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Q & A with Daniel Boulud

Thumbnail image for DB with Wine Glass by V. Muniz.jpgHow do you go from plucking chickens on a small farm in France to becoming one of the most accomplished chefs in the world?  That’s what I asked Daniel Boulud.   After forty years in the business, he’s built a global empire of nine thriving restaurants and six cookbooks.  He moved to New York at the age of twenty five and was awarded four stars as the executive chef at Le Cirque and earned the restaurant the title of, “best restaurant in America.”   In 1993, Daniel Boulud made his solo debut, opening his own restaurant, Daniel.    and The International Herald Tribune named Daniel one of the top ten best restaurants in the world. 

Boulud was raised on farm-to-table French cooking. The oldest of five children, his after school chores involved picking haricot vert from the family garden.  Forty years later, he loyally adheres to the same farm-to-table principles, using American ingredients prepared with a polished French technique. 

After nearly fifteen years as a four-star restaurant, what compelled the dramatic makeover and reinvention of Daniel?  Why take that risk?                                                                                                                                  Five times now I’ve
received four star reviews, and when I changed Daniel I was purposely
taking that risk. I was not trying to run a business just for the sake
of the four stars.  When I first got the space, I could only do so much to the space, which was the original  Le Cirque.  But I wanted to make it mine.  
I had already had Daniel for 10
years, and knew it was time. Plus I don’t know if I can or want to get
old in this business. I haven’t found a minute of rest yet!

It’s wonderful to be recognized but it’s not
enough to keep you going. You have to keep working hard at it, and
making sure that you also understand the business in New York, because
I’ve seen too many chefs with amazing talent, but are total failures at
managing. To manage a real business with a lot of people…all of those
people depend on the direction   They might not understand that they’re so
instrumental in our success, but at least they know that if they’re in
a house well-managed, it’s a reference to them.

After the redesign, you must’ve known you would be up for re-review by a few critics.  Did you know you were on Frank Bruni’s radar?
Yes.  He came a bunch of times in the last
couple of weeks, so it was easy to tell. I was nervous.
I got plenty of accolades
when I was young, but it’s ok. I feel I want to be a little tougher.
Getting 4 stars from Bruni was an amazing accomplishment, and we were a
whole different restaurant than eight years ago. 

Do you think the anonymity of a critic really makes a difference?                                                                         It
doesn’t matter – when the critic walks in, the cards are down, you
know? We’re doing our service. We cannot rethink a dish…it’s just too
late. What’s amazing with a restaurant is that it’s everyday, and for
me, I’ll have been cooking for forty years next year.

What’s your take on bloggers and the internet of it all?
I think that, amongst the bloggers, there are definitely people who’ve
achieved things, and who make a lot sense, who really have an opinion. 
But some say whatever they want.  I think they
should try to run a real restaurant everyday.

So when did you decide that one restaurant wasn’t enough.  That you wanted not just Daniel, but an empire.
As soon as we started Daniel, I started catering because I always did
catering. When I was at Le Cirque, I catered a party for 350 people, and
I forgot to tell Sirio I was doing it.  I had been doing
catering though since I was an apprentice.
  It just grew from there.  I wanted to recreate the original Cafe Boulud my parents had in France, so when I moved Daniel, I opened Cafe Boulud there.  The rest grew from there. 

Do you see yourself in this business for another twenty years?

don’t know about that.  A good time, I know that.
Maybe ten more years.  I don’t want to get old in the kitchen though.

But most chefs aren’t capable of having a wife and a family.  How do you juggle your career and a family?
I do think the best part is that I live right above the restaurant.  It
was unique because I was sold the space for a good price. The whole
kitchen is like a terrace. I spend most of my time here in this
restaurant. My wife has been able to keep busy by taking care of my
daughter all of these years, she loves to read, live independently. But
of course, we spend weekends and vacations together.  She eats at Daniel often.

