood-focused, featuring a raw bar and a carefully curated beverage menu to match. “There’s something about a really soulful seafood restaurant,” says LeFevre. “When you’re eating an oyster, you’re doing the same thing, in relatively the same way, that someone did thousands of years ago. There’s something extremely visceral about eating [raw] seafood. It’s very Cro-Magnon.”

Though his customers aren’t cave people and there is a fair amount of modern technique involved in the cookery, LeFevre remains focused on the quality of the ingredients, the integrity of his staff, and his driving motivation: to make people happy. “That’s what it’s all about, it’s all about people. Beer and food and all that, sure, but what it really comes down to is people.”

RECIPE 1 //

Pomegranate and Summer Melon Couscous

Serves 4

4 cups water

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. turmeric

4 cups couscous

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup pomegranate seeds

¼ bunch cilantro, chopped

1/8 bunch mint, chopped

Zest of 2 limes

2 cups cantaloupe (or other summer melon), peeled and cut into 1–inch cubes

½ cup Greek yogurt

¾ cup feta, crumbled

¼ cup Marcona almonds

In a medium pot, bring water, salt, and turmeric to a boil. In a large bowl, coat couscous with olive oil, using your hands to massage the oil to coat all grains well. Pour boiling liquid over couscous and cover with plastic wrap. Allow to steam for 10 minutes. Uncover and fluff with a fork. Cool couscous to room temperature and season with vinegar, olive oil, pomegranate seeds, cilantro, and mint. Spoon the couscous salad into a serving dish and garnish with lime zest, cantaloupe, dollops of Greek yogurt, feta, and almonds.

Recipe 2 //

Thai Shrimp Ceviche with Coconut and Cucumber

Serves 4

16 large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 cup court bouillon or lightly salted water

½ cup coconut milk

1 tsp. fish sauce

Juice of 3 lemons

2 Tbsp. soy sauce

2 Tbsp. red onion, diced

½ cucumber, peeled, seeded, and sliced

½ cup fresh pineapple, diced

¼ serrano chili, sliced paper thin

¼ bunch cilantro, chopped

Blanch shrimp in a court bouillon or lightly salted water until just cooked through, approximately 3 minutes. Remove shrimp and cool in ice water to stop the cooking. Reserve blanching liquid. When shrimp have cooled, dice into bite-size pieces. To the blanching liquid, add coconut milk, fish sauce, lemon juice, soy sauce, onion, cucumber, pineapple, chili, and cilantro. Add shrimp and marinate for at least 15 minutes. Serve in a chilled bowl with tortilla or shrimp chips.