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The Grateful Chef: How MB Post’s David LeFevre changed South Bay dining

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Chef David LeFevre at his newest restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Fishing With Dynamite. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Chef David LeFevre at his newest restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Fishing With Dynamite. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Half man, half bear.

That’s one of the first things you see when you walk into Fishing With Dynamite (FWD), Chef David LeFevre’s seafood-focused follow up to his two-year-old flagship small plates restaurant Manhattan Beach Post.

I’m not talking about the chef, himself, though the comparison could be made. His ample, albeit shrinking, Midwestern waistline, his generous facial hair, his hugs, and his booming voice are all somewhat bear-like.

But it’s a piece of art hanging on the wall of the tiny new restaurant that I am referring to: a print by street artist Deedee Cheriel of a roaring bear head on a man’s body with the words “You Have Everything You Need.”

The message echoes what is perhaps LeFevre’s greatest asset: his gratitude. At the core of David LeFevre is a spirit of thankfulness and an unwavering commitment to the people around him.

MB Post opened its doors in April 2011. It has done robust business and garnered a staggering amount of acclaim in its two years, most recently a spot on revered LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants. The restaurant has, moreover, helped inspire a blossoming – by proving that there is a local appetite for more adventurous dining, Post’s success was followed by a new wave of restaurant openings that may yet make the South Bay a culinary destination.

LeFevre’s arrival in Manhattan Beach two years ago was not the most obvious choice for a chef of his pedigree. Nor was MB Post’s success a surety. There was little precedent locally for what LeFevre planned to do.

“I was pretty nervous opening Post,” LeFevre said. “I didn’t know if it was going to work. And I had put basically all of my life savings into it.”

LeFevre grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, and attended the university there to pursue a career in engineering. His senior year he had a change of heart. LeFevre had cooked all his young life and finally committed to his passion. He packed his bags for New York to study at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.

LeFevre landed an unpaid internship at the legendary Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago. The stint was his culinary trial by fire. Luckily, he passed and worked for years on the Trotter team both in Las Vegas and in Chicago, where he eventually became sous chef. After a stretch of world traveling where he worked in some of the most coveted kitchens on the globe, including Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, a Michelin three-star restaurant in Spain. Four years later, LeFevre earned Water Grill in downtown Los Angeles its own Michelin star – the single most coveted recognition in the world of fine dining – as executive chef.

Despite the success LeFevre had already experienced, nothing prepared him for the stress and uncertainty of opening his own restaurant. Even after the MB Post menu was developed and tasted, the building completed, and the staff trained, the chef remained uneasy.

“We had the actual dining room set up, and all the tableware out and music was going and we were all doing mock service,” LeFevre recalled. “And servers started coming up to me and saying, ‘Oh, this place is going to be packed.’ And I said ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if people are going to like the food.’ And they kept reassuring me.”

“Finally, the next February it was Valentine’s weekend or something and we had done brunch and we were going into dinner. Ten months had gone by since we opened and I vividly remember being in the corner of the restaurant and looking around. And it was busy, guests were really having a great time, the servers were running around, the bartenders were shaking drinks and the music was going. I remember finally thinking, ‘Okay, it’s going to work. It’s going to be okay.’’

The bustling MB Post. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

The bustling MB Post. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

The social house

I have a personal connection to MB Post and to Chef David, as I and the entirety of his staff call him.

I have been a server at Post since August of 2011, joining the team four months after the restaurant’s opening. It is my livelihood, my home away from home, and much of the reason I have found my own happy existence in the South Bay since moving here from Boston just over two years ago.

I met Chef David when I walked into MB Post for my first interview after applying for a server position.

He didn’t lead the interviews, his front of the house managers Jerry Garbus and Brett Anderson did. But Chef David oversaw the hiring of every team member and his presence at the group interview table was almost more intimidating because he wasn’t asking any questions.

He was just listening. Watching.

I felt like we were applying to be caregivers for his child. In retrospect, we were.