How did you get involved with the Bocuse D’or competition?                                                                             I’m very close friends with Paul Bocuse.  His grandson Paul Bocuse is actually my godson.  Paul asked me to be the president of the American team, so I’ll be in France for two weeks for the competition.  Thomas Keller is also one of the judges in the competition this year.   Recently, I flew out to The French Laundry to see Timothy Hollingsworth, the sous chef there, since he’ll be representing the American team in this year’s competition. 

You seem to give your chefs, like Gavin Kaysen at Cafe Boulud, a lot of responsibility and freedom.  Not all chefs have that confidence in their chefs.  Where does that come from?                                                          I’m very sensitive to how the customer reacts to the food, and
I give my opinion all the time. I watch my chefs closely, but at the same
time I give them a lot of responsibility.  Every chef is responsible for
the food costs, for the management of his restaurant, and he has to.
You cannot come with a piece of paper and tell him I want you to cook
this tomorrow. You have to consider food costs, so we have to work it
out together. We come up with ideas together.

I know what’s on the menu, but they have the freedom to do the special
every day. The chefs over in Vegas are American, so I sometimes have to
remind them to keep the French cooking present, that the fundamentals
are balanced and that there are fewer gimmicks. 

So nowadays when you create dishes do you decide which restaurant of yours they’re best for?
sit down with the chef of each restaurant and talk about the supply we
have, the price we want.  I like to explore chefs’ capacities and creativity.

How about your restaurant in Beijing? How often do you visit your restaurant there?
would say three times a year. No more than that. I’m going in March and
we’re going to be working with ideas on the menus. They send me
pictures on the internet, and I know and trust the palate of my chef. I know his touch. He was
a sous chef here for 5 years. 

With the recession, do you feel there are less people in the dining room? Are people generally spending less money?
trying to be very accommodating, and when people come here they want to
have a great time, not feel pinched. At the same time, I think there’s
a cap wherein people can feel comfortable. We do still sell truffles
though. Indulgence isn’t disappearing. It isn’t dead.

You have your own private label caviar.   Do you think people are still going to buy caviar in a recession?
yes.  It’s not the quantity.  People will always want caviar.  But the
caviar business – well it’s ridiculous to talk about as a business
because there is no business.  It’s a couple of thousand dollars at the
end of the year.  You really don’t make much profit. It’s about the
quality, not the quantity. 

What’s your favorite dish on the menu right now?                                                                                             Last week, it was the braised white hare with truffles and foie gras and mushrooms.  But the menu changes so much.  We’re an extremely market-driven restaurant group with seasonal menus.  We get most of our produce from Satur Farms in Arizona actually.

Any dishes you’ve kept in your repertoire since you first started cooking? 
We have some classics, like tonight we have the sea scallop black
dye? Which is a dish I created 20 years ago at Le Cirque. It was the
first New Year’s Eve of 86/87, so about 22 years actually. On top of
it, it was the same kitchen.

Speaking of Le Cirque, what inspired you to leave to open your own restaurant? 
was very risky.  My daughter was born in 1989, there was a stock market
hiccup and my wife and I were wondering what we were going to
do.  I wanted to create recognition for my
own work since the house wasn’t always mirroring what I was. It was
sort of a double personality.  My creativity there was 50% of what I wanted,
because the other 50% had to be what Sirio Maccioni wanted for his
business.  I always respected that.  But I wanted to explore what a good French restaurant
in America was all about. I liked doing something for every day of the
week. And I felt like I could do bistro stuff, very fancy stuff,
brasserie, Italian – Sirio was Italian after all – that’s what kept me
excited at Le Cirque. We were doing it all. I remember it was the
second year the James Beard Foundation was giving out awards, and I was
voted the Best Chef in New York at Le Cirque. And that gave me some

  Then 1991 came along, and I began working on a
cookbook with Jason Epstein, and I could tell I was starting to get
cemented here in New York.  After work at Le Cirque, I
would go to the spaces to check them out – it was the only way I
couldn’t be noticed!  I was very cautious and I
didn’t want to be fired. Then, there was the fabulous restaurant that I
always loved on 76th Street Le Payard.  Suddenly, things were moving very fast.
I had to give my notice to Sirio. He was very unhappy.  And then in 1993 I opened. Marion
Burros gave me two stars. I told my staff, hey, we’re going to be the best two star
restaurant they’ve ever seen. Sometimes I think it’s better to have
less expectation from the customer, and the customer then gets a lot

Next up for you is a burger shop in the Bowery.  Will that open any time soon?
It will open in early April and it’s not only burgers.  They’ll be
bangers, burgers and beer.  We’ll have 24 wines by the glass and 25
bottles, about fifty beers, fifty wines on the list.  It’s a small list
but you know, we don’t need a big chateau.  It’s going to be fun. It’s
going to be the spirit of the Bowery, which will also be our kitchen
supplier, so it has a lot to do with that.

What else is on the horizon for you?

want to take a pause. We just opened in Beijing, two restaurants in
Vancouver, so I want to take it easy. I mean I would love to do a nice
cookbook. Very seasonal and very simple, chef-at-home-friendly.

Do you have time to eat at any new New York restaurants other than your own?
Yes, sure.  But not as much as I’d like to.  When I’m here, I have to spend most of my time at my own restaurants

You were always ahead of your time with the whole farmer’s market trend.  How did that come about?
I was the oldest of five children and we lived on a farm.  My father would take our produce to market a couple times a week.   After school, working at the farm, and there’s so much work in the summer to do as well.  Well,
I picked haricot verts, tomatoes, zucchinis, helped with the cows, the
cheese, milk the goats – we had 60 goats and 20 cows – there were the
chickens, the guinea hens…it was a full-swing farm.

Who taught you to cook?
My grandmother and my mother. 
I mean the kitchen is the central area, you live in the kitchen. We ate
every day in the kitchen and always ate the food we grew.   My
grandmother would usually cook lunch as a big meal, and dinner was a
good soup and leftovers. All I really knew and loved was my parents’

Why leave France and your family?
Once I
decided that I wasn’t going to take over the farm, then my parents
supported whatever I wanted to do.  I wanted to have it my way.  At the
age of 14, I was basically living by myself in Lyon. I was basically
taking the bus to work every day at Nordhorn – a two star restaurant –
and that was the real deal. The cooking that was happening there was
really interesting. Maybe a little old fashioned Lyonnaise slash haute
cuisine, but a lot of good chefs and good clientele, all the powerful

I did everything.  The first six
months, they called me the beaver because I was basically spending my
time washing vegetables and killing birds. I was basically doing all
the stuff of an apprentice. And then every six months, I’d change
stations.  It’s not like today where we have a butcher, a vegetable
man, people who do prep. Pastry cooks remain pastry cooks.  But at that
time, the apprentice was the prep cook. I learned the basics, which is
good in a way. A lot of cooks don’t know how to do that. But we teach
them here.

When did you decide it was time to come to New York?
I was a sous chef in a big
hotel in Denmark, and I worked from the age of 20 to 22.  was going to Berlitz to learn English because I felt it would be
useful. The restaurant was paying for the classes.  I learned  not to mess around with the
recipes too much.  I don’t believe in
tampering too much with ingredients, especially when they’re perfectly
delicious. I think it’s what the meaning of French cuisine is all
about: it’s the ingredients. It’s a fundamental. 

So I brought that to New York.

You’re often pegged as a modern French
chef in love with American ingredients.  Do you really love
American ingredients?

I remember when I arrived
in Washington in 1980, and Patrick O’Connell was coming once a week
with his beat up truck to fill it up with supplies. We could go
to this little farmer’s market in Washington, and you could really see
small treasures there. Like a local farmer doing squab or really local
vegetables.  It’s not about getting haricots verts from France, it’s
going to Maine and getting fish and cod and sea urchin, sea scallops,
baby eels.

Why did you decide to stay in New York versus going back home to France?
I don’t know. I
guess I came too young. There’s a short window in America where you
have to come, work hard.

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