Chef Daniel Boulud
Chef Daniel Boulud is known for his career-defining time at Le Cirque and the exciting yet challenging experience of opening his namesake restaurant Daniel. The success of the fine dining institution led to his growing food empire, but Boulud’s influence reaches outside of the kitchen. Beyond Michelin Stars and James Beard Awards, he considers cultivating young talent one of his greatest accomplishments. While the industry may have to be reimagined in this new reality he says that one thing it won’t lose is its talent, passion, and commitment.
Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Daniel Boulud. Daniel, thank you so much for joining us today.
Daniel Boulud: Thank you, Stacy, for having me on your podcast.
SSR: I’m so excited. How are you? How are you surviving this new, crazy reality that we’re all dealing with?
DB: Well, that’s been a long journey of worry, of course. It has been a long journey of trying to find a balance between life and work, and certainly trying to dream of better days, but we have to be very patient and we have to be very cautious. And the biggest worry of all is, of course, the business, but what is the business? Most important thing is the staff. And I think that was certainly something that would consume us a lot at the beginning by trying to find solutions to support our teams, and so we created a foundation. We reopened some kitchens. And today, about three months after, we have been doing meals in New York, producing meals for different charities, but mostly City Meal on Wheels. Also, we did a lot of meals for World Central Kitchen for many weeks when they were taking care of the nurses and the first responder here in New York during the high of COVID.
And then after we opened the kitchen uptown at Daniel, and we also provided meals for the hospital on the upper side of New York. From there, we started to take action on trying to bring a little bit of business or do something. And we started DBK. Daniel Boulud Kitchen was about providing curbside pickup, delivery, and grab and go. Not grab and go, but curbside pickup and delivery with a menu, which was certainly more casual than Restaurant Daniel, but at least a combination of our bistro menus and our more fine menu, and it has been good. Since then, we opened a terrace at Daniel, and then we have opened Bar Boulud, and we have opened Épicerie.
But I’ve never worked so hard. I never worked so hard. I get up in the morning and the first worry we have is to start communicating to many of our staff, suppliers, and customers. And we try to find solutions one-by-one. And, of course, there have been lot of coalitions of restaurateur and chef. And so, like many people, I have spent my last five months on Zoom all day long. And that’s not a good thing. There’s nothing better than being at work, being with the team, working with the team, and feeling that sense of power together, which I think is very difficult to sense with Zoom.
Daniel restaurant, designed by Adam D. Tihany. Photo by Eric Laignel
SSR: What do you think needs to be done to get the industry back on its feet, minus a vaccine, which would be nice?
DB: I know. The vaccine is number one. But right now, it is obvious that first, there was the PPP, where there was one round, second round, third round. And I think every business was able to apply and usually, all the businesses got their PPP. After the second round, I didn’t hear much that people didn’t get [theirs], because they really focused on the small businesses who really needed as well. But at the same time, we need support. I mean, the landlords have been good, and they have been cooperative, but landlords need help.
I think we’ll have better news, I hope, within the months to come, but otherwise, it’s going to very challenging. I don’t think many businesses can reopen at this point. They talk about the stabilization fund, where there will be some extra support for overhead or expenses besides payroll. I don’t think they’re going to do an extension of the PPP, but they may do an extension of the unemployment support from the federal government, so that would be good as well. But insurance. We had a coalition called Big Business Interruption Group, and we had a business interruption with no precedent. And it’s so important that insurance step in and at least, in a way, help businesses reopen. But that’s not done yet. That is still a battle.
SSR: If they don’t extend the unemployment for these workers, I mean, that’s the biggest concern, right? Because they can’t go find another job. There are none.
DB: Right now. Yeah, exactly. It’s a gridlock. I mean, we don’t know when the opportunity [will come] to bring back more people when we don’t know when the businesses can come back.
SSR: Well, I’m glad that you are staying afloat and pivoting.
DB: We love what we do. We love to think about food. One thing we’re not going to lose in this is our talent, our passion, our commitment, our dedication to hospitality, to cooking, to teaching and mentoring. And I think we just need to put it all back together.
SSR: Speaking of passion, I mean, let’s pivot a little bit to you. I mean, you grew up on a farm in France, right? So did you always have a love for cooking from an early age? Did your family cook together?
DB: Yeah, of course. It was a farm that was not specialized in one particular thing. We weren’t doing just grain, or we weren’t doing just animals, or dairy. It was a farm that was doing everything. So we were doing grain, but that was to feed our cows in the winter, and our pigs, and our goats, and our chickens. We were doing hay to feed the animals during the winter. We were doing goat cheese. We had 40 goat and 20 cows and three pigs. And the pigs—you kill a pig and you have enough to eat for at least four months. Not every day but between making the saucisson. I mean, the sausage will last a year for sure.