A rigorous two-week training leaves new employees not only with a vast understanding of the cuisine and bar program at Post, but, more importantly, it introduces the team to the culture of the restaurant.

I have worked in the restaurant industry for almost 10 years, serving in some of the finest establishments in Boston and Chicago before relocating to the West Coast. Yet, even during the most grueling training at a Michelin-starred culinary institution in Chicago, I have never experienced indoctrination into a set of values and standards like that of the Post education.

Beyond menu specifics, every employee for LeFevre is taught the basic principles of the restaurant’s philosophy: integrity, respect and humility. Far from empty catch phrases, these tenets guide every hiring choice the chef makes and weigh heavily in every decision the restaurant and its staff makes.

A commitment to community is also engrained in LeFevre’s employees. We are taught to take our position in the community, both personally and professionally, seriously. No disrespect to guests, the neighborhood, or even competing restaurants is tolerated.

With adherence to the code of Post comes an overwhelming appreciation of our work. Chef David chokes up on the frequent occasions he addresses his staff about his gratitude for our role in realizing his dream. On most days, when he walks into the restaurant he goes around and shakes each employee’s hand.

He takes care of his own. And the feeling is reciprocated.

Every Wednesday morning, the majority of LeFevre’s kitchen staff meet at the farmers market in Santa Monica to score the freshest ingredients and get inspired for new dishes. Restaurant crews have early access to the market and most chefs bring along a cook or two.

LeFevre shows up with a posse.

Craig Poirier, pastry chef for MB Post and Fishing With Dynamite, is one of the multiple faces that turn out every week.

“The Santa Monica Farmers Market is kind of like the water cooler for LA chefs,” Poirer said. “It’s the only time they all run into each other, so they’ll stand around and chat. And people always make cracks to Chef about how many cooks he brings. He likes that. It’s a big point of pride for him.”

LeFevre’s staff will be at the restaurant until midnight or later Tuesday night and get up early Wednesday morning to join him in Santa Monica, even if it’s their day off. Ask any chef you know; mornings are sacred and anything before noon is painful. But it’s a tradition for the Post crew now; they are committed because they get to see, smell, squeeze, and taste the products they work with. Plus, LeFevre takes them all out to lunch after, often at Milo & Olive in Santa Monica.

The scene, Chef David sitting together with his staff at a lunch table, is once again suffused with gratitude. It’s not hard to see from where the chef’s thankfulness emanates: he lives passionately, and surrounded by those who share his passion. He is a gifted chef, and his is a life devoted to the gifts of meals shared together, as is evident in the “common table” ethos of MB Post. LeFevre has always held sacred the power of eating together. The restaurant is called “a social house” because LeFevre believes in the gifts of sharing a meal.

And the loyal followers of Post would likely name the chef’s signature biscuits as his greatest gift.

MB Post, the influential South Bay restaurant that was once a post office. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

MB Post, the influential South Bay restaurant that was once a post office. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

Yes, the biscuits

The beloved bacon cheddar buttermilk biscuits at MB Post are orbs with salty, crusty shell caging a soft, chewy center filled with cheddar cheese and Neuske’s bacon and have, perhaps more than anything on the menu, put Post on the culinary map.

The happy irony is that Chef’s increasingly famous, crave-inducing biscuits derive from a recipe he learned, as a child, from eating his late mother’s homespun cooking.

“I have to laugh,” LeFevre said, “because I spent basically all of my twenties and thirties trying to surround myself with the best culinary minds in the world and the dish that my mother made is the one that everyone freaks out about.”

And now almost every guest that dines at Post begins their meal with the famous biscuits. Two doors down, at FWD, guests often start with another staple from LeFevre’s childhood: squash rolls.

“My mom used to make those for us on Thanksgiving,” he said. “Every Thanksgiving she would make squash rolls. So we would look forward to it all year.”

He’s made some changes to his mom’s recipes. The biscuits got their legendary additions of bacon and cheddar. And the squash rolls are much lighter at FWD than they were on Thanksgiving in Wisconsin.

