SELDOM IS IT a joy to interview a chef. Few men or women of the kitchen enjoy speaking about themselves (or else they would most likely have chosen another profession); those who do are often so rehearsed or diplomatic you wonder why they even bothered meeting you in the first place.
If I’d had to guess, I’d have imagined that the great Daniel Boulud would fall into the latter category. His flagship restaurant, Daniel, is 20 years old this year, and the chef-owner has been entertaining journalists for just as long. What can be asked or said that hasn’t been already uttered countless times in decades previous?
Lots, it turns out. But with back-to-back interview slots and less than an hour’s time to chat, that blessing quickly becomes a curse. Daniel Boulud, it turns out, is a talker.
Part of that is because he’s become accustomed to meeting new people, but mostly, I think, it’s because some decades into his career he still finds ways to challenge and entertain himself, despite the fact that he reached the pinnacle of his industry a long time ago – rather than plateau, he’s found new mountains.
His latest achievement is a cookbook called Daniel: My French Cuisine, a three-tome leviathan comprising anecdotes, signature recipes, essays on the building blocks of Gallic cuisine and documented recreations of lost dishes from French history – some successful, others valiantly attempted. Of that last undertaking, Boulud explains, “This is the heart and soul of French cooking. It’s about soul, because there’s nothing worse than cooking without soul.”
His career has always been about soul more than anything else. Famously, Boulud decided as a teenager to become a chef without having ever dined in a restaurant. “My parents put me into cooking school, and I hated the food so much because it was definitely worse than home, and the chef at that cooking school was not that inspiring, but I felt that I loved cooking. I wanted to cook, but I didn’t want to cook in a school like that.” Thanks to a family connection with a wealthy patron, he was positioned at a top restaurant kitchen instead. He was 14.
“The first thing I learned…when I became a cook, on my way to becoming a chef one day, is that with that job we can travel all around the world. We can go anywhere, you’ll always find a job, and there’s always going to be an opportunity for you to cook,” he says. That opportunity knocked on his door at age 25, when a friend referred him to the new Belgian ambassador to te US, who was to be stationed in Washington, DC.
“I said, ‘Why not?’ I mean, you know they’ll give me a visa, a car, an apartment, a cushy job…not too much work. It was perfect. [I was] 25 years old. I’m going. So I came to America in 1980 and after three years I had had enough of this sabbatical because I was not working too hard, I was playing a lot, travelling a lot. I spent time in New York and I was fascinated by [it]; fascinated by the energy, by the power, by the restaurants. So I came to New York, and never left.” It’s the classic tale of a farm boy who finds fame and fortune in the big city, one that seems clichéd thanks to fairytales spun by our film industry, until you remember that it isn’t that easy, that it’s a one-in-a-million story.
Which makes it all the more unique that Boulud has chosen, for the most part, to keep his empire tightly focused around America and the Big Apple (though he has a handful of enterprises elsewhere, including London and Singapore). Surely he could have more of an international reach – especially given figures like those recently recorded during his visiting gig at Amber at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. Tables for the $1,980-a-head dinner were booked solid the day it was announced.
There are a couple Épicerie Bouluds in the works for New York, as well as openings in DC, Vegas and Boston, but so far nothing further is planned for the gourmet in Asia. “The restaurant – Daniel – there is only one and there will always be only one. The other restaurants like Bar Boulud or DB Bistro [though], I’m very comfortable with opening that kind of restaurant.”
Which means, I suppose, that for a bite of that brilliance offered only at Daniel, if you aren’t willing to fly to New York, you’d better be damn good at following cookbook instructions.
+Prestige Hong Kong