New York’s raconteur of culinary bliss shares some of his most prized secret ingredients: passion, dedication, a good bottle of Montrachet, and a heart of gold.
By Ayesha Khan
Photography by Bob Martus
“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 warm 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 are boundless.
This month alone, he is juggling his four (counting his newly opened West Side wine bar, Bar Boulud) 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. As if that weren’t enough, Feast & Fêtes, the catering arm of Daniel’s New York flagship, is right in the middle of another busy spring gala season. But this is all in a day’s work for the owner of this culinary empire, who is constantly seeking out new challenges.
Daniel’s incredible 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 99 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 being shortlisted for “best culinary apprentice in France,” set the stage for a lifetime of successes. A stint in Denmark was followed by Daniel’s arrival in 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 more than 25 years. Each of his business endeavors 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.
Daniel also lends much of his time to his beloved Daniel Boulud Scholarship Endowment Fund, established in 2005 to mark his 50th birthday. Having gotten his own start working under some of the greatest mentors in France, Daniel is now serving as a mentor himself. His scholarship fund offers promising young chefs the chance to experience a rigorous six-week continuing education program at the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. “The cross-cultural experience should bring these highly motivated young cooks to a whole new level in their careers. They have proven their talent and dedication. I want to offer them the kind of exposure that will open up another world to them,” explains Daniel.
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 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.