“My mom’s were so dense,” LeFevre said. “It felt like a two-inch roll weighed a pound. They stuck to your ribs.”

LeFevre’s restaurants still start their meal with breads from his childhood, a tribute to the memory of his mother. Despite his time with innovative Trotter in Chicago and molecular gastronomy pioneer Adrià in Spain, Midwestern comfort foods reign on LeFevre’s menu.

One of the earliest and most popular desserts on the Post menu was a strawberry shortcake, the dessert LeFevre had every year on his birthday growing up.

Much of the focus of the FWD menu, and LeFevre’s passion for seafood, generally, grew from a kindling sparked during the summers he spent fishing in the Chesapeake Bay with his grandfather.

The chef’s fondness for his childhood is rife in much of his menu. He defines his cuisine as “soulful” and it seems a lot of that soul emanates from very personal connections to the dishes he prepares.

While a large portion of his heart may remain in Wisconsin in the 1970s and 1980s, the South Bay is very much LeFevre’s home now.

LeFevre found himself in Los Angeles after being recruited for the position of executive chef at downtown’s seafood mecca, Water Grill. He wasn’t instantly sold on the city, proper.

“I didn’t think much of LA when I moved here,” LeFevre said. “I lived downtown and downtown in 2004 wasn’t what it is now. It was kind of dirty and there wasn’t a lot going on.”

Then a friend at work invited LeFevre to his house in Manhattan Beach for the day.

“I came down and saw it and moved down here three weeks later,” he said.

LeFevre has spent the last eight years living in the same apartment in Hermosa Beach. This in and of itself says a lot. He hadn’t lived in the same home for more than a year since he left Wisconsin until he found his way to the South Bay.

A chef’s temperament

This all is not to say that LeFevre is the easiest chef for whom to work. And, as any front or back of the house employee would echo, not every shift at Post is sweetness and light.

Chicago Chef Guiseppe Tentori, longtime friend of LeFevre since he worked under him at the famed Charlie Trotter’s 15 years ago, can relate.

“Dave is extremely passionate,” Tentori said. “He expects 100 percent from his staff every time and he can become very frustrated when his expectations are not met.”

“He has a temper, like most chefs,” Tentori said. “And if you know his expectations going in, it will make your life a lot easier.”

Chef David LeFevre at FWD. Photos by Chelsea Sektnan

Chef David LeFevre at FWD. Photos by Chelsea Sektnan

Whatever outbursts Tentori endured from LeFevre, it never impeded their friendship. Tentori has taken time away from his two Chicago restaurants, Boka and GT Oyster and Fish, to come to Manhattan Beach and help LeFevre with special events at Post.

When LeFevre was asked to host a dinner at the acclaimed James Beard House in New York City last year, Tentori surprised him by walking into the kitchen on the day of the event and asking, “Need some help, Chef?”

Tentori then rolled up his sleeves and made biscuits with his friend.

Post’s General Manager, and now Director of Operations, Jerry Garbus, has also witnessed the highs and lows of LeFevre, having worked with the chef at Water Grill before opening Post with him.

Chef David.

Chef David.

“I think Chef would be the first to admit that he is a puppy dog in his approach at Post compared to how he’s been in the past,” Garbus said. “I think that one thing people don’t know about David is that he is a very introspective guy. He has a very clear idea about the kind of man he wants to be and works very hard to be that way.”

Garbus lived through LeFevre’s transformation from executive chef at Water Grill to chef/owner at MB Post.

“When Chef stepped into an owner role he reprioritized what he wanted from himself and how he wanted to interact with his crew,” Garbus said. “He’s worked very hard at changing some habits and I am really proud of him.”

Fishing With Dynamite.

Fishing With Dynamite.

Caring about his staff’s perception of him is not a typical priority for a chef running two restaurants, garnering accolades locally and nationally, and vying for honors like James Beard awards, essentially the Oscars of the culinary world, for which he has been nominated both of the two years Post has been open.

But, as LeFevre will tell you, nothing is more important in the restaurant industry, or in life, than people.

