Chef D’Oeuvre: Daniel Boulud

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I am sorry I didn’t get back to you earlier, I was travelling all day, in fact I just got off a helicopter from Connecticut, and I am leaving for Paris on Thursday, hope you’re well, stop by Daniel if you have time and I’ll get you a bite and you can have a little drink at the bar, whatever you’d like,” Daniel Boulud’s unmistakable French intonation chimes from the other end of the phone. That one sentence embodies all the passion, enthusiasm, and true sense of hospitality that warms the hearts of everyone he touches. Even despite his manic schedule that has him jetting off to all corners of the country and as far afield as Beijing, Daniel’s energy and enthusiasm is boundless.

This month alone, he is juggling his three (soon to be four) restaurants in New York, one in Palm Beach, and one in Las Vegas. A new Maison Boulud in Beijing-just steps from Tiananmen Square-is nearing completion. Season two of his largely popular television show, After Hours with Daniel, is on air, and another season, shot in Miami and New Orleans, is in the works. The avid writer also has a host of books on the shelves of countless cooking enthusiasts and his extensive collection of cookware is on the market. As if that weren’t enough, Feast & Fêtes, the catering arm of Daniel’s New York flagship, is preparing for another busy holiday season. But this is all in a day’s work for the owner of this culinary empire, who is constantly seeking out new challenges.

 “I’m a yogurt fanatic. After I’ve been tasting food all day, all I want is a bowl of yogurt with sugar!”

Daniel’s success story has its beginnings on a farm in a quaint French provincial town close to Lyon. “I was just a farm boy,” he quips. “Every chef today dreams of having his own farm, being able to raise his own livestock and his own vegetables, and that’s where I lived all my youth. It’s too bad that I couldn’t transport that here. It was wonderful to live where ninety-nine percent of the produce was your own. It was not about how fancy life was; it was just about how delicious and good life was.” An early apprenticeship with Gerard Nandron, and the distinction of “best culinary apprentice in France,” set the stage for a lifetime of successes. A stint in Denmark was followed by Daniel’s arrival to the U.S. as the personal chef to Ambassador Roland de Kergorlay at the European Commission in Washington, D.C. In 1982, Daniel began his tenure in New York, quickly rising among the ranks, first at the Westbury Hotel, then at Le Régence at the Plaza Athénée. After a much-applauded six-year residence at Le Cirque, Daniel set out on his own with his self-titled restaurant that promised to serve

Daniel’s inimitable brand of “unpretentious French food.” And the rest, as they say, is New York history.
But behind all this unsurpassed success is a man who would make house calls to celebrate a friend’s anniversary, and who is wholeheartedly dedicated to charity and the greater good of the city he has called home for over 25 years. Each of his business endeavours strongly supports Citymeals-on-Wheels, a daily food service dedicated to the homebound elderly. “These are the people that have built the path to where we are and have been instrumental to the fibers of New York City. It’s not easy to age in this city when you don’t have many people taking care of you. As much as you think a city is better than the countryside, that’s not always the case,” explains Daniel.

In the ultimate show of the deeply ingrained valor that defines him, Daniel spearheaded an effort to provide hundreds of thousands of firefighters with 24-hour meal service during the harrowing weeks following September 11. He vividly recalls this trying period: “The day after [September 11], everybody was stunned, so we told the staff, ‘Show up tomorrow, and we’ll see what happens.’ So we started preparing sandwiches and meals, and the next day we started hot meals and a group of chefs took a boat from the Circle Line down to Ground Zero. We had a 24-hour restaurant there for all the firefighters and policemen. That was very intense. There were so many people to feed; we cooked thousands of meals and we had at least sixty chefs from all my restaurants.” This effort quickly turned into a multifaceted operation that had everyone from small restaurants to large food councils eager to lend a helping hand. “We started by giving everything we had, and then we started getting our suppliers to give us more food, and then we asked our suppliers to go to all the big food councils and associations to give us more food. It was a challenge but it’s amazing what you can do so fast. It was so rewarding,” he recalls, still visibly touched by the immense support and solidarity he received.

This commitment to helping others has landed Daniel accolades such as the United Nations’ Culinary Humanitarian Award and the coveted Legion of Honor, France’s ultimate merit. “I was very honored, especially for my family because that was not a distinction that was hanging around the house. It is the top distinction you can get in France, so I’m very proud both as a French chef and a Frenchman in America to be recognized by his own country,” he fondly remembers.

Of course, it is not long before the quintessential Frenchman is speaking about his true passion, and I am keen to know about his tastes in food and wine. Much to my surprise he confides, “I’m a yogurt fanatic. After I’ve been tasting food all day, all I want is a bowl of yogurt with sugar!” His taste in wine is a little less surprising. “As for white wine, if someone wants to make me happy they should get me a Montrachet; for red, I like Château Latour. For champagne I like Salon le Mesnil and Krug, but it has a lot to do with whom you share it with. If you go to a cocktail party and they serve you a great champagne, you don’t appreciate it the way you do when you sit down with someone and share it,” says the gracious host with whom countless celebrities and luminaries have been privileged to dine. With Daniel’s growing empire of destinations, many more will have the opportunity to experience his culinary wonders.

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