Tell Us Everything, Chef Daniel Boulud
In an era of celebrity chefs and big food personalities with TV shows, magazines and books, blogs and cookware lines, French chef Daniel Boulud is in some ways a throwback. A trained chef with farm roots and a fine-dining pedigree whose built a string of successful restaurants, now being replicated all over the world. Boulud is best known for his eponymous Manhattan restaurant Daniel, which this year earned him three Michelin stars – the Academy Award for Best Picture equivalent for a chef – it's considered the highest honor a restaurant can earn.
Gallery: Daniel Boulud Restaurants
After his early years training under renowned chefs in France, Boulud made his way to the states, eventually landing in New York, where from 1986 to 1992 he served as executive chef at the star-studded Le Cirque, earning it recognition as one of the country's best restaurants. In 1993 he opened Daniel and the awards and accolades have come pouring in ever since, but none more weighty than the coveted three stars from the prestigious Michelin Guide. New York Times critic Frank Bruni gave the newly renovated Daniel four stars in 2009, writing that it "safeguards a graciousness that deserves to survive any change in fashions and fortunes" and that he "never walked out the door feeling less than elated."
But serious culinary-world honors aside, Daniel Boulud is a very much a celebrity, too. But more the Philip Seymour Hoffman thespian type (yet with a quicker smile), than the George Clooney movie-star type. He's culinary world royalty with the trappings of a star - a total of 10 restaurants, five in Manhattan (Daniel, Café Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, Bar Boulud, and DBGB Kitchen & Bar) and five others around the country and the globe (Café Boulud in Palm Beach; Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas; Maison Boulud in Beijing; Lumière and a second DB Bistro Moderne in Vancouver). He's also written six books, starred in the television series "After Hours with Daniel Boulud", made guest appearances on "Top Chef," he's got a pet charity, New York's Citymeals-on-Wheels, and even been the center of a controversy when he was sued for discrimination.
This winter Boulud could be found cooking from a New York street cart and being honored at the South Beach Food & Wine Festival. This year he's opening two restaurants, a Bar Boulud in London's Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park this spring, and a DB Bistro Moderne in downtown Miami's JW Mariott Marquis this summer. We grabbed a few minutes of the busy chef's time and asked him to tell us everything...
It's hard to keep up with all that you're doing. Where do you most often cook these days?
Well it depends, last night I was at DBGB, Tony Bourdain was there, [Ramones drummer] Marky Ramone, there were a bunch of funny people. I spent about two hours at Daniel and an hour and a half at DBGB. Was I cooking? No, but I was with my chef and moving around. I'm mostly at Daniel a lot, of course.
Do you cook at home?
No. I don't want to lie. I haven't had a day off lately, long enough to give me the chance to relax and cook at home. But I do sometimes. My daughter's at college now, my wife is in Europe right now. But usually on Sunday I eat in my restaurants because it gives me a chance to observe and analyze and see what's happening. So it's not only important for me to be in the kitchen, it's also important to be in the front as well. And experience it as a guest.
You have risen to a prominence that few chefs enjoy. While you're cooking is rooted in traditional methods of your native France, I'm curious to know what role you feel that the US and NYC played in your success?
I think I had the chance to come at the perfect age for a young chef, which was 25 years old, when I came to America. I came as a very young chef to The European Commission in Washington. It give me the chance to observe what was happening to the dining scene here, how it was comparable to Europe and how sometimes America was old fashioned when it came to French [cooking], compared to what was happening in Europe. And then two years later involved with the more public side of it.
Then when I got to NY, I was chef in a hotel and restaurant and I really got involved with the scene and I started to really practice cooking, which was not really the French cuisine represented here but more like what French cuisine was in France at that time.
I learned in the '70s with some of the greatest, innovative, creative chefs in France and I brought that here and started to practice in that same manor of thinking as those chefs in the US. And I think the entire '80s was the beginning of the transformation of the culinary map in America.
Something new you've been doing, DBGB for example is a more affordable, more casual than some of your other restaurants. Is that something you were doing to evolve with the times?
Not at all. Of all the three-star chefs, I've always been the most casual one. Seven years ago I did a book about being around Manhattan with my restaurants and they asked me what I would like to do for the cover and I said maybe lets walk down the street a little bit. And I walked down and then there was a hotdog street cart and I bought a hotdog and I held the hotdog in the middle of Park Avenue. And I think this was showing how much I love casual food while I am this fancy chef on Park Avenue. And so creating DBGB was very easy for me. We have to buy the best ingredients, process them with taste but also bring the craft of certain things, such as sausage making, and the creativity around it also, by exploring all the different cultures around sausage and taste and style. It really gave me a lot of excitement to go and do that.