We were making our wine. But we also were doing the farmers market every week, where we were raising a lot chicken, duck, squab, guinea hen, turkey, rabbit, and baby goat during the spring. So there was all this cycle of life with food, with the life of the farm, the seasonality of it. And the food on the table was 99 percent our product, everything. We were making own butter. We had our own milk, our cows, the crème fraiche. I grew up every morning eating own eggs and a slice of pork belly, poached pork belly, cold like this, nice, because everything was coming from our farm. The young calf, when we had young veal, some of them become livestock and cows, and some of them came for us to enjoy. I think on the table, it was always a feast and it was always a big family. We were five children, plus my parents, my grandmother and some uncles or some relative who was helping at the farm at certain time. So sometime the table could be from eight to about 20. And, of course, we were having two big meals a day, lunch and dinner. Food was definitely the subject of life there.
SSR: Were your mom and grandmother good cook, good chefs?
DB: Yeah, my grandmother was a great, great cook. And when I started cooking, because I started at 14. And when I started cooking, because I didn’t want to be in the field. I felt that it was really challenging, and it was not for me—the farm. I was a little too preppy. Dirty finger, dirty shoes all the time, that was not my thing. So, I decided to become a chef and my parents put me in a little technical college—a high school—and I hated it. I hated it, and after three weeks in that high school, I told my mother, ‘The teacher there is worse than you at home and worse than everyone I’ve known. And so, I don’t want to go to that school. The food is not good.’
So, I had this neighbor, who was a contessa. And a contessa in the ’60s or ’70s, she was out of a fantasy book. She was driving a convertible Mustang with a poodle next to her and smoking a Craven cigarette with that little smoke pipe, like that cigarette is like 12-inch of your mouth. And she was always beautifully dressed. She lived in the village. When I was kid, 10 years old—8, 10, 12, I would take my bike and bring the eggs and the cream and the butter and the milk and the chickens and the things to her. I would take my bike and just deliver. She always loved me and loved my family. When my mother told her that I wanted to be a chef, a cook, she said, ‘Oh well, I’m going to find him the best restaurant.’ Because she was the best customer of all the 3-Star and the 2-Star in Lyon. She had a dozen horses on the track in Lyon. She was gambling in the casino all the time. I mean, she was burning down fortune, but in a good way, in a fun way. So anyway, she was very helpful, because she put me in a 2-Star restaurant and that’s what started my life as a chef.
SSR: And that was at Nandron, right?
DB: Yeah, exactly.
SSR: And what was that like? Did that just build your love for becoming a chef?
DB: I was living by myself, basically, at 14 in Lyon. My parents were living about 45 minutes away from Lyon, outside in the countryside. And so I had an uncle who had a bedroom nearby his house and apartment there, and he had a charcuterie as well. So he was the brother of my mother. And so I was staying there in my bachelor room, but I was 14, so that was super young. On Saturday morning, the restaurant was closed. So I was working six days a week at 14, from 8:30 in the morning until 2:30, and then come back at 5 until 10:30. And then on Saturday, that was my day off, but my father was coming to the farmers’ market and he was not far from where the restaurant was. So, I would take the bus and go and work with him in the morning on Saturday, and then drive with him at home. What hurt me the most was Sunday morning to have to go back to work. That was, for me, the hardest. Because all my friends were playing soccer, they were going to have fun or go on a weekend [holiday].
SSR: And you’re going back to work.
DB: Yeah, but that was life, and I never complained.
SSR: Yeah, that’s amazing. Somehow you just kept going to Michelin star restaurants, right? You went on two others after that.
DB: So without crying over my past, but from the age of 14 to 17 because I was an apprentice, my boss, who was closing the restaurant for a month and I’m sure was going in the south of France was like, ‘Oh, Daniel, you don’t need vacation. You should go and do a season in the southwest of France. I have a friend who has an hotel,’ because of course, all those places where they were very busy for June, July, August, they wanted cooks and they called their friends in the cities and say, ‘Hey, can you send me a cook, can you send me a cook?’ So, of course, I went to the southwest in Bay Basque in a small village in Ascain. I spent three months there one summer. That was my vacation. And then another summer, he put me to work at the municipal pool, the huge pool of Lyon. There was a restaurant there, and I had flip burgers and steak and fries. I was just terrible, but I didn’t know anything else but say yes.
From there, because I was in a 2-Star and the Relais & Château, which that was the beginning of my relationship with Relais & Château, which is the association of the finest chefs and small hoteliers and innkeepers around the world. And so, from there, that book made me dream. The Relais & Château book.
And so, of course, I was looking where I shall I go next. And I had set in my mind that I wanted to go to La Mer Blanc, which was actually a woman-owned chef restaurant, but the son just took over after his mother. She didn’t have a daughter to be a chef, so the son, Georges Blanc, was taking at the time. So, I went to Georges Blanc, he had 2 Stars, so that was a 2 Star. I was very happy. I was the only kid coming from the city and being trained by the top guys and all that. And in the kitchen, there were about four ladies and we were maybe seven cooks or eight cooks, and half of them were ladies. But ladies in age as well who had been working with the mother before. And that was great to be in a real family environment rather than these urban restaurants—macho restaurants—in Lyon.
I spent two years with Georges Blanc. I asked Nandron to send me to Georges Blanc, I asked Georges Blanc to send me to Roger Vergé in the Le Moulin de Mougins in the south of France. So, from Burgundy, I went to Provence because Roger Vergé just had 3 Star that year in Moulin de Mougins, near Cannes. And I think he was one of the most charismatic chefs to work for in term of personality, but in terms of cuisine, in term of the hospitality business as well. I loved the man. And so, I went there and that was my first step, really, into the 3-Star brigade organization—big brigade, big team and amazing things happening there, and so I did two years with him and learned so much.
Chef Boulud in the kitchen of Daniel. Photo courtesy of Daniel Boulud
SSR: Like what? What did you take away from that?
DB: Well, of course, is the proximity of the market there. Of course, at Georges Blanc, we had local suppliers a lot, but we were still a bit isolated when it came about some unique products. But in Provence, I mean, the ingredients were so beautiful—the smell, the taste, everything. Everything you grab, it didn’t matter if it was a peach, if there was a fleur de courgette or if there was strawberry or fraises des bois or anything had so much freshness and smell because it was just freshly picked and brought to you. There no transportation in between, basically.
And I think also, I learned a certain vibrancy in the food coming from Burgundy. There were many more vibrant flavors. They were used in combination with a lot of vegetables—dishes using lot of vegetable, which I love, and I think may have stayed with me more. There was also the ambiance of the team there. It was really high adrenalin in terms of the work we were asked to and the life we live down there. We were partying all the time. We would have a break in the afternoon between, let’s say 2:30 and 5, and we will jump on our motorcycle and go straight to the beach and sleep for an hour and a half on the beach and then go back to work, because we didn’t sleep the whole night before.
Besides that, cooking there was really, really fabulous. And at the time, Jean-Georges was just a village away at Outhier. He was maybe a year after me, around that time also. And also, this community of talent we were surrounded by and the community of chefs down there. And Roger Vergé, one thing I loved about him is, he was an art fanatic. He loved art. And you have to realize that he chose to go and live in Mougins because he loved that village. But Picasso was living there, too, and many other great artists. And the house of Picasso was about 300 feet away from the Moulin de Mougins, and so having lived part of his life around this maker, this artist, and also, where many artists came out from, he had this incredible relationship with artists. He will feed the artist, but the artist will feed him with art. They would throw parties and get together. I loved that relationship of the artist and the chef. It has stayed with me, and I’m friends with many artists. That was something that I always felt sort of a genuine and natural connection because artists love good food.
SSR: Yeah. Do you think the art influences food, too?
DB: Yeah. Of course, because sometime the artist influences him by naming a dish after an artist or by making a dish based on the artist recipes. Also, his food definitely reflected certain artists. He loved Armand. Armand was about sometimes relations of one thing but in different place or the slicings of things like when he was slicing violins. He adds culture everywhere. He was inspired by César [Baldaccini], as well. César was a very close friend. César will entertain him when he’s off and Roger will entertain César with his food in a way that was very genuine. Those were the kind of artists, who will come to the Moulin and pick up junk, pick up matchboxes. For example, I’ve seen César taking matchboxes of the Moulin de Mougins with a picture of Roger and all that and then he made a piece of art with it by burning the matches in a way that it looked like a sun. Then, there was the picture in the middle of Roger. Or, they were taking old parts, so silverware or things like that and bending it and compress it and making something for him. Armand was very good at compressing things. Every time, if Roger Vergé had an old stove or old things he wanted to get rid of, he’d give it to Armand and then he will compress it and give it back as a sculpture. Many chefs were inspired by the artist.
SSR: Yeah. You have this great life in south of France. What made you then move on to Copenhagen? Was that another kind of dream to go there?
DB: Well, that was Roger Vergé . After three years with him, I felt I need to continue my Tour de France and continue my journey as a chef to learn because I was 20 years old, maybe 21. I wanted to go back to Lyon, and I wanted to do another 3 Star such as Alain Chapel in Lyon at the time. La Mer Charles and Troisgros, either one of the two. Roger Vergé says, ‘Oh, Daniel, I have a better idea for you. I am consulting in Denmark for this wonderful restaurant hotel.’ I knew the owner of it because he used to come to the Moulin de Mougins. He said, ‘Would you like to go as a sous-chef there? You will be the only one who will represent me because you’re the only one who works at the Moulin. The team [will be] there—the brigade—and we going to make the menu together.’ Basically, he sent me as executive sous-chef there. During the two years before, he was giving us, for whoever wanted to take it, English classes at Berlitz in Cannes. He was paying us for having English class at Berlitz. I felt that was interesting, so I went to Berlitz to learn English. He knew then I had learned a little bit of English, so that’s why he wanted to send me into Denmark. He knew that I had no girlfriend, no strings attached, and I wanted to make him happy, so I went there.
Denmark was a great experience. The hotel was fantastic. Copenhagen was a revelation because, for the first time, I was out of France and working with a culture, with people who were really different than the French and yet talented. You keep learning, you’re curious about everything and curious about what they do. You are interested by their tradition, by their customs during the holidays and all that. Copenhagen was such an escape from France. It’s so close, but there weren’t that many French there. French wasn’t spoken so much. It was mostly English. It was good for me to be able to practice my English and learn a little bit of Danish. The ingredients were wonderful, and I think the customers were wonderful people, as well. I don’t think I know the customers were wonderful people. I fell in love for a while in Copenhagen, but then I felt I was too young, and I still had this thing in my mind that I need to do another 3 Star. I felt I didn’t finish my education yet. I needed one more 3 Star.
That’s when I decided to leave Copenhagen and go to Michel Guérard. This time I didn’t ask Roger Vergé to go to Michel Guérard, I asked the chef of Michel Guérard, which I worked with him at Roger Vergé and said, ‘Hey, you have a job for me there? I want to come for the next season.’ He was open from March to November or something like that. I managed to go back to almost 10 months to do the whole year open of Michel Guérard at Eugenie-les-Bains. As much as Roger Vergé was a traditional type of chef with an opportunity to evolve in Provenance and create a style for himself and really combine classic and contemporary cuisine, Michel Guérardwas a dreamer. He was an artist. He was a pastry chef to begin with who became a chef. He was very avant garde for the time.
He was the one who opened his first restaurant in Asnières, and Asnières was like the Bushwick of Paris. Not even the Bushwick, I would say the Bronx of Paris. In a sense that there were a lot of blue-collar [workers] living there. I don’t want to say bad thing about any neighborhood, but a certain neighborhood where you will have never imagined having one of the best chefs in France opening a restaurant. He did do that. They was a little French window, so he would clean only the middle of the window, so it didn’t look so fancy from the outside. Inside, you had Jackie Onassis. You had the most powerful people of the world flocking there in Asnières where they could barely walk in through the streets. But at least they were going to Michel Guérard.
Then, when he married his wife, they moved to the southwest of France to Eugenie-les-Bains where Guérard had a property there. That’s when they started Eugenie-les-Bains. That was about two or three years after it was there, and he just got 3 Stars the year before. That was something very important to me. His artistic vision, his interpretation of French cuisine was really refreshing, very light, very precise and, at the same time, out of the box, for sure. He was also the one who created cuisine minceur where people were coming to the spa and eating there and spending a couple of weeks losing weight. We had a menu minceur every day for those guests. To this day, Chef Guérard is the most inspiring and the most creative chef. He’s well in his 80s and still in the kitchen and still involved with these chefs and still making such an impact in his profession.
The dining room at Daniel. Photo by Francesco Tonelli
SSR: You got the education that you wanted from him?
DB: I would have continued with one more, but then after I was in love with a girl in Denmark and so I came back to Denmark. I went to the hotel, but I didn’t like it anymore. It was not the same. I wanted to cut the rope with Roger Vergé. I went to work for a very young chef whose father was a very famous restaurateur in Copenhagen. Jan Hurtigkarl was just coming from some tour in Europe of restaurants, and he wanted to open his own restaurant. I came as a young chef with him. I did that for a year and a half to help him start his new restaurant. Jan still has a restaurant today in Copenhagen called Mielcke & Hurtigkarl. It was the first time that I worked in such a small restaurant, where we were only four or five in the kitchen. It was the beginning of the gastro bistro where we made amazing food with small menus. A small menu, making amazing food in a bistro style but with amazing food. I enjoy it, but then I got a call one day from a friend who said, ‘You want to go to America? I know they are looking for a private chef in Washington DC.’ America was always a dream because when I worked with Roger Vergé or when I worked with Michel Guérard, Guérard at the time had a restaurant in New York at the nightclub called Régine.
Many of the [young] chefs I worked with had work in New York, and they were telling me stories. We had these American friends who came to Eugenie-les-Bains to see us. All these stories made me dream of New York, for sure, of America. Of course, at the time, Robert Mondavi was also starting to bring all those chefs from France to come and cook in Napa in his estate and to really entertain friends and locals with their talent. It was not a money thing; it was just friendship. Of course, I will always dream of going with them one day, but they never took me because there were always one or two cooks going with them, with the chefs. When I had this opportunity to come to Washington as a private chef in an embassy, I felt like, ‘I’m in.’ I got a car, a visa, an apartment, and a bad salary, but that was okay.
SSR: You finally came to New York a bit later after being a private chef and ended up at the Plaza, right?
DB: So, Washington was fantastic. That was the year where Jean-Louis Palladin was there. He just arrived the year before and is the one who really created the first restaurant modeled after a Per Se or Eleven Madison [Park] or Alinea, with the tasting menu that he writes every day. I really felt then that was a shift in America. The early ’80s was all this talent coming from Europe, but also all these American chefs studying in Europe and coming back home and starting to change things. Wolfgang Puck and Larry Forgione and all these chefs of the generation. It was the most exciting time to be here. When I arrived in Washington D.C., Patrick O’Connell was coming to the market twice a week or three times a week to Washington. I would see him, and he was presented to me as this young American chef who does amazing things down there in little Washington. You could see then they were definitely an evolution in emerging talent in America.
Coming to New York was something I wanted to do before I go back to France. I did it, but I never went back to France. I came to the Westbury Hotel, then I went to the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, which was the same company. I wanted to be the chef at the Westbury, but they thought I was too young and they took a friend of mine to be the chef there, Patrice Boely. He was the guy who sent me to Washington DC two years before. He came to be the chef there. With him, I was executive sous-chef. Thomas Keller was the chef de partie. He did some work before he went to Paris. I mean, he did couple of trips to Paris and work at Taillevent and other places. At the time, Alfred Portale was working with us in the kitchen. Bill Yosses was in the kitchen. Ray Bradley, who today is a farmer upstate, was with us in the kitchen.
SSR: Such talent in one room.
DB: Yeah. The corporate chef and partner, Ralph Scamardella of the TAO Group was there. Frank Crispo was there. I am maybe missing some, but it was amazing—those young American chefs who really became stars on their own. After, I moved to Plaza Athénée. There, I also had a wonderful team. I did it for three years, but then I had enough with the hotels in New York. I didn’t want to be working for restaurant in hotel, but it served me well. I served them well. I went around the block and came to Le Cirque.
SSR: Le Cirque, that’s where you got James Beard Award, The New York Times. It’s really where you started to get a ton of recognition. I don’t want to say this the wrong way, but do you think this is where you really kind of got into your craft?
DB: Very much. Coming to Le Cirque I jumped on the big stage. I will say that I worked extremely hard there. I arrived at Le Cirque, and they were an amazing team, but there was a change of guard. Some of the chefs working there wanted to move on and so the transition was fine. Amazingly, Geoffrey Zakarian was sous-chef there that year. Michael Lomonaco was the chef there. Marc Murphy had left a little bit before. I have so many chefs who have been through Le Cirque with me, but they were there. Alain Sailhac was moving onto a new opportunity, so they all went with their chef. It was normal. I brought my sous-chef.
I started to make changes into this sort of institution. It was still really a time where many of the restaurants had a similar sort of menus, technique, very predictable. Either it was La Caravelle, Lucien, La Grenouille, Le Perigord, La Cote Basque. They were similarities in their organization, in their execution, in their way of doing things. Sirio Maccioni was Italian, so there were Italian things inside the menu, for sure. I think that’s what interest me, also. The same week André Soltner of Lutece and Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque asking me if I want to be their chef.
With André, as much as I love André, and I’m always in admiration for his career and what he had built at Lutece and all that, I knew that André was the chef. For me to go there, it was fine, but I would not really be the chef the way I wanted to be the chef. Coming to Le Cirque, of course Sirio Maccioni was the boss, but he was not the chef. I knew then I could really make my mark as a chef if I can succeed, because Le Cirque was certainly one of the hardest places to work in New York. I made it happen.
SSR: Why was it the hardest place to work in New York?
DB: The expectation of the clientele, the expectation of Sirio Maccioni, the labor conditions were not easy, as well. I mean, I will work very hard and yet still find time to do other things. I made a cookbook while I was there. I made a newsletter with my wife, we felt between 11 and 1 a.m. in the morning, maybe we could do things together. So, we wrote a newsletter called Easy Cooking with Great Chefs. Every month we had this 12-page letter where I was invited another French chef. It was Thomas Keller or Michael Richard or Jean-Louis Palladin or Jean-Georges. Every month I had a basket of ingredients and I would be talking about the nutritional value, where it’s from, what you can do with it. Then, I would ask a chef to take this list of ingredients for the month of May and make me a menu with it. I was doing also myself a menu minceur, I was doing a low-calorie menu after Michel Guérard—he was kind of the inspiration—and then a family dish. We did 12 issues.
That was my days at Le Cirque beside working 16 hours a day, trying to have other project, then dreaming of opening my own place one day. It took me six years because when you don’t have the money to open your own place, you have to make yourself a name in order to have people trust you to give you money. I was very lucky on that part. I had met maybe 10 investors. No, I had five, six investors, and I had to raise about half of what I needed. I needed about $2.5 million at the time, 27 years ago.
I met a gentleman called George Milo, and he was just retiring from Playtex as the CEO. He had made some very, very large donations to Yale University and NYU hospitals, gifting buildings to them and all that. He never had my cooking, he never really knew me, but he knew of me from his niece and nephew and that’s how I met him. He felt like that’d be something interesting. He told, ‘Say, I’d rather be your partner than one of your partners because if you have 10 partners, it’s always too complicated. I’ll do everything for you.’ It facilitated everything because it gave me the chance to really now look at a space and sign up a lease and start my business. That was my lucky strike.
SSR: So, you opened Daniel. What did you want to create? I mean, it had your name on it. What was your dream? What was your vision? And, how did you bring that to life?
DB: While I was at Le Cirque, and I think it was in ’92, the James Beard, I won best Chef of New York. I was stunned because there were so many other big talents here who were supposed to be on stage and, for me, it was my first nomination. I didn’t know what to think of it. That gave me the confidence that I should continue to pursue my dream here because 1989, when my daughter was born, we wanted to go back to France. I wanted to go back to Lyon. For two years, two summers on the road, when I was at Le Cirque, I was looking for restaurants in Lyon. I couldn’t put it together. I didn’t have the money to open, but at least I was trying to find money there to help me. The banks didn’t know much. My parents didn’t have any money to do that. I came back to New York. I did my work at Le Cirque. The late ’80s were bad in New York. We came out of the big crash of ’89. The early ’90s, ’91, it was starting to be better and that’s when I made the full decision to say forget about Lyon, let’s concentrate on New York. That’s when I opened Daniel. Sign up in ’92, open in Spring of ’93. Daniel, I wanted the place to be very personal. We used all the family connections to build a restaurant as beautiful as possible and as cheap as possible.
I brought a team of wonderful people, François Payard, which came from Le Cirque, because I brought him from France to Le Cirque. Jacques Torres was at Le Cirque also, the pastry chef. And then François left me at Le Cirque and went to Le Bernardin for quite a while. Then, he wanted to make a change again and, as I was opening Daniel, he wanted to come back. So, we opened together Daniel. Alex Lee was a young chef working at the Le Cirque with me. He was in France for a year and a half, as they sent him to France, and he went to Italy and Spain. And he was just coming back and I proposed him to be the executive chef at Daniel at the time. That was his first job as executive chef. And then, after we build up a team and we opened Daniel, and the first review I had of The New York Timse was from Marian Burros. She didn’t like me and it’s okay, some people like me, some people don’t.
So, she gave me a terrible review. And I think, coming out of Le Cirque with 4 Stars twice, because that was the highest rating you could get at The New York Times. I came to Daniel, we opened this restaurant and she came the early weeks of that, and she didn’t give me a glowing review. She gave me 1 Star maybe, or 2 Stars. I don’t remember, but it was bad. It was not our expectation. And I told my team, I said, ‘’Don’t worry. We’re going to show them the best food they have ever seen.’’
We did get discouraged. The restaurant was packed to the doors and it was busy, but we were having a amazing fun. Then not knowing came. So, we were doing our thing. My cookbook just came out that year as well, Cooking with Daniel Boulud, and I was doing a promotion in Washington, DC. and my wife called me and say, ‘You’re not going to believe what the International Herald Tribune printed today. You are number one restaurant in America and one of the top 10 in the world.’
SSR: What does that feel like?
DB: It was Patricia Wells, who at the time was living in Paris, an American living in Paris, and she was a food critic. She was even a food critic for a magazine in France called L’Express at the time. Her husband was editor in chief of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and she decided that she should tour the world and every month she will choose one country and one restaurant to be the best restaurant of this country and one of the top 10 in the world. And so, she did Italy, France. Joel Robuchon was number one at the time. She did England. She did USA, Japan and the tally was moving. So, I was number three in the world, then I was number four, and I finished seven in the world. So, for a restaurant who was eight months old, I was pretty proud.
SSR: Yeah, I would say so.
DB: That was way before the 50 Best, and way before Michelin came here. And the amazing thing about the impact of the Herald Tribune is, and I will be in debt forever to Patricia Wells for having done that on a personal way, without letting me know that she was reviewing my restaurant or telling me what she was doing. And that those kinds of rewards are very meaningful, in a way. And after that, the impact of the Herald Tribune all over the world, I had a triple page in the Times of Bombay. Imagine, 1993, Times of Bombay, three pages. Places like we have never imagine you could be. That skyrocketed the restaurant.
At the time, Brian Miller left The Times. The Times was in limbo of critic, they didn’t have yet found the critic. So, Marian Burros was doing review, sometime Florence [Fabricant] was doing review. And then, finally, they appointed Ruth Reichl coming from The Los Angeles Times. And one of the first reviews, not the first, but within the first few months of Ruth here in New York, she came to Daniel, and she gave me back 4 Stars. That was a dream come true because I didn’t know who she was. I knew there was no politics involved. It was just honest review and honest result. And I think that, though, sometimes you feel like are there politics in all this guides and critics and reviewers? Are there opinions affecting their results or their opinion? And so, I think with Ruth, I was pretty impressed, and very thankful. Two women who gave me the confidence that I was on the right path between Patricia Wells and Ruth Reichl.
Chef Boulud in the kitchen at Daniel. Photo courtesy of Daniel Boulud
SSR: As you said, Daniel has been around now for 27 years. That’s unheard of especially in New York. What do you think? And also, Café Boulud too is 22 years. What do you think has helped the success? What do you credit to this longevity?
DB: I think good partners. I think good partners, my partner Lili Lynton, who has been with me for 27 years. Her step-uncle, which was Joel Smilow, who helped me in those years doing for at least 25 years out of the 28. And then the staff, of course, the talent of the staff over the years. I think those 27 years, if I accumulate the amount of staff who went to the door and did their time. And some of them are still with me, Jean-Francois Bruel and Eddie Leroux and Michael Lawrence. Many of them are both at 20 years with me. The team. The suppliers, the loyalty of our suppliers is very important. But also, our loyalty to them, but also their loyalty in terms of helping us always. And the customer. The customer, the loyalty of our customer, the relationship we have with the customer and how we don’t take anything for granted. But management is very important, and I invest always a lot in people, in talent and spend a lot of money on having also a good executive direction management. I think it’s very important.
Like I say, my staff can testify it and, I’m not always happy. I’m hard to please. And I think, as long as I’m hard to please, we make the effort to make the customer happier. I’m certainly sensitive to the work we do, because, like I said, I don’t take anything for granted. It doesn’t matter if it’s our reputation, or if it’s our food, or the price we charge. It’s not because we are making fine food, then we have to be exorbitant in our price. Everything has a cost, but we try to always be balanced with ambitions and what we can do. Daniel had been some highs and lows, and it’s not easy, but in the low, we have to push high, and in the high we have to make sure we don’t take advantage of it, also.
And do I dream to have 3-Star again, Michelin? Yes. But, at the same time, it cannot haunt you, and it cannot rule you. We have to continue to live our passion and do our job the best way and make sure that we give some helpful push to the 3 Star, always. So, when it comes to be a 2 Star restaurant in New York, we believe that we are the best 2 Star there is in New York. That means what? Are we as good as the 3? Yeah, I think so. Because, I know what the 3 are worth.
SSR: I love it.
DB: It’s maybe because Daniel takes more risk than others, but we continue to take risks. And right now, after this COVID things, we’re going to continue to take risk because our business we can see [how] fragile the economy is, and how fragile this business is. Maybe I lost in this ambitious endeavor of having a fine dining restaurant. Sometimes you lose a star here, you lose a star there. But I don’t think we lose our passion and our dedication to take care of our customer first and foremost, because, at the end, the customer will make the decision to come back, the customer makes the decision to be loyal to a restaurant. And loyalty comes not only because of me and my reputation, it comes from the team as well. And the members of the team in the front of the house or the back of the house. I love when a customer comes and always makes a point to come to say hello to the kitchen, but not only to me, but the chefs as well. So, in a way, this longevity is just like the first day, we just have to keep pushing.
SSR: Yeah. I think it’s interesting too, how you have kept Daniel, the fine dining, very pristine isn’t the right word, but you’ve kept Daniel and you’ve expanded out. So, Bar Boulud you mentioned.
DB: DB Bistro, Boulud Sud, and Épicerie Boulud, which is Daniel at the cheapest level.
SSR: Great. More accessible for all.
DB: Yeah, no, exactly. And why am I doing that? Why am I not just focusing on one? Do we get perfect through the [lens] of excellence? Because I enjoy our business at all levels, and I enjoy the fact that to me, I love to go to a bistro. I love to go to a more casual place. I love to discover a cheap wine. So, it’s not all about this rarefied air we breathe in a 3-Star restaurant. It’s also about this wonderful communal, more casual places people can enjoy through our knowledge, our talent, and our teamwork, I would say. Because we use the talent of the fine dining restaurant to put into the more casual as well.
SSR: Which is smart, because you’re still delivering an amazing product, just at a different price point.
DB: And also giving opportunity for young chef to become chef de cuisine That has spring boarded so much talent, so many young chefs in America by giving them the chance to be the first chef in our restaurants under our guidance, under our supervisions. I think that, to me, is the biggest reward. Mentorship is one of the biggest rewards in our business.
SSR: I think that’s so great how you give back. That’s how you got to you, right? They kept passing you around. You’re in Florida, London, Miami, D.C., Singapore. Is there anywhere else you want to go? Or are you happy where you are?
DB: We are opening a restaurant in Dubai in September at the Sofitel in Dubai. At the Sofitel Wafi in Dubai. To me, this adventure out of New York, out of America, out of France, has always been so rewarding, so exciting to discover different cultures, different ingredients to work with different, different people to create a business with. And to really be able to also mentor in places like Singapore or places like China or London, I think it’s exciting. Maybe it’s because I worked with chefs like Roger Vergé and Michel Guérard, who also were world travelers themselves and had restaurants all over the world that I think it gave me the excitement to do that.
SSR: What do you love about opening a restaurant, still?
DB: I think the preparation phase. Like right now we are working on the new project at One Vanderbilt, and One Vanderbilt is going to be one of the most incredible projects opening in early ’21. And working with all the trades, working with the architect, with the designer, with the engineer. So, that’s very exciting because, again, it’s like cooking. It’s the accumulation of talent who create things and the power of creativity together that creates things. And so, I love that. I love the adrenaline of putting a team together and opening a place. I think it’s always an expression of yourself, but also of your team. And it’s always a risk. I work very hard to make sure that we calculate the risks carefully. But there are many restaurants who, by the time you pay the investment, you don’t really earn much money, but the restaurant makes you happy. And so, that’s okay. And it keeps people employed, then it keeps the business vital. So, it’s important. But you need to make a profit. Every restaurant needs to make profit because they can’t survive otherwise. That is a difficult time to go through. There are highs and lows in our business, and you have to be able to weather the lows. And if you don’t have money aside for that, you cannot. You have to also reinvest constantly in a restaurant. Constantly with, either in the furniture, either in the, a machine will break, or a chair will break.
So, it’s really a business. We see the fragility today, with this COVID, and how difficult it is to reopen for everyone. It’s like many people, you don’t have two years of reserve in front of you to live on. You need your salary every day to be able to live on. And you save money for the future, but not to tap in the saving. You know what I mean? And I think that’s what’s happening with our business, is that no one had enough money saved to be able to say, ‘I can live for six months.’
SSR: I mean, Daniel is known for its luxury and fine dining, and you’ve obviously diversified your portfolio and have other options, but how has fine dining changed in industries in terms of what you’ve been watching and what you’ve been paying attention to, or what has been also one of the biggest changes in the industry that you’ve been paying attention to or that you are excited about?
DB: I think today fine dining has shown many aspects of a representation from the small restaurant of 25-seat counter. They call that fine dining but at the same time, it’s more to me, fine casual in a way of eating fine food in the counter front of the cook, cooking the food. I think it’s a concept for couples and for foodies and people who like to enjoy going out for this type of experience, but I think fine dining, like the restaurant like Daniel or Le Bernardin or many of those fine dining restaurant around the world, I think it still a place to be and a place to give people the chance of having … It’s still an escape. And it’s not always about luxury, it’s more about the refinement, the pampering in the service, in the food, in the setting, but it is changing.
It is changing, and we want to also keep changing. I believe that the old system might not work of fine dining with the big brigades of service and all that, and maybe the starchy kind of side of things, but still it is nothing. When I travel the world and I go to a restaurant where I feel that there is a crispness of excellence in where I am coming in and the moment I spend with my friends or family and the attention put where we are and who we are with and what we are eating and what we are drinking. It’s the unique moments that will stay with you for life, and those moments keep existing, but it’s not everywhere that it can happen.
The dining room at Daniel restaurant. Photo by Francesco Tonelli
SSR: What would you tell a young chef today? What would be your greatest piece of advice for them?
DB: Well, to continue to work for the best, and you’ll be one of the best one day, but there’s no escape, you have to pay your dues. And I think in architecture it’s the same, in art it’s the same, I think in so many ways it doesn’t matter if you are a dancer or if you are an actor. I mean, you have to be surrounded by the best talent around you in order to make something good out of yourself, and then ideal path after that. And then learn from the community as well, I think it’s very important. I think we have seen that chefs are the first one to be asked to support charities and to help their communities. And I think for me, it has always been something very important as a New Yorker and as an American to participate and support many, many causes.
SSR: That was going to be my next question. I mean, Citymeals on Wheels has been one of your biggest charities. What is it so special about that and giving back? Why is that so important?
DB: Especially during COVID. I mean we saw how influential Citymeals was. Citymeals serves more than 2 million meals a year. And of that at COVID, they tripled the amount of meals they served per day. From 20,000, they went to 60,000. And Citymeals was based on trying to give support to the elderly New Yorkers, so they didn’t have to end up in a nursing home or they could still remain in their home and get a warm meal every day in the five neighborhoods of New York. So, it’s really New Yorkers who have always worked in this city, who are part of the fiber of the city and come from all walks of life. I’ve met people when I deliver meals, I met people who were dancers, people who were actors, who worked in the MTA, who worked in the restaurant fields. One person was a waiter as well in the restaurant in the ‘70s. And those people are the storytellers of New York, but they have important things to take care of. I mean, I support many other charities who are linked to children, or linked to health or linked to many other things, but this one, I think it’s because it touches the five boroughs, and it really touched the community in New York where today to be an older person is not easy because your family is not always there to take care of you. I think Citymeals bring that incredible support and that lifeline who make them live longer, live happier, live better.
SSR: We always end the podcast with the title of it, so What I’ve Learned, so what has been your greatest lesson or lessons learned along the way?
DB: Well, my greatest lesson I think is that, the need to never quit, to keep dreaming and never quit because there will always be opportunity, better days, and certainly there will always be a new chapter in my life, in the life of our community, of our city, our country. And I think we’re entering a new chapter. So, it’s important for everyone to look at that as an opportunity. So, for me, it’s not to take anything for granted and certainly never quit in that case.
SSR: Yes. Well, I love that, and I think it’s a perfect place to stop. I can’t thank you enough. I’ve enjoyed this immensely, for taking the time to speak with us today.
DB: Thank you. I look forward to talk to you soon.