Not long after I started at Post, I waited on a group of people who had ordered a bit too much food. I cleared their plates and started heading to the dish area. As I walked through the dining room, past the big windows of the open kitchen, I saw Chef look at me and charge out of the kitchen to follow me into the back.

I was terrified. Clearly I had done something terribly wrong.

“Why didn’t they finish the salad? Did they not like it? Did you ask?!” He had noticed the half-full plate of grilled romaine in my hands as I walked by.

Jaime Reidy, Manhattan Beach resident and author of the book that was the basis for Love and Other Drugs, the popular film with Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, has known LeFevre for seven years and is well aware of the chef’s commitment to people. They met over late-night cocktails at mutual friend Mike Simms’ home.

“It was late and we opened a bottle of wine that was way too expensive for two in the morning,” Reidy remembered. “And I, as I often do when drinking, started being a know-it-all and complaining about servers at restaurants who don’t write down their customers’ orders.”

LeFevre immediately jumped on the defensive, arguing that servers are incredibly intelligent and shouldn’t have to scribble on notepads to assure diners of their proficiency. A debate ensued between Reidy and LeFevre, each of whom stuck to their guns about their opposing beliefs on the issue.

The next morning, full of embarrassment, Reidy emailed Simms to apologize for being a less than gracious guest and lamented that LeFevre would probably never want to hang out with him again.

“A couple of minutes later, I got an email from Dave that Mikey forwarded me,” Reidy said. “He had basically written the same thing to Mike, apologizing for arguing with me and saying that I probably wouldn’t want to hang out with him again. I thought, ‘Alright, I think we’re okay.’”

Thus began a deep friendship between Reidy and LeFevre based not only on good times and busting each other’s chops, but also on real support.

Reidy was the first guest in the door at MB Post when it opened and was among those at the first seating on FWD’s opening night.

“Dave used to have these epic champagne and oyster parties,” Reidy said. “He literally forced my ex-girlfriend to try her first oyster and now she loves them. And I have always been so impressed by his cooking talent.”

Chef David LeFevre in his Water Grill days.

Chef David LeFevre in his Water Grill days.

Moreover, Reidy has seen a change in the culinary scene in the South Bay since Post opened its doors.

“Dave raised everybody’s game,” Reidy said. “It’s like that expression, ‘a rising tide lifts all ships.’ Jonathan Gold coming to Manhattan Beach to eat? That didn’t happen four years ago.”

Still, what strikes Reidy most about LeFevre is his commitment to friends and family.

“Dave’s friends are so important to him,” he said. “And his sister, since both of his parents passed.”

LeFevre keeps personalized stationary and is known to write notes to his friends out of the blue.

“When my movie came out, I got a handwritten note from Dave telling me how proud he was of me,” Reidy said. “Letter writing is a lost art anyway. And for a guy to do that for another guy is really special.”

Home

From the outset at MB Post, LeFevre envisioned a place, according to his mission statement, where people would “come for dinner but stay for the spirited and engaging atmosphere.” It is a vision fully realized.

The food, from the simple chicken pot pie to the exotic bbq Moroccan lamb belly, is exceptional. But walking by the restaurant on a weekday night and hearing the music pumping and seeing a jovial mass of people laughing, drinking, and eating when surrounding restaurants and bars are nearly empty, it is clear that LeFevre has tapped into a something beyond expert cuisine.

Chef David Lefevre

Chef David Lefevre

LeFevre’s role in the South Bay has changed drastically in the last two years. Where once the Beach Cities were his respite from the madness of his career downtown, he is now a very recognizable public figure in his own neighborhood.

“Before when I would go out down here, no one really knew about Water Grill because it’s such a little bubble here,” LeFevre said. “In 2008, we got a Michelin star at Water Grill and still no one around here really knew what that was all about.”

“People would ask what I did and I’d say I was the chef at Water Grill and they thought I meant Blue Water Grill, the chain,” LeFevre said. “And if I mentioned the Michelin star, they thought I was talking about tires. But it was kind of nice in its own way. I could go out in a t-shirt. Now, it’s a little different.”

