Daniel Boulud

We chat with the master of French cooking

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Today, like most days, is a good day to be Daniel Boulud. This season marks the twentieth anniversary of the fifty-something Frenchman's namesake restaurant, as well as the publication of Daniel: My French Cuisine ($60), a handsome, engaging love letter to his native cuisine.

Boulud has more than a dozen restaurants, with outposts from Palm Beach to Beijing. He's got more stamina and fire in him than the cooks half his age who look up to him the way he regards his old guard gods Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé. 

We stopped by to chat with the newly re-married Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, indefatigable and impeccably well-coiffed and master of canard à la presse.

"Have you ever tried the red berry of a bush called autumn olive?" Boulud asked before sitting down. We admitted we hadn't. He picked up the hotline in the Skybox, the windowed private dining room that sits astride his tiny office and offers an aerial view of the kitchen. Minutes after hanging up the phone, samples of the pickled berries and purée were brought up. "I'm jazzed about this right now," he said of the tart, lingonberry-ish fruit. It tasted vaguely familiar but also vastly improved, abnormally delicious— the usual Boulud-effect. 

TT: Do you still consider yourself a French chef or have you become a true New Yorker?

DB: I always think of France. And I always think about how much more I have to tell about what I feel about French food. But we don't think about Lyon or specific dishes. For us the whole process is French, but the result is not always French.

We had a customer recently, a bon vivant who eats at Michelin starred restaurants all over Europe. He told us our food resonated as French for him but at the same time tasted truly of New York. For me that's the best compliment.

TT: You don't strike me as someone who's ever been bored. How do you stay engaged and excited about food?

DB: It's all about trying to find ingredients that are the true tastes. Chefs, we get happy about things that are not fussy. I was in L.A. recently, doing a dinner with Wolfgang Puck. He had these amazing live Santa Barbara shrimps. We ate them barely cooked, standing up in the kitchen. For me, that was more exciting than sitting down and having the whole composed dish. Excitement comes from more from simplicity than complexity.

TT: How do you translate that simple, direct tastes into fine dining?

DB: We do a whole roast chicken for customers, but what I like is when the chicken comes back and there's still some of that skin between the wings or the butt. We scrape off a bit of it–that's the good stuff! But yes, it's true, if I go to a restaurant and you give me a raw shrimp with a little olive oil and salt, I'm like, "Hey can you maybe give me a little bit more to think about?" But if I have that in the kitchen I'm going to love it. For fine dining, we really concentrate on complexity, on layers, on texture and composition. It takes a little bit more work to create that emotion so we have to boost up the flavors and contrasts a little bit more in a dish.

TT: What are some defining meals for you?

DB: When I was young and working in restaurants in France I'd spend all my days off with a girlfriend driving everywhere to try tiny restaurants only the locals knew. We'd drive 30 miles just to try some frog legs someone we heard about.

One of my best souvenirs was in the South. I was at Roger Vergé's Moulin de Mougins in the late 70s. Vergé would go to a restaurant started by a retired chef in his house. In the middle of the woods between Grasse and Cannes, this chef cooked lunch only, four days a week, for maybe 20 people in his living room. He'd roll up a cart of terrines and pâté, then come with a tray and show you the fish he bought and ask you which you wanted. Then he will cook this big pig roast. It cost a hundred francs, one flat fee. No wine list, he just poured the wine. Then after you would stay till 4 or 5 and play pétanque in the back of the house and drink digestif. It was so surreal and so good. To me, this was like the greatest moment because the guy didn't care about being in the guides, he just wanted to cook for the pleasure of cooking. He was an old fashioned chef who was acting up like a renegade.

TT: Sounds like Blanca, the Roberta's offshoot in Bushwick or any of the tiny fixed menu chef's table spots currently in fashion. So everything repeats itself?

DB: Yes, but now it's done in a way that fits the times. I went to Blanca with Michel Troisgros and Daniel Johnnes. It was very cool. I like that kind of thing. Maybe I want to do this kind of small restaurant. The only thing is you don't want to be a slave of your own little dream. Everyone expects you to be behind the counter. And the economics are not easy. At Roberta's they sell a lot of pizza, so its okay.

TT: How about restaurants on the other end of that scale. Is New York still a town that can support new restaurants in the mode of a Restaurant Daniel?

DB: The question is how many chefs can take the risk? Sixteen years ago, I had my old place, which was fine, but then the opportunity came to create this grand place. I had to borrow $15 million to do it. It was kind of crazy to do that. Luckily, I have one partner, Joel Smilow. He's 81 and still has questions for me. It's always good to have someone smarter than you to work with. The idea was to do something more to the scale of the chefs I worked for in France, to try to make a restaurant with a national status.

TT: Do white-tablecloth luxury restaurants as we know them have a future?

DB: I don't know if the hipster fine dining movement will have the longevity of the classics. But fine dining will always be there, like any other luxury in the world. People will always crave the privilege to have an intimate experience with food. It's important for people in a city like New York to have places that reflect the status of the city. And I'm not worried about creativity in food. That's always going to keep pumping.