What are some of the places that you like to eat in NY and around the world?
I enjoy all kinds of cooking. If I am in Portugal, I am going to want to have the local food, of course; the most simple, local seafood. No matter which country I'm going to want to make sure whatever is local, fresh, the pride of that area, then that's what I want. Of course if I go to a fancy restaurant, I'm going to want to see technique, creativity, originality, all that. Today I think there are better Italian restaurants outside of Italy than in Italy. I don't think I should I say that but there are a lot.
When you're not in your own restaurants, are there any places you find you go to over and over again in NY?
There are many restaurants which I admire for different reasons, for example there is a young kid from Portugal, George Mendes at Aldea, he is very passionate; he is in a category of cuisine that is the least exposed. Portuguese cuisine is sort of a minority here. Maybe there weren't enough Portuguese chefs bringing that. Now I think its very interesting.
I like the Blue Ribbon Sushi in the upper west side; I go there because they take very good care of me. I like to go to Sushi Yasuda. I like Japanese, Italian. I know [Andrew] Carmellini at Locanda Verde he is a very good chef. He can cook, so I can trust him cooking something wonderful for me. And I think they [make] food with soul as well. But it's crazy because in New York you see so much different food and different things and you almost want to learn to cook them all or at least to know them all. It's really exciting, we are very lucky.
If I go to Chicago I will go to Paul Kahan's Publican. Publican is a little like DBGB in soul and spirit. It's a great place where there's great application of charcuterie, great local food and beer. And yet we're not in an economy that will support the greatest talent we have in America. It's not easy for every chef ... it's a pinching economy.
You have three opening this year and many of your restaurants are being replicated in other cities because they've been so successful, what do you see is the secret of your success?
The consistency, it's very important. I think success comes because people create a certain trust. The worst thing is to be trendy when nobody is noticing anybody and don't care how long its going to last. Like DBGB, I think it's successful but it's not trendy either. We didn't have a bunch of promoters trying to launch the place. It launched itself by what it represents, the quality and the food, the service, and now it's a busy, bustling place.
And I think there are people like who can attribute their success to dedication, who really make sure they mean quality. For example, Balthazar for that matter, is a long lasting success because people know what they can expect there. I would never take anyone for a ride in our restaurants. We are so concerned about everything we do for our customers. All the effort we put everyday into our restaurants, our training, our decisions, is all about 'are we doing the right thing for our customer.'
What are you eating right now in your restaurants? Is there something that's your favorite thing to eat right now?
[At Daniel] We have created a very wonderful dish with peanut butter. Peanut butter is just as old as America. People love it, and we have our own creative interpretation of it. We serve it on a moist brownie and it's wrapped up in a shell of chocolate and there's some dried caramel grated with that and a caramel ice cream. And then, of course, there's a peanut-butter mousse inside. Its chocalatey and there a flavor of peanut butter, but not the stickiness of it. It's very delicate. Today it's peanut butter, tomorrow, we'll see, it will be something else.
We are inspired as much by traditional flavors and ingredients and play with them, but also by the latest ingredients. For example, it's the season of the Buddha's Hand lemons, a long, fingerlike lemon, very interesting flavor. We have one month when we can use this lemon so we created a couple of things with it. We created an appetizer of raw fish and a Buddha Hand lemon mousse with some sea urchin, caviar. It's very delicate, very breezy-by-the-sea, but also with that fragrance of lemon. We also make a cocktail at the bar where we marinated the lemon in vodka and created a cocktail with it. Sometimes it's an ingredient, sometimes it's a flavor, sometimes it's a seasoning, sometimes it's a technique; whatever we can find best and we feel comfortable being consistent with as well.
This year your flagship restaurant Daniel got three Michelin stars, what does a chef do now that he's gotten the highest honor in the culinary world?
Keep working at it. My dream is to definitely make my place the most unique place in the world. That's what I've worked all my life for and I think the accomplishment of that was very rewarding not only for me but for my team as well. But that does not mean that because you have it you slow down. I think we keep investing, in people, in equipment, in resources because we want to stay creative. We want to be able to keep the passion that brought us... definitely without passion I don't think we'd have reached where we are. Maintaining that but also pursuing more with it -- that is the goal, I think.