With global business interests and a cosmopolitan approach to ingredients, Daniel Boulud still attributes his success to staying true to his French roots and initial passions. By Jackie Mitchell
Daniel Boulud, 58, celebrated chef and restaurateur, is dressed head to toe in his chefs’ whites when we meet up at Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London’s Knightsbridge. Boulud is on a whirlwind visit to promote Daniel: My French Cuisine, his latest cookbook, which has taken two and a half years to complete. It is a 395-page, full-colour volume, with recipes and beautiful illustrations commemorating the 20th anniversary of Daniel, Boulud’s acclaimed three-Michelin-starred French restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in New York City.
Boulud is quick to point out that it’s not just a recipe book. “It reviews the time from when the restaurant opened right up until today,” he says. “There are essays about truffles, for example, as well as iconic recipes using Japanese, Middle Eastern, European and American ingredients from New York markets, all with a French style of cooking.”
The first part includes recipes from Daniel such as soft shell crab tempura and lobster biryani masala. “I love French cuisine for its history, so the book is a reflection of the past and what I’ve learned as a chef, from all the chefs I’ve worked with and even those I haven’t worked with, who have been gone for a long time,” he says.
Another section, Iconic Recipes, is written by author Bill Buford, who worked with Boulud preparing a dozen French iconic dishes from pot-au-feu to canard à la presse. “We spent a couple of weeks creating dishes for the fun of cooking,” Boulud adds.
Fairytale of New York
Boulud lives on top of his restaurant, Daniel, in New York. His office, called the skybox, is a glass enclosed den overlooking the kitchen. “As in the old French tradition, I still live above the shop so I included a section in the book on how I cook at home,” he says.
Boulud’s restaurant empire is undergoing expansion with a Daniel Boulud Brasserie – “white tablecloth casual dining” – as he describes it, opening in Las Vegas in June in a joint partnership with The Venetian. “We already have a partnership with The Venetian in Singapore,” he adds.
A new Daniel Boulud Bar and Brasserie will open in Washington DC this year, as well as a Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Boston. “In New York, we own and operate all the restaurants and the catering business, Feast & Fêtes,” he explains. “Outside New York we work with partners such as Mandarin, Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons.”
In New York, Boulud’s establishments range from Daniel, the three-Michelin-star restaurant; the one-Michelin-star Café Boulud; Boulud Sud, a Mediterranean-themed restaurant; to Epicerie Boulud, an eat-in-and-take-out market and café with a charcuterie, boulangerie, and oyster bar. He talks enthusiastically about this concept and has plans to open more across New York City.
“It’s basically a food store that I enjoy,” he says. “We make pickled vegetables, bread… One of our specialities is the classic Vietnamese Bánh Mi bread – I’ve tasted some great versions, but ours is unique. We also offer one pot meals, such as chicken casserole, so people can take home and enjoy a meal they didn’t have to go to the time and trouble to prepare, at the fraction of the cost of sitting in a restaurant.”
He is keen to encourage and nurture young people. Out of 800 employees in New York (including 200 chefs) over half are aged 25, on average. All his chefs have access to a private database of recipes where the menus of all the restaurants are held, which they can use as inspiration “and make their own adaptation,” adds Boulud.
Apart from his culinary enterprises, Boulud was recently named co-president of Citymeals-on-Wheels. He has been working with the New York charity for 25 years, which provides meals for elderly people. Boulud organises an annual fundraising gala in aid of the charity, but for the 20th anniversary of Daniel, 20 chefs, Boulud’s alumni, cooked the gala meal with him. He plans to invite 50 chefs to lunch to discuss a new initiative, where every chef cooks 500 meals once a year to be delivered to elderly people in a particular neighbourhood.
Boulud didn’t always want to be a chef. Brought up on a farm in France, his early ambition was to be a jockey. “We had friends with racehorses, but my desire to be a jockey was a short-lived idea when I found out I’d have to get up at 4am and muck out the horses,” he laughs. “However I wanted to quit school and start an apprenticeship. Through personal contacts, my family found me a job at Nandron restaurant, Lyon, so at 14, I left home.”
Boulud’s first job entailed doing all the basics such as peeling the vegetables and washing the salads. “You do that for three months and then you start to move into the kitchen,” he says. “After three and a half years, you are fully trained in every aspect of every station and you’ve gone through the seasonal cycle at least three times.”
He worked under Paul Bocuse, who has written a preface in Boulud’s new book. Boulud is godfather to Bocuse’s grandson, also called Paul, and was mentored by great chefs from the 1970s nouvelle cuisine revolution including Roger Vergé, Michel Guérard and Georges Blanc. “It was amazing – the fraternity and passion among the chefs,” recalls Boulud. “They were all re-inventing French cuisine. While working in the south of France, I met American chefs and after talking to them I wanted to discover America,” he says. “When I arrived in New York, I didn’t have enough money to open my own place. I had to work there for 10 years to prove I was a great chef. In New York no matter where you come from, you can stay true to who you are.”
And by being true to his traditional French roots – working with the rhythm of the seasons, using the finest ingredients – and presenting dishes with contemporary appeal to a new world audience, Daniel Boulud has achieved success without losing his passion.