After Post opened, LeFevre’s behavior modification had to go beyond his temperament in the kitchen.

“But, you know, given the two options, I’d rather have a successful restaurant and have to curb my behavior a little bit than not have a successful restaurant,” he laughed.

LeFevre has strict rules for himself about fraternizing with his staff outside the formal gatherings, too. Almost every Post employee that lives in the South Bay has experienced walking into a local bar, seeing the chef there, being happily greeted by him, and then watching the chef immediately pay his tab and leave.

He takes his role, but not himself, very seriously.

Angela Comella, server at Post and sister-in-law to Post and FWD’s managing partner Chris Simms, has known LeFevre for seven years.

Comella, who worked for the Simms Restaurant Group at Simmzy’s in Manhattan Beach before pursuing a career in the music industry, returned to restaurants when MB Post opened.

“I left the career I thought I wanted because it wasn’t fulfilling,” she said. “The people around me didn’t have the passion or vision I expected them to have.”

Comella first worked with LeFevre at a dinner for potential Post investors at the home of Keri, her sister, and Chris Simms while she was still working her 9-to-5 in the music world. She was instantly struck by his passion.

“I had already known Chef to be very humble, funny, and welcoming,” Comella said. “No matter where he was, he seemed comfortable. And it’s always been clear that he keeps his family and friends close to his heart.”

“Being a social person, I immediately understood why he would open the kind of restaurant he did,” she said.

Now Comella has moved from Hermosa Beach to Camarillo. She continues to work at Post and never complains about her choice to travel so far for a waitressing job.

“Of course I could find a job closer to home,” Comella said. “But I love Chef and everyone I work with. This is my family. I walk into work and get a bear hug from my boss. Not many people can say that.”

LeFevre has catapulted Manhattan Beach into the regional and national culinary spotlight. He compelled a visit from Jonathan Gold, the first food writer to win a Pulitzer Prize, to the South Bay for dinner and scored an overwhelmingly positive review from the man.

Perhaps even more impressively, LeFevre received essentially a love letter of a review from S. Irene Virbila, the notoriously acerbic Los Angeles Times restaurant critic who, just three years ago, was outed by Red Medicine’s Chef Noah Ellis. When Virbila attempted to dine at Red Medicine, Ellis forbade her from entering, snapped a photo of the critic – who goes to great lengths to remain anonymous while dining – and posted it online along with a tirade against her “cruel and irrational” reviews.

The conviviality of MB Post, the house that Chef David built. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

The conviviality of MB Post. Photo by Chelsea Sektnan

“LeFevre is showing that he can do rustic and gutsy just as well as fine dining,” Virbila wrote in her review of Post. “He seems to be having fun, picking up ideas from Spain, Provence, Japan and Vietnam. His menu, with handwritten additions nightly, is so enticing sounding, we ended up over-ordering every time.”

Grub Street’s Hadley Tomicki put the overarching sentiment of the LA food community most succinctly: “David LeFevre single-handedly gave the city cause to venture to the South Bay for dinner.”

LeFevre is clearly in a two-way love affair with the South Bay. Last summer he turned 40 and celebrated with close friends, including Mike and Chris Simms and Jaime Reidy, with a trip back to Wisconsin. But he celebrated locally, too.

Instead of throwing a birthday party for himself, he gave back to the community that has nurtured him. LeFevre shut down Post for an entire evening and threw a fundraising event for a charity that is dear to him, Common Threads. The organization teaches children in underprivileged communities all around Los Angeles how to cook healthfully for themselves; children who may not have had someone like LeFevre’s mother to learn with at home. With the help of fellow chefs from Mozza, Sotto, Animal, and Milo & Olive, LeFevre hosted a seven-course dinner and every cent of the ticket price went to Common Threads.

With a great sense of humanity and gratitude that overwhelms his extraordinary culinary talent, LeFevre has carved out a remarkable place for himself in his adopted hometown. And for many of us fellow transplants and locals, alike, he has built a home for us, too.

 

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