“My menus are very personalized, a reflection of being French in America – a French New Yorker,” says Daniel Boulud. Dressed in his pristine chef whites, Boulud is busy preparing a special menu for two evenings as honoured guest chef at Hong Kong’s two-Michelin star Amber.
“That’s why I called my new book My French Cuisine because it’s not so much about French cuisine, but my interpretation of French cuisine. It includes some of the recipes which we use in Daniel as well as some classic recipes.”
More than just a cookbook – of which Boulud has published 5 during his career as a chef – My French Cuisine features essays on wine, cheese and bread and is a look into the illustrious history of Daniel, the restaurant and a peek into the life of Daniel; the chef, the eater, the man.
“Here it is!” He delights as he opens to a page of the stunning entrance to Daniel on New York’s 65 and Park, previously home to Le Cirque where Boulud was Executive Chef from 1986 until 1992, serving the good and the great from presidents to Hollywood’s highbrow.
“Norman Parkinson, one of the greatest photographers alive, came to Le Cirque for lunch every day and he never opened the menu. He always let me cook for him and every time, he would clean up his plate with his bread before taking his marker and writing on the plate how much he loved the food,” recalls Boulud, who prior to heading the kitchen at Le Cirque made his name at Le Regence in the Upper East Side’s revered Hotel Plaza Athenee, where he regularly cooked for Andy Warhol.
“What’s interesting with New York is that if you come to New York thinking that you’re going to take advantage of it, New York doesn’t like that. If you give something to New York and you really contribute to what the city is about, New York will give it back to you and more,” says Boulud. “New York has been my town; I’ve been in the same zip code for 30 years.”
“Ah, and here is my daughter,” says Boulud as he continues to flip through My French Cuisine.
“Are you teaching her to cook?” I ask.
“She lives in San Francisco now but yes, I tell her by text because she’s throwing dinner parties all the time,” says Boulud, hardly able to contain a proud smile. “I tell her what to buy, what to do, then she’ll send me pictures like “okay, this is my mise en place” and I will say okay, now do this…”
For a moment I am taken away from the stylish bar at Amber in Hong Kong’s Landmark Mandarin. I’m now in Boulud’s home territory, humbled by his genuine sense of joy and warmth as he walks me through the early pages of My French Cuisine, which also features candid photos of Boulud entertaining family and close friends in his apartment, located above Daniel of course.
“And here we have Paul Bocuse, I am the godfather of this young boy here,” he says, pointing to a photograph taken in his kitchen of the nouvelle cuisine icon. “This is his grandson, and his name is also Paul Bocuse.”
Boulud was only one week into his first job as a gawky 14-year-old kitchen apprentice in Lyon when he met the legendary Paul Bocuse at Les Halles market, who became not only a mentor – his first instruction to young Boulud was to “get a haircut” – but also a lifelong friend.
“I remember that first day working in the restaurant and the smell of food I’d never had. The sauces, the lobster, the shellfish…” says Boulud, whose family lived on a farm in St. Pierre de Chandieu and only ate what they produced. “It was a revelation to taste all this food and these flavours. I wanted to try everything!”
He proceeds to reminisce over first tastes, including truffles and avocado, which was love at first bite, to his affinity for gummi bears to items that didn’t quite tickle his taste buds.
“I hate banana. I never liked it and I never will,” says Boulud who, for a long time, wouldn’t even allow his pastry chefs to make desserts using bananas. “But my daughter happens to love banana, so I’d had to make an exception.”
Today, Boulud has eight restaurants in Manhattan including his flagship fine dining restaurant, Daniel, the more casual Café Boulud and DB Bistro Moderne, DBGB Kitchen & Bar, where brasserie meets American tavern, two bars, Bar Pleiades and Bar Boulud, the Mediterranean-inspired Boulud Sud and the recently opened deli-style Epicerie Boulud offering home made artisanal breads, charcuterie, pastries, ice cream and salads to go.
“I put the same care into even my most casual restaurants so you can have Daniel for $300 or you can have Daniel for $10. I like the fact that we’ve managed to have different levels of offering for different people,” says Boulud.
While most restaurants are putting away the white tablecloths and moving towards the trend of more casual but quality-focused dining, and despite the resounding success of his more relaxed establishments, Boulud insists that fine dining is here to stay.
“What has to go away from fine dining is the pretentiousness, there’s nothing worse than a restaurant that looks fancy but can’t deliver. When the restaurant is super luxe and delivers in all aspects; food, service, wine, the experience… there is no price for that,” says Boulud. “I love casual restaurants and I eat at casual restaurants all the time but I think it’s more that casual dining has got better than fine dining has gone worse. And then there’s the few crazy people like me who try to do it all.”