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May 13, 2011 10 min read

An Interview with Chef Daniel Boulud

An Interview with Chef Daniel Boulud
Chewing the fat with chef Daniel Boulud.
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A highlight of my trip to Pebble Beach Food & Wine 2011 was the opportunity to interview chef Daniel Boulud, who was part of the Lexus Culinary Masters Team making its debut at the event. He was in good company, with chefs Michael Chiarello, Dean Fearing, Christopher Kostow, Masaharu Morimoto, and Michael Symon.

The noise inside the grand tasting tent was going to be too loud to carry on an interview, and I knew he’d be mobbed every minute by people wanting to say hello or take a picture with him, so I suggested we go outside. Well, how convenient, there was a Lexus sedan parked out front, so Daniel suggested we sit in the back seat of the car for the interview. It was the perfect interview chamber, just a few steps away from all the hubbub, with a nice spring breeze flowing through the open doors. (Lexus, take note of this for next year.)

Before diving in, I have to say, he was the most enjoyable interview I’ve conducted so far in my career. He was kind, funny, thoughtful, gracious, took his time (I can’t believe we got to hang out for 40 minutes), and even charmingly asked me a question about what I like to write about (that has never happened—most chefs seem to enjoy having the entire interview be completely about them for every single second). And his delightful French accent didn’t hurt one bit. Class act, all the way.

I asked Daniel for some highlights thus far at Pebble Beach (this was his third time). He said at the opening night Founder’s Dinner, where he cooked with Daniel Humm and Nancy Silverton, “It’s just incredible all the wine they pulled out: Romanée-Conti, Bordeaux….” He also managed to play some golf, which his daughter was not so much a fan of in her younger years (she didn’t like him playing during their family vacations), so now that she’s 21, he’s picked it back up.

He talked about a dish he prepared for a cooking demo: Alaskan salmon with sorrel. Of the dish, he said, “I made it in honor and admiration for Troisgros, who created the combination of salmon and sorrel. It became a classic. Every year, I do a dish around salmon and sorrel. Every inspiration should have legacy. For this demo, I brined and poached the salmon in plastic wrap like a boudin, cut it into segments, and then made a sorrel sauce with poached egg dressing (no acidity), and chicken stock, mustard, olive oil, whipped it together, then added fresh minced fresh sorrel—a lot of sorrel, it turns super green, pungent, tart. The eggs protect the oxidation of the sorrel.”

Of the event, he said the first time he attended Pebble Beach was 15 years ago, and then five years ago in 2006 with Alain Passard. He said, “This year—it has grown into something unique, the size is perfect, the setting, nature….” I would have to agree—it’s idyllic.

I asked him if he makes it to San Francisco often, and he said he has not been back for a while—the last time was for the Bocuse d’Or training in Yountville. But he certainly keeps up on what is happening in the city. He says, “I want to go to Benu, I love Quince, I want to go to Daniel Patterson’s restaurant, and want to go to the new Mina, lots of places I want to visit.”

He specifically asked after Michael Tusk, saying, “A great chef. I took Paul Bocuse there [Quince] when Timothy [Hollingsworth] was training [for the Bocuse d’Or]. Coming back from Yountville, we were tired. I told Michael, ‘Listen, no more than three courses.’ But he did four courses of pasta, four pastas each course. 16 kinds of pastas! Paul was like, ‘Whoa, this is so fantastic!’”

I was a very big fan of his show on MOJO, After Hours with Daniel, so I wanted to chat about it. He immediately owned up to the sad omission of San Francisco on the show, saying, “We never made it to San Francisco, it was my biggest frustration! We did LA, I don’t know why we did it before San Francisco…. Well, I had a couple chefs who worked for me there, like David Myers, and so we went there. Of course we were going to continue to do all the cities in America, except the channel that was running it, MOJO, closed up. I had fun doing the show. For me, it was about what chefs like to do: cook for each other, entertain, have some fun, drink well, eat well.”

