I arrived promptly at 7 p.m. at Daniel Boulud‘s eponomously named restaurant DANIEL, where I was met and escorted into the kitchen and up a steep, narrow set of stairs to a clear glass cube that “floats” above a phalanx of 40 chefs. All the chefs’ eyes were glued to a pot, pan or plate at their assigned stations. This is Daniel’s “Command Central” — his “office” with two assistants when he isn’t “on the line” cooking. From his “watch tower” perch, he can monitor the action down below, while conducting business pertaining to any one of his 14 restaurants – ten in the U.S., two in Canada, and one each in London and Singapore.
Daniel Boulud and I have known each other for more than 20-years. We are friends, who have shared many great meals and bottles of wine. He agrees to my request for an “interview” if I promise to bring a bottle of wine that we can share together in the “Skybox,” an extension of his “floating cube” where VIPs, celebrities and diners with big expense accounts can experience a specially curated private dinner for up to four persons, while also watching the army of chefs below serve up each dish. One of my most memorable experiences was in this room sharing a simple hamburger and an ’82 Cheval Blanc with Daniel while watching Monday Night Football! Yes, Chef likes to watch a good football game every now and then.
So, between sips of 2005 Puligny-Montrachet Les Enseigneres from J.F. Coche-Dury, I try my best to channel the interview skills of Howard Stern meets Barbara Walters (my two favorite interviewers) as I begin my friendly interrogation, designed to elicit responses that are different from the normal and predictable answers these chef interviews usually elicit. Hence, I don’t ask what he likes to cook at home with his family on Sunday nights; but for anyone who really cares, it’s the proverbial roast chicken, or “whatever leftovers happen to be in the fridge.”
Some of Chef Boulud’s seminal moments:
First time in a restaurant kitchen: At 14 in his hometown, Lyon. “Working in a kitchen is like working in a Galley. I Didn’t know what being a chef meant, but I wanted to experience everything. I never said no to any job, including plucking feathers off hundreds of birds all day long in a windowless basement, coming upstairs only long enough to grab a quick bite of lunch; literally from sunrise to sundown. I thought I would go out of my mind, but to this day, and I can pluck a chicken better than anyone!”
Principles that have stuck with him from his earliest experiences in the kitchen as a teenager: His admiration and respect for waiters; and with Chef George Blanc, how catering was a great way for a restaurant to make extra money outside of the restaurant: “That thought stayed with me for 20-years until I finally opened Feast & Fetes, my catering operation.”
First wine he ever tasted: Chateau Palmer (doesn’t remember the vintage). “I loved it, although today I prefer a good burgundy or Rhone, which reminds me of my hometown in Lyon.”
Professional influences growing up: Michelin star chefs George Blanc, who taught him how to be a businessman, not just a chef. Learned regional, Burgundian cooking skills and how to make regional dishes such as Coq au vin and Beef Bourguignon: “Roger Verge was the biggest influence – the ‘Cary Grant’ of the chef world – so dapper, so charming, neat and always polished, and in control. He taught me how to have military precision in the kitchen and that there is a hierarchy among the ‘Brigade of chefs.’ Verge also sent me to Luxumbourg for a year, and then Denmark where I also learned English, thanks to a Berlitz course, he paid for. Verge also taught me about wine since many winemakers were his friends. He also supported the local farmers and fishermen — always buying the freshest of everything, nothing less, which I have always tried to emulate.”
Biggest personal influence: His grandmother, who taught him the importance of simplicity in the kitchen and good taste; “ … not extravagant dishes, but ones you could eat every week. I learned to celebrate the harvest, and celebrate the changing seasons by preserving fruits and vegetables from one season to the next.” True Farm to Table before people ever talked about that.”
First “fancy” dish he ever tasted: Turbot in champagne sauce with caviar: “I loved it; it was a sensual experience!”
On His Restaurant DANIEL:“My flagship restaurant is my homage to my past. It allows me to carry on the legacy of French cuisine, and the great chefs, who taught me — Michel Guerard, Verge, Blanc and Bocuse. It was also important for me to open a restaurant with my name. You can never make enough money to own a restaurant, working for someone else.”
Greatest memory at Restaurant DANIEL: Cooking new dishes for his Mentor Chefs, and having them experience new tastes: “It was so impactful for me to see the smiles on their faces – sort of an endorsement or recognition for how far their ‘student’ had come.I still remember that night.”
The key to a successful restaurant:“Soul.” “It’s the welcome, the care, the passion and attention to detail: A commitment and genuine pleasure of giving pleasure. No restaurant can imitate another; each has its own soul. My favorite restaurants are not necessarily ones where there is a “celebrity chef,” or where the food is 3-stars. Katz’s Deli on East Houston Street, for example: I don’t know who the chef or owner is, but I know the place just makes me feel good. The restaurant has a soul; the same with Le Bilboquet, for example.”
On Café Boulud: “It will always be a part of me; and a part of me is always there, even when I am not.”
On DBGB: “It represents my alter ego – the fun, the music. I love downtown, and I used to always go down there when I was younger and partying. I love the action and the vibe.”
On “celebrity chefs”: “I am all for chefs being successful, and doing whatever they can to get better known; but successful chefs sacrifice their life to please others; I know I am an extreme case of this, but for me, success happens in the kitchen, not on television. Some chefs understand this better than others.
On chefs on television:“I’m a fan, and I’m not ashamed to say I like being on TV, I never could do it every day; too much pressure; but also, I could never let it become a priority over my cooking and my objective to make every customer who eats in my restaurants leave with a smile; it’s about the hospitality. Promotion is important; I get that, but I can’t be a whore, and just do anything for the money. I have to believe in it. I can’t sell out. Television works better for some, than others; and, I am happy for them. It’s okay for young chefs to dream; but dream to be “one of the best in the kitchen,” not on a television show!”
On Marriage:“It’s crazy, but I have been married to my job much longer than I have been married to both of my wives!” This business is always a challenge for every chef not become consumed by the need for fame, or burn out by media and the pressure to generate exposure; just focus on what is happening in the kitchen and the rest will probably happen. The business is so competitive. There is always someone new coming up. You just need to focus on what YOU do in the kitchen and create that soul that diners can feel when they walk in: They know it’s you and a smile comes over their face. You can’t fake it.
On DANIEL – the book:“It is my soul, representing 20-years, a milestone for me and my business. I tried to capture that timeframe in this book.”
Boulud on Sundays:“I love to sit around in jeans and a T-shirt, and watch a movie on television, unless we go out to visit a friend, like we just went to check out Dominique Ansel’s new restaurant in the west village. By the way, go see the movie “5 to 7.” I’m in it with a cameo!”
Plans for this summer:“I’m excited to take my family and go back to Provence and Mougins; I haven’t been for some time. Of course it will remind me of many memories with all of my chef mentors.”
If Boulud wasn’t a chef:“I would love to have been an artist, although I have never painted or took an art class in my life. My dream though, is at some point to get out of the kitchen and have an art studio, but with all my cookbooks and a good bar!”
Other dreams:“To beat Thomas Keller in a round of golf! I have a long way to go. I haven’t played since last year, and I understand he gets to play a lot. I’m not sure how he swings (no pun intended) that!”
Regrets:“None, really; except I wish I had opened a restaurant in France 20-years ago. I had the opportunity and I didn’t do it.”
Personal passion: “Listening to French hip-hop music on my head-set. “I’m a closet French Rapper! I love MC Solaar!” (Boulud whips out his I-Phone and starts playing one of his favorite songs, La Vie est Belle) loud in the Skybox). I actually like it! Very sexy with a great beat!