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Musings with Daniel Boulud

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So few titans of industry rise to the very top, mastering their vocation many times over and remain humble and authentically true to their core selves. Daniel Boulud, the New York-based, French chef and restaurateur, is certainly one of them.

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Having grown up on his family farm in Saint-Pierre-de-Chandieu in France, Boulud cared early on about eating and preparing one’s own food. At tender 14, he left home to become a chef in Lyon, later landing in Washington D.C. to become “the most sought-after table on Embassy Row,” cooking for the French ambassador of the European Commission. Later, he continued to build his tremendous reputation after moving to New York City in 1982, starting first at the Polo Lounge, Le Regence at Hotel Plaza Athénée and then as executive chef of Le Cirque.

In 1993, he created his superlative flagship restaurant Daniel, and a subsequent empire of casual and fine dining restaurants, including Bar Boulud, Boulud Sud, Café Boulud, DBGB Kitchen and Bar, db Brasserie and Maison Boulud, that spans from Palm Beach to Singapore.

His accolades—as James Beard’s Outstanding Restaurateur or Outstanding Chef of the Year; or as the Culinary Institute of America’s Chef of the Year; or receiving the French government’s Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur—are still no match for his abundant generosity, commitment to consistency and excellence and his firm belief in mentoring the up-and-coming generation.

Here, Tzelan’s Alison Chi speaks with the culinary maestro on motivation, taste, the importance of tabletop décor and chef’s most precious possessions.

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I’m really happy we could do this. To start, I’d love to know how you’re able to take something so high concept like fine dining and redefine it for a broader community and audience.

First, for me, fine dining is my restaurant Daniel, and over the past twenty five years I have made sure that we are relevant to the time and yet, of course, there is always the reference to classicism: classic service and classic food. But there’s also this approach to service and food that keeps reinventing itself. It’s very much like a fashion house, like a design house, where you have to keep reinventing…to really find ways to give it back to our consumer through service and cuisine while also creating different restaurants for different days, time and purpose, but with the same commitment to excellence.

With such varying restaurant concepts for different days, time or purpose—like DBGB or Daniel––how do you make it so it’s understood, so the consumer can separate each restaurant in their mind?

I never really tried to target a particular clientele. We have a global clientele in New York. Of course we have a local clientele too, so it depends on where the restaurant is built, but even our loyal customers will go from place to place. At the same time, there’s also this national and global attraction in New York and interestingly enough, I have faithful customers from South America, Europe and Asia who are coming back to New York to see me every year or two. So it’s very reassuring how people remember the moments we gave them. They carry and cherish that moment until they come back. We try to never be trendy but we are much aware of what trends offer and where trends go.

It’s really inspiring that you’re committed to building yourself as a brand with social media, marketing and PR, but also to the actual, final experience that you’re delivering to your consumers. Is this something you feel like you made a decision early on to practice or was it just part of your personality? 

I think it has a lot to do with my personality. When I started in New York as a chef, I had no PR. I had no HR. I had no corporate management. I built myself a reputation, so I feel blessed…and PR of course it plays a role, but we are not aggressive. We do a lot of responsive PR and we sometimes approach certain magazines or journalists and give them good stories.

I find that right now, across the industry, people are having trouble keeping teams together, motivating talent or building culture. But you succeed in this, how?

We are really proud of our retention and feel that the one who sticks with us, trusts us, and trusts that we are going to do something great together. That’s important. I invest in my team and everyone who works for me, especially the youth, because our business is made of people and we try to extract everyone’s talent. I think that’s what’s the most exciting because we have the responsibility of mentorship, teaching and making sure we make them the next generation of great chefs. But we also offer them something very current that will make them compatible with anything they choose to be challenged by.

That’s very encouraging. In your memoirs “Letters to a Young Chef,” you write about how one acquires taste, how it’s a combination between the personal and cultural. I find this particularly relatable in our design industry—we’re constantly surrounded with young designers straight from school or artists from different fields who want to join us…it’s always a conversation that takes place. When you’re recruiting, how do you address taste—is it something learned or do some people just have it?

Everybody has the quality. You can see the weakness and the strength in certain people, so we really try to teach consistency. One must know consistency to really understand taste. In cooking, we enjoy teaching with reference…not to any classic rule, cuisine or application, but to serve as a little bit of a compass, a guideline, referring to a certain culture or a certain country. It’s what keeps us on track. When we do a dish with very Asian influence by application or technique, we observe that culture, that cuisine and try to really capture the balance of taste.

So I wonder then, as a chef, how you successfully deliver each dish in a way that you control, and in doing so, how important you find things like table top or décor, what we at Tzelan strongly focus on. Does it help to elevate what you’re trying to achieve, which is essentially, a transformative dining experience?

Tabletop is part of the fantasy! And to tell you the truth, I am thinking very deeply right now about how to change tabletop…next year I am planning to make some serious change. A restaurant is also a business where it’s not a gallery, it’s not a museum, it’s not an exhibition. So with every consideration for something, it is very important to find products with a little bit of longevity, with a little bit of durability, with a little bit of resistance.

When Tzelan was created, it was to service the hospitality industry in a different way. Right now, there are so many sources that say, “We sell to the trade!” And they do exactly that. Maybe it’s durable; it certainly is cheap enough. But the designs, their sense of taste and their holistic understanding of the industry is very poor. So it was important for us at Tzelan to say, “Listen. We have the same sort of manufacturing power, but we have an artful approach to how to design things, how to use certain finishes that are beautiful. And this makes all the difference.

Absolutely. I think it’s not an argument either. I think it’s an opportunity. Being French, I always keep a little bit of the art of the table French style, and there has been an incredible influence, I mean a very positive and very interesting influence over from Asia, especially from Japan and China. I love that…the power of the influence of kaiseki menus and multi-course in an Asian feast where there are 25 dishes on the table and every one of them had a purpose, had a contrast together. The French is sometimes a bit more conservative because it’s mostly white china—it’s important to have the food contrasting in a very pure way. I enjoy that too. And so through the forms, through shape and through color, I enjoy sometimes having, for example, texture that has the same white on white but the porcelain has a matte finish or some glazed finish. I don’t get carried away too far, but we still invite ideas to combine things that are interesting to us and seek a program of food.

I completely agree. I think between France and Japan, two regions where you have that culture and formality of the tabletop, from fine dining all the way to peoples’ countryside homes. It’s so meaningful and unique.

And I think it’s timeless as well, which is very reassuring to see. And you know, it’s inspiring you today, it inspired others before, and it will inspire people after without changing itself!

Oh, I love that.

I think that is a little bit of my character. I keep inspiring while I’m trying to remain, not in a still position, but with a certain approach to classicism that helps

me to stay grounded.

On the subject of objects, what is your most prized one, whether at home or in the kitchen…something that you love to collect?

Well for me, I think it’s at work. You know if I could afford it, I’ll buy all the ones I love! [Laughs] But at least I try to do well. I love Chuck Close and to me, it sends me waves of strength and power. At home, I have a big Chuck. I have a piece of art with Jim Harris…with very wavy, powerful and peaceful sort of strokes. So I have a big Jim Harris. I have a portrait of myself with Vik Muniz. And he made it in chocolate, so it’s very rare! It’s just Thomas Keller and I who have our portraits in chocolate because I had commissioned Vik to do the portrait of Thomas for his 60th birthday. And then I also have a big knife collection. Many are French, Japanese and German…oh, and cookbooks! I always collect cookbooks, for many years and some odd things. Odd things in the passage of your life, but I’m not so much of an obsessed collector of one thing.

Lastly, tell us what inspires you most in other people?

Their passion and intelligence…someone’s passion for their craft, and it doesn’t matter which craft that is. You can be a wood maker, chef, architect, designer…anything that has to do with expression. That is what inspires me the most. People, who, through their mind, show an expression of their style and are able to keep reinventing themselves with it. Also youth and energy—I cannot be around people who are lacking motivation or people who are too tired with life. Youth can be at any age, it is just a question of wanting to keep giving…anyone who wants to keep giving inspires me too.tzelan_boulud_3