He told me that for an episode they filmed in New York, they doubled the amount of people (16 instead of 8) to sit around a dining table at Daniel. He said, “Eric Ripert was making paella…. In the old days, I used to throw a lot of chef parties. For example, I had this customer from Japan, he came with a guest who was a sushi chef on the southern coast of Japan. Because we made him so happy on his visit, he said the next time I come to New York, I want to cook for you. So later he arrived in New York with a box from Tsukiji. We made a U-table in the private room, and he had a big table to cook for us—and he cooked until 3am in the morning! Every chef in town was there: Charlie Palmer, Tom Colicchio…. After parties, I love to do them. I want to continue the show, just need to see how. I want to talk Lexus. [We both chime in] Helllllllo Lexuuuuus!!”

After giving me a run-through of the backseat features of the car, including the shiatsu massage option and what we decided was an ideal compartment to stash booze, I dove in with a question a couple chefs wanted me to ask of him: “Daniel, you are very admired for running the number of restaurants and businesses that you do, and with such quality and creativity. We all know the answer to this question is good people, but I’m still going to ask it: the number one question people want me to ask of you: how do you do it?”

I really enjoyed his answer, so I wanted to share it verbatim: “I try to run the business as a business. It’s important to have it safe and sound. I have wonderful people working with me. I believe in investing in people, take care of them. With the customer, we take service to the highest, strongest form. It’s not easy, it all depends on people. You can have the most beautiful décor, this and that, but in the end it’s about the people—in the front of the house and the back of the house—and how you coordinate. We spend a lot of time on training and we can never take any of it for granted—it’s constantly reassessed.

“For the back of the house, I delegate, but I get very involved, I get down to the detail of many things, and sometimes to the detriment of my life and the quality of my life. Because you also want to be able to have a little bit of pleasure. It has been a lot of work so far.

“Regarding the food, I try to take very good care of my suppliers. We are very honest with them, supportive, and faithful with them, but we demand a lot. I always make sure the chef has the proper support and assistance for him to cook his best, and not be bothered by management all day and things like that. We make sure to monitor talent, but we also make sure they have a positive energy, that they are positive. I am never an easy restaurant to work in, but I don’t think any successful restaurant is easy to work in.

At this point I was thinking I am not the only one curious about what a day in his life is like, so here it is: “I live above Daniel [the restaurant], so I don’t have to commute. My day starts at 8:30am because I never go to bed before at least 2am. I start to make phone calls, with the corporate office, family and friends, colleagues. I usually go down by 11am to work, and start my day with my assistants. I try to go and visit my other restaurants and chefs during the day since Daniel is closed at lunch. I eat in my restaurants during the day—I like to sit down and see how things are. And then I have meetings, which are often during the week. In the afternoon, every restaurant has a meeting for an hour. I try to go every week if I can to the general meeting for the restaurant, usually between 3pm and 4pm for an hour. It gives me feedback on what’s happening with the managers there. And then I finish my day at the office. And then I start service at Daniel—it’s been like that for … ever!

Yeah, that’s a busy day. Which then led me to ask: “Where is the time for your creative process?” He answered: “We sit down together with the chefs, we talk and we double up together. For an example, my new restaurants, Boulud Sud and Épicerie Boulud. I worked in the South of France, and have always been in love with the Mediterranean cuisine. It has always been on my menus here and there—but maybe you highlight it more in the summer. But I wanted to do a restaurant where the journey starts in the Riviera, in Provence, the Côte d’Azur—and it goes all around the Mediterranean. Very coastal. I could have done a Provençal restaurant, but I was a little stuck—I would have played too much with spices of North Africa, I would have brought too much influence from Spain. It was better to be Mediterranean, using all the palette of flavor.

“I have two corporate chefs and a corporate pastry chef for the new restaurant, and we hire the chef. We do meetings, we start to draw the boards, we study the cuisines … like we studied Turkish cuisine—it’s not a Turkish restaurant, but there are a few dishes inspired from there—and then we start to test. Every night I have six-eight dishes to taste, we keep working at it, tasting all night. We don’t change our mind, we just keep moving with it. It’s always nice to see everything all in the air, and eventually they start to settle and take their place in the menu.

He mentioned for Boulud Sud (a 100-seater, with room for 20 at the bar), they created three menus: from the sea, from the garden, and from the farm. He said they structured the menu to have small plates (“mezes/tapas-like style”), then appetizers, and main courses. Here’s what amazing: as we’re sitting there in the car, I ask him, “So, when is it opening?” He says, with an enthusiastic laugh: “Tomorrow!” If that doesn’t show confidence in your team, well, I don’t know what does.

As he shared details about Épicerie Boulud—his first retail shop opening next to Bar Boulud—it sounded like a dream: a boulangerie, fromagerie, pâtisserie, viennoiseries (hello, croissants), glacerie (with eight selections), and charcuterie you can’t even get at Bar Boulud. He will also be carrying cheese from fromagère Anne Saxelby, with 12 American and 12 French cheeses on seasonal rotation. And then he mentioned the sandwiches: there will be the hot dog they do at DBGB, the merguez, Thai sausage in a bun, Turkish lamb kofte, and the kicker: bahn mi with their own pâté, their own ham, and their own sausage. Daniel said, “It’s gonna be good, I tell you.” And you know what? I completely believe him.

When we talked about the glacerie, I asked him what flavor he liked when he was a kid, and he paused, saying, “I don’t know if I ever had ice cream! I was born on a farm, we didn’t make ice cream. You only eat what you produce. We had apples, so we made apple tarts. There were lots of things I discovered later—like an avocado. I had never had one, they didn’t grow on our farm! And crawfish.”

He then launched in to tell me more about the Épicerie, which will serve breakfast in the morning (he mentioned a particularly delicious-sounding sandwich, almost a flatbread, with two soft-boiled eggs that are sliced and tucked inside with some ham—is this a French version of the classic New York egg on a roll?). The space will offer salads and sandwiches for lunch, and then an oyster bar at night, with beer and wine. He said, “I’m thinking about doing a table at night where people can buy a ticket for dinner and I do a kind of family meal. But I first need to get the store up and running. It’s different than a restaurant. I told them [his employees], if we run out of food, it’s a good problem. They can come back the next day!”

He also mentioned wanting to do a book, and then added, “Like you asked, I want to spend more time being more creative, but at the same time, it’s about teamwork. I am not the kind of chef who will impose everything on my chef—I think every one of my chefs in the restaurants has to be participating in the creativity. Every one of my chefs has to play a very big role in being spontaneous without me, being able to make decisions—like you know, the supplier is saying, ‘We have this great fish, and this and that.’”

He was mulling over my creative process question some more, and then added, “For DBGB, the idea was sausage, to be made with the best quality meat inside. I love sausage. What I loved was we did a global tour with the sausage. Every country has a good sausage—it was a great source of inspiration. We had lot of fun being creative with that. The development part is the most exciting.

“The next step will be a test kitchen, a time to do testing independent from restaurant work. How do we keep our restaurant creative? Certainly by the spontaneity we have with the produce from the markets. But sometimes it’s important to have a place to sit down and think, out of the fire. Of course in France, in Spain, they have more time. But in New York—it’s a great city—but unfortunately there’s very little time for yourself.”

As our time together was wrapping up, he asked about Benu (“How big is the room? How much is the tasting menu?”), and then added, “The dream for me is to just do a tasting menu. But you need to have a local following, you don’t want people to just come for special occasions and never see them again. My best customers at Daniel, some come weekly, but you don’t want to impose upon them too much. They won’t come back.”

I felt very fortunate to catch Daniel in this narrow sliver of time away from New York, and literally the day before opening another one of his establishments. As we entered back into the tent, I pointed him to where he could find a nice glass of Champagne and where Tom Colicchio was serving my favorite dish of the day—and with a warm smile and handshake, he was off.

Chewing the fat with chef Daniel Boulud.

The unofficial Lexus interview chamber.
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