BY ADAM ERACE
With 23 years at Daniel, his New York flagship, under his belt and 16 other restaurant concepts operating around the world, Daniel Boulud knows when he’s found a good thing—and when it’s time to shake things up. Here, he reflects on his food-focused upbringing in Lyon and how he brings emotion to his approach.
Sous-Vide: You grew up on a farm outside Lyon. What was that like?
Daniel Boulud: My father had a beautiful passion for everything we were doing [on the farm]. The preparation of the fields, the preparation of the planting—making sure that every plant, every vegetable, every tree we were producing was well attended along the way. Really paying attention to nature’s reaction in order to really provide the best harvest. Growing up on the farm, it was all about taking pride and not only harvesting ingredients to eat for ourselves but also going to the market once a week to sell all those ingredients.
SV: Growing up on a farm, with this kind of intimate connection to food, did that draw you into the restaurant industry?
DB: Very much. Because [at home], the kitchen was always in action, from morning to night. There were always things cooking. If there was not food, there was confiture or jam, always a harvest coming up. So there wasn’t a single day, a single moment, without something to do—either use right away or preserve for the future. I was very interested [in the cooking], but I wasn’t too interested by the farm work. I liked to cook. That’s where I wanted to be, and that’s what I wanted to do.
SV: When did you come to America?
DB: I came to Washington, D.C., in 1980. I spent two years working for an embassy, then went to New York, where I worked three years for a hotel and six years for Le Cirque.
SV: Your flagship restaurant, Daniel, is 23 years old. Do you remember the opening day?
DB: It was 1993 and early May. It was just a beautiful day. Spring was screaming. We opened live, very quickly and very furiously, and the place was just crazy, crazy busy from the minute we opened.
SV: In 2014, Michelin downgraded Daniel from three stars to two [a rating the restaurant has kept since then]. How hard did you take it?
DB: I think we all care. But at the same time, I made sure to be as competitive and as committed and as devoted as my colleagues. It doesn’t matter if Daniel is two-star today; one thing for sure is Daniel is not looking around at two-stars to figure out what to do.
SV: You told Vanity Fair that many of the three-star Michelin restaurants never change their menu to achieve consistency and you said, emotionally, that you want to cook something different than what you’ve done in the past. How do you keep a 23-year-old restaurant fresh and exciting and interesting—for yourself, for your guests, and for your cooks?
DB: In last three years, we kept changing a lot. We have turned our pre-fixe menu from three courses to four. And having done that, we balance out the menu and the size of the portion better; we give people more of our cuisine to taste. We have also made a decision to reduce the volume of the covers we were doing by removing tables in the dining room. We still are busy all the time, but not the way we were. I want to make sure everybody is well taken care of at my restaurant, so we made a decision to control our experience even better. We want to stand strongly for excellence in service, excellence in food creativity. And yet, we are not gimmicky.
SV: Do you use sous vide technology at your restaurants?
DB: Most of our meats are roasted traditionally, but we do use sous vide a little. A sous vide chicken is wonderful, especially when you put truffle [in the vacuum-sealed bag]. We actually use [the sous vide method] often with fruits. We have done it with pineapple and peach. We use it with watermelon when we want to not only compress the watermelon and really give it a firmer texture, but also to flavor it with basil. The advantage of [cooking] something sous vide is that you can really bring an amazing fragrance to it.
SV: What is your single favorite ingredient to work with?
DB: Hard to tell within the season, but if there was an ingredient [that] will never defy the season, then that would be onion. Onion, because I think it’s such a basic ingredient in our cooking, but it’s also a very versatile ingredient. It can become sweet, fruity, dark, bitter. You can play all the notes with it, and it will always complement something you make. And you know, being from Lyon, anything Lyonnaise, it has onion inside.
“The advantage of [cooking] something sous vide is that you can really bring an amazing fragrance to it.”
SV: Your wife is a former chef. Do you cook together at home?
DB: What we like to do at home is [cook from] somebody else’s cookbook. If my wife wants to cook for me, I always tell her to use one of the cookbooks we have and make something from another chef just to see how well the recipe works. The other day, for example, we grabbed the Gramercy Tavern Cookbook. It’s really fun.
SV: You’ve received many, many awards. Which one means the most to you?
DB: There are two big awards that are very meaningful. The Legion d’Honneur and the James Beard; [I was there in person to receive ] all of the James Beard Awards, and each one was really special.
SV: When somebody dines at one of your restaurants, what’s the one thing that you hope they take away from their experience and tell their friends about?
DB: Well, that the service was extraordinary, the food was really beautiful, delicious. When I take the most pleasure is [knowing that] the customer is going to come back, of course. [If a] customer tells somebody else to go because they really had a special time and they are genuine about it—[that’s] the best compliment we can get.
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