Daniel Boulud on Maintaining Consistency Over the Long Haul
Asked how the coronavirus pandemic has affected his relationship with time, Daniel Boulud chokes up. The New York–based French chef—who owns 13 restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Daniel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and the fast-casual café Épicerie Boulud—laments the ways that Covid-19 has uprooted his staff, suppliers, and customers, deeming it the worst experience of his five-decades-long career.
The response reveals a defining trait of the ardent chef, who cares deeply not only for his personnel, but about everything his work encompasses. At 65, Boulud continues to derive his energy from perfecting his craft: reading old French cookbooks, experimenting with his team in the test kitchen, embracing the spontaneity of making food for someone on the fly. When the coronavirus shut down New York’s restaurants this past March, Boulud turned his white-tablecloth flagship inside out, providing takeout and food service on the sidewalk of East 65th Street for patrons, and through converting Épicerie Boulud’s Bowery location into a prep kitchen for Citymeals on Wheels, he’s been helping feed first responders and elderly and food-insecure New Yorkers. Now, as New York officially begins its return to indoor dining, he’s introducing Boulud Sur Mer, a pop-up environment designed by architect Stephanie Goto that reimagines Daniel’s interior, nodding to the South of France while elegantly incorporating safety protocols. The chef perks up when discussing Le Pavillion, the seafood restaurant he’s opening next year, a project he sees as a way to contribute to the regeneration of a city he loves after a harrowing period of downtime. His work transcends the kitchen: For Boulud, his legacy isn’t so much about what he’s accomplished, but about how he’s helping others.
His profound interest in the wide-ranging potential of food is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Boulud is not only a chef, but a restaurateur. Work beckons constantly, as he points out on this episode of Time Sensitive, but it doesn’t seem to bother him. It’s all an extension of himself. His balanced, steady work ethic has enabled him to perpetually grow while maintaining consistency and standing the test of time.
On this episode, Boulud’s generous spirit shines through as he details his journey to culinary success. He talks with Spencer about growing up on a farm near Lyon, France, that produced everything his family put on the table; how a “grande dame” facilitated his entry into fine dining; learning about food, mentorship, and entrepreneurship from several legendary chefs; and the humbling satisfaction of seeing his life’s work come full circle.
Boulud discusses using downtime as “up time” and how he finds time to innovate in the kitchen while juggling round-the-clock responsibilities as a chef-restaurateur.
Boulud talks about why eating at his restaurant should feel like coming to his home; the devastating impact of Covid-19 on his staff, suppliers, and customers; and his heartfelt efforts to give back.
Boulud describes growing up on his family’s farm in the tiny village of Saint-Pierre-de-Chandieu, France, and how a “grade dame” named Countess de Volpi got him work at a respected restaurant in Lyon—but not before suggesting he consider becoming a jockey.
Boulud recalls the lessons he learned from working with chefs including Georges Blanc and Roger Vergé, and how moving to Copenhagen, where he worked at the Plaza Hotel and Les Étoiles, expanded his understanding of food.
Boulud details building a name for himself in New York at Le Cirque, conquering the obstacles of opening his own restaurants (including surviving its first, very bad review), and the satisfaction of helping future generations of chefs succeed.
SPENCER BAILEY: Today on Time Sensitive, we’ve got the chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud. The writer Bill Buford has described him as “the most successful serious French chef in the United States.” GQ has called him the “Michael Jordan of French fine dining.” Welcome, Daniel.
DANIEL BOULUD: Thank you, Spencer. Thank you.
SB: I wanted to begin by bringing up this answer you had to a New York magazine interview in 2013, when they asked you what your mortal enemy was. Do you remember the answer?
DB: Was it a food critic? [Laughs]
SB: [Laughs] It was actually time.
SB: It was the subject of time. You said time was your mortal enemy.
DB: Oh yes, absolutely. No, it’s true, I don’t have enough of it.
SB: And you’ve written about the importance of making “time”—what you call “time sacrifices”—to become a chef. Could you tell me what you mean by “time sacrifices”?
DB: Well, I started cooking very young, and “time sacrifices”—when you’re a teenager, I think is painful because not only you do what really you love, and I was lucky to work with people who would give me the passion for cooking and who really made me believe that it’s something I would be successful at. But at the same time, I wanted to be young. I wanted to party. I wanted to be with my friends, play sports, and be with the family as well.
These “time sacrifices” were working on weekends all the time and working twelve hours a day at 14, 15. The best time I had in my days was that afternoon break where, between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., or 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., we had a couple of hours where you could do anything you want. And it was not to go and take a nap. At least that was kind of my privileged time as a teenager. And of course traveling—traveling was always maybe a short trip, but really taking the time to enjoy it, for sure.
SB: Could you talk about the difference between the time you spend in the kitchen and the time outside of the kitchen? Obviously, I think those are experienced at different paces. Could you explain?
DB: Absolutely. The time in the kitchen, of course, it does. You don’t see the time passing by. You’re so busy doing things and prepping. And then there’s the service, lunch, and dinner. And then the time out of the kitchen. For example, when I was in Lyon, living by myself at 16, I was crazy about motorcycles. And so, in the afternoon, I would go and meet a friend, and we’d either be racing down the town or going to his garage and putting the whole engine into little pieces, trying to get more performance out of the engine, and put it back on, and race again. Also, in the afternoon, the ice hockey team in Lyon was training. We would go there and spend time with them as well, on the ice-skating rink.
And also just looking at antiques stores with cookbooks, playing some sports, tennis, and things like that. This two-and-a-half hour break, there was always a plan for it. When I was in the South of France, a little bit later, we would go to the beach. We’d jump on a motorcycle and ride down to the beach and spend an hour and a half sleeping under the sun because we had partied too much that night. [Laughs]
SB: Well, it makes me think that it’s such a different definition of how most of us consider free time. When you only have two hours a day of “free time,” what do you do with it, right?
DB: I didn’t call it “downtime.” It was “up time” for me.
SB: Yeah. And there’s a freedom in that time that’s different from the kitchen—where your mind has to be very focused, very precise—and you can kind of let it be free.
DB: For me, it was a period of three years in Lyon, from 14 to 17. And, depending on who you meet, who you happen to spend time with, you develop other habits. At one point I was playing pool, because the pool academy was not too far from where I was working. I would go in the afternoon and play pool. