Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Daniel Boulud

ICE Interviews top Chef and leading culinary entrepreneur Daniel BouludAugust 2011

Daniel Boulud is the award-winning chef-owner of Restaurant Daniel, Café Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, DBGB Kitchen & Bar, Bar Boulud, Bar Pléiades, Boulud Sud, and Épicerie Boulud in New York, as well as five other restaurants in Palm Beach, Miami, London, Beijing, and Singapore, and one slated to open in early 2012 in Montreal. Chef Boulud was born and raised in Lyon, France, arrived in the US in 1981, and opened Daniel in 1993, after six years as executive chef of Le Cirque. He has won James Beard Foundation Awards for Outstanding Restaurateur, Outstanding Service, Outstanding Chef, Best Chef—New York City, and Outstanding Restaurant for Daniel in 2010. He is also a member of the Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America, was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in France, and received Citymeals-on-Wheels’s Culinary Humanitarian Award. Among the many books he authored are Braise: A Journey through International Cuisine, Daniel’s Dish: Entertaining at Home with a Four-Star Chef, Letters to a Young Chef, and Chef Daniel Boulud Cooking in New York City. The Main Course recently met him at Restaurant Daniel to talk about the latest developments in his restaurant group, Dinex.

You opened Boulud Sud and Épicerie Boulud in early June of this year. How is the response so far?
I think that people are very happy. The people of the neighborhood are diving into the Épicerie four times a day. We open at 7 in the morning and we serve until 11 at night, so we see them before work, we see them after work, we see them in between. My idea was to create a wonderful program of boulangerie, charcuterie, fromagerie, and then salads, sandwiches, soups, having also, of course, viennoiseries in the morning, then pâtisseries and ice cream. We serve coffee, we have a bar. We also have an oyster bar, sausages—hot dog, merguez, Thai sausage—and we are complementing that with other offerings soon. We’re going to make some crudo. It’s basically a tapas bar, but in the store. All these offer everyone a possibility to find what they need at any time of the day.
(continued from front cover)

Is it a concept that you imagine being able to export to other cities?
No. But having a few more in New York could be possible. The concept is based on the fact that we already have a charcuterie program at Bar Boulud and DBGB, so we extended that program to retail as well, without serving the same charcuterie exactly everywhere. We have the bread—we have seven bakers working for us full time—so it was no problem to be able to provide some very good bread every day. And then, between all our restaurants in New York and the corporate pastry chefs and all that, we may have about 50 pastry chefs. So I involve many of my chefs. Some of them do specific cookies for the store, some of them do the production of the desserts here at Daniel. It’s a little bit scattered right now, but we are building a commissary kitchen to be able to concentrate production of charcuterie and boulangerie, and some of the pâtisserie, but mostly the base of it, and then the finishing will be done there. We do all our ice cream ourselves. It’s kind of a little old-fashioned store, but in a very in-fashion way. Really, it’s about making a lot of things house made, it’s about following the quality of our offerings, even in the most simple way.

And what about Boulud Sud?
Boulud Sud, it’s the Méditerranée. I love Provençal, Mediterranean cuisine in France, and we have, I think, a very beautiful representation of flavors and a palette of cuisine, but I felt very limited with that. So I wanted to make sure that I was able to go beyond just the border of France in the Méditerranée. I wanted to embrace also the occidental part, which is Turkey, and certainly the more Middle Eastern side of the Méditerranée. That’s how it started. Many of the menu items are based on classic combinations and dishes, but then comes the refinement we put to that. It’s the personal touch we put to it that will really give Boulud Sud its edge, because they’re not all conventional dishes, even if the palette of flavors and the taste are very familiar.

How did you become familiar with that occidental side? Was that a cuisine that you had already been working with?
By traveling. Also because at Café Boulud, we have had the Menu Voyage for the past 12 years. In all our restaurants, we always definitely flirt with Mediterranean cuisine, but in a very scattered way. At Daniel, for example, in the summertime, we’ll have dishes that are really reminiscent of a technique or flavor or combination. We are very Mediterranean but never really put our focus on that. And being next to Bar Boulud, I wanted to do a restaurant that was departing from the bistro, departing from all this pork-centric charcuterie and all the dishes like that. The wine program is also very interesting, with all the coastal countries of the Méditerranée. So to put that together was very important. We have a sort of very eclectic wine list, but mostly concentrating on the Méditerranée.

You’ve been expanding a lot around Lincoln Center.
Yes. We just locked up the corner. At the beginning, we weren’t going to take the corner where Épicerie Boulud is, but we worried about who was going to be the retailer. So we decided to come up with a concept. For me, épicerie was the proper word because it wasn’t a boulangerie, it wasn’t a charcuterie, and it was not a market. The word épicerie encompasses anything about food, and also some dry goods. We are selling olive oil, salt, some element of épicerie as well. When you think about the Fauchon in Paris, for example, that always started with an épicerie theme. Then they went into more cooked products as well. So in a way, it’s in the vein of that. It’s an extension of the talent pool we have, and I think it works. It’s unique. It’s really a chef product made with his pool of talent around him, and you’ve got to have a large enough pool of talent to be able to achieve that.

You have two places in Florida. You’re opening in Montreal. Do those restaurants have to function more independently than the New York ones?
Every restaurant has to function independently, with its suppliers. The chef has to find his suppliers, his staff. The manager has to find his staff as well, his customer pool. Basically, every restaurant has to self-manage itself. And we have our chef and manager very responsible for it. Sometimes we have a local PR or promoter to support our PR team here, at Dinex. We are always doing special events and promotions to make sure that we keep the restaurant very active. Sometimes it’s also being active in a social way with charities. We have been in Palm Beach for about 10 years, so the marketing and work we do there is different than what we do in Miami. While they are close enough, they are still very different. But sometimes, if we need some support in Palm Beach, we’ll take a sous chef from Miami, move him there for a couple of weeks, then bring him back to Miami. Staff exchange, cross training, and all that—I think it’s good.

How often do you travel?
As little as I can. But at the same time, I enjoy traveling and I think I have a team helping me today that I didn’t have five years ago. I didn’t have it 10 years ago for sure. The structure and the support in the business is much stronger today than it was, so it enables me to travel more comfortably and not worry so much all the time about the restaurants.

Is the team stronger now because these people have been with you longer, or is it because of the people you’ve hired in the last five years?
People have been with me for a long time. [Daniel Executive Chef] Jean François [Bruel], we have been together for 15 years. Many of the people on the management side have been with me for years. Our corporate chefs have been with me 10 years. I want to offer them security, and challenges and opportunities. There is a reward of security for myself as well. When I opened my first restaurant, I was spending 16 hours a day in the restaurant, but they were all in the kitchen. Today, if I spend 16 hours a day in my business, half of it is in the kitchen.

And you still spend about 16 hours working?
Am I cooking every meal? No, I’m not, but I’m definitely spending time with my chefs, communicating, tasting, watching, developing ideas. I sometimes miss cooking. Because I think it’s nice to be able to be in the kitchen and not have any distractions. But my distraction is now part of the business, I think. It’s one thing to accept, but I’m not detached from it, and I have people reporting to me all the time. We communicate with our chefs, but we have AJ [Schaller], who is the communication person with all the chefs in the group, sending messages from me about recipes, about ideas and all that, and collecting information from all the chefs on the new things they have done, new menus, and constantly making sure we keep track of all recipes and have pictures of the food. We have a database established, so all the chefs in the group can have access to others’ menus and recipes. If anyone wants to be inspired by another one of our menus somewhere else, it’s fine.

When you say that you miss cooking, do you ever block off time to be in the kitchen? Do you say, ‘Monday morning between 10 and 12, I’m in the kitchen’? Do you get to do that?
It’s not like that, but I know the days when it is easier for me to spend time cooking than others. There is also a big social part in the business as well: people like to see me in the dining room. What I enjoy the most, when I develop a new restaurant, for example, is to spend time with the chef developing all the recipes for it. For three or four months, we will sit down, talk about the food, start to do the recipes, develop that, do a tasting. It’s a very exciting time to see the whole preparation, creation, and formation of a new concept, a new menu, to build up a new program. Because once you have created the skeleton of a restaurant, things will change but usually the structure and the frame are made to function and won’t change all the time. It’s also affected by the price structure you have or the menu structure you create, so you try to respect that. After that, it’s mostly creativity coming into the dishes, which is the most important. But to create that platform of aspiration and direction, that’s the interesting part of things.

How long does it take?
Usually a chef is hired to start working for that development phase about four months before opening. At that time he starts building up a team by hiring people, or at least spotting people he’s going to hire. Then we start the development of the menus and the dishes. The two corporate chefs and the corporate pastry chef start to get involved, as well as the [new restaurant’s] pastry chef, the chef de cuisine, the sous chef. They all work together and start to build up the foundation of that new program. They have to write recipes, their full procedures, and their total costs. There is a lot of preparation to do besides just creating a dish. Sometimes you do five dishes to keep one, so we taste a lot of recipes. In the case of Boulud Sud, for example, part of our R&D is to taste some recipes that are totally classic, such as Greek salad. Everybody knows what a Greek salad is, but our Greek salad at Boulud Sud is certainly way different than the Greek salad at Three Guys. But it’s a Greek salad. We press the cucumber sous vide. We marinate the tomatoes. We have an incredible feta. We make sure that all the herbs in the dressing are fresh, freshly dried, and all that.

You’re always looking at ways to refine your dishes.
Yes, refine and be as true to the authenticity of the recipe, but with something more personal.

It sounds as if it’s being true and authentic to both the recipe but also the Daniel Boulud way of doing something, no?
Yes, but at the same time, I don’t try to create gimmicks. I’m not going to make a sphere of onion or a sphere of tomato in a Greek salad. No. It’s about the product and the combination of products. There is not much gimmickry in the food.

How do you select the people you hire?
Of course they have to be good cooks; but they have to be good people too. There has to be trust between them and me. I feel it when someone is just way too opportunistic and needs me just to help his resume. But it depends on the position. If the person invests himself with us for three years or four years, comes to maturity to be a chef, and we think he can be a great chef, we’re going to do anything for him to succeed in getting one of the positions. If it’s a cook who is just passing by and staying a year with us, we might see each other again down the road. We might try to place him somewhere else for a promotion. And really, the good cooks have all been rewarded with promotion. Some of them started from out of school, like the chef de cuisine at Daniel. Some of them came already well trained and stay longer. [The chefs in our restaurants] all have done their tour within the restaurant group, but also really kept progressing within it. There is a trust in their ability to manage, to cook, to hire, to really deal with pressure, and to be good partners to the front of the house as well. We want to make sure that they feel included. They are part of management. The chef is a very important part of the management, but it has to be in harmony with the front management as well. It’s not the old days, when the chef didn’t care about the front.

Have you ever hired an executive chef for one of the restaurants who was coming from outside?
[Café Boulud’s] Gavin Kaysen. But I knew Gavin from before. He was working as Le Cirque as an executive sous chef with Sottha Khun, so I knew he went to the right school for me. I also knew him when he was preparing his Bocuse d’Or. We spoke. He was hired to become executive sous chef at Daniel, but when he was coming to New York for a final interview, the interim chef at Café Boulud gave his notice because he moved to Virginia. So I told Gavin, ‘You’re not coming to Daniel anymore, you’re coming to Café Boulud. Do you want the job or not?’ I was taking a gamble in the sense of having a chef who had never worked with us. But at the same time, I knew. I liked the positive energy of Gavin, the fact that he was passionate about French cuisine. He was very disciplined and respectful and creative and smart. He first made sure to understand the program and to really work with what. Café Boulud has always been offering the chef an amazing support for his talent. But at the same time, it does not mean that everybody can fit in. The chef has to have talent himself to be able to carry the program there. So Gavin, but otherwise most of the chefs are from within. At the time I had some wonderful chefs, wonderful sous chefs, but I didn’t have the candidate ready for it. And I didn’t want to put a French chef there because it’s maybe the most, not American, but New York restaurant I have.
What place does France have in your life and in your cuisine at this point? You’ve been here 30 years.
France still resonates in many places in the menus and the dishes. But at the same time, what does France have to do with a lot of the American restaurants who are established with a model of French cuisine, which is seasonal, market-driven menus, farm to table? It’s certainly also a model of discipline, a model of balance. By the nature of our team, we are very French at Daniel, but not in every one of our restaurants. I’m definitely very comfortable in America, cooking in America and being French, but that does not mean I Americanized myself or I have lost my French touch. I just feel that not everything from France fits here. And I definitely fill in the gap with other things that are as exciting for me, and as challenging and as rewarding for cuisine. With DBGB, I’m doing matzo ball soup, burgers, bangers. The concept was not really French to begin with. But yet it’s a brasserie, mostly, and some food is very, very French, and some food is very, very American, and they work together because it’s New York and because we are here. DB Bistro is also kind of a modern bistro, so there are some traditional preparations, but most of them are more of a simple derivation of sophisticated cuisine. It is sometimes labor intensive, but also it is refined. It is refined and yet a bistro like that can produce 450 or 500 covers a day. It is not that we are so precious and refined that we can’t even pull them off.

How many covers a day do you do at Daniel?
Oh, it’s different. At Daniel, 220. We can go bigger. We have 130 staff, it’s only open at night, and it’s closed on Sunday, so…. I believe that at Daniel, the cuisine keeps evolving and our inspiration keeps cross-pollinating with the complicity with the chefs and with our suppliers. Every season, something new comes in, or sometimes something old that is new for that season, which re-fires our inspiration and motivation here. That’s what we like.

What characterizes the restaurant Daniel?
What represents Daniel, I think, is, to me, le grand restaurant. It has a huge backbone for setting, table, service, wine cellar, l’art de la table. And a kitchen brigade with bakers, butchers, charcutiers, pastry. The whole brigade is still in the model of the greatest restaurants of the world, I think. It’s classic enough, but it lives totally with its time. It has an amazing following from regular customers; we have customers over the years who have been very faithful to me. But the staff is still very young. The average age of our staff here is maybe 27-28. Except for me and a couple of the other guys, the rest are all in their 20s and 30s. That gives a certain dynamism and a certain energy. The restaurant is not getting tired, it’s not cruising. We have always been running and competing, and certainly rising. We keep rising. When you think about an established restaurant, the worst thing you want is to be cruising. Which means that people become a little more self-satisfied with what is done and don’t push anymore. We constantly reassess our performance, our offerings. We want to make sure that the customer feels that there’s real value to the luxury we offer. It’d be easier to charge more money, like many luxury goods companies do. When you go and buy something in a luxury brand place, sometimes the cost of goods is 10 percent, and there is 60 percent marketing in it.

And you can’t do that here.
No. For us, our marketing is all about our work. Our only marketing budget is the work we put together and the satisfaction we give to our customers. I always feel that I have to make the customer feel very rewarded. And it’s not about me trying to get rewarded; it’s more about the customer getting the reward. That makes you very conscious of how much you charge in everything you do, and whether it is the right value.

Is this idea of value something that is also stronger now than it was, let’s say, 10 years ago?
It could be, yes. But the funny thing, a main course today in most of the average good restaurants, like Café Boulud or many other restaurants, averages between $35 and $45. The calf liver at the Four Seasons Restaurant in 1983 was $36 at lunch. And today, we’re going to sell the calf liver for $32 because we think it’s an inexpensive cut of meat. I don’t think that prices skyrocketed compared to what they were 30 years ago. We are stuck in the mud. Food in America has always been quite affordable, and lately it has gone very high—very high compared to what it used to be. I think that the days of profitability were better before than they are today, because we cannot raise prices as much as costs have increased. Little by little, we have to turn up the price cost, and everybody has to do it because it’s inevitable. We are all in competition for the spending dollars in dining. The customer is looking for value and it’s very important to be value conscious. We do that at DBGB, we do that in all our restaurants. I think that every company today, every chef, is always concerned about the value he is giving to his customer.

You worked in Denmark right before you came to New York, about 30 years ago. What do you think of the huge boom in Scandinavian cuisine now?
I always thought of Scandinavia as a very creative cuisine, with very creative chefs. I saw Scandinavian chefs learning in France during the ‘70s and ‘80s. I lived in Denmark but I could notice Sweden and Norway. They were very well traveled and very inspired by the combination of cuisine, which sometimes wasn’t really French but had some sort of backbone in French cuisine. When I was in Copenhagen, I was surprised by the excellence of the restaurants there. It was a small number of them, but there were some fantastic restaurants. Today when you see Noma and the attention that Noma is giving to Scandinavia, I think it’s just the right recognition. It has always been a very small country with very good talent.

It’s interesting that it did take that long for Scandinavia to get that recognition, when you say that it’s been so good for so long.
Yes. What’s interesting is that [Noma’s] René [Redzepi] did most of his studying in America before he went back home, working with Thomas [Keller]. He went back home and really studied what was going to make him happiest, what he had locally, what could really sustain his cuisine and be sustainable. He’s very creative, and I hope that he can do it for the next 40 years like many of us. Because, elBulli is closing, and everybody felt like the ride was too short.

Did you get to eat at elBulli?
Yes. I love to go to those iconic restaurants. But to me, it’s a different breed of business. I’m sure that the Danish today don’t go to Noma as much as everybody else from the world, because they can’t. Is it a good or bad problem? A good problem for the country. But it’s a lot of pressure on [the chefs] as well. Talent will always keep growing.

— Anne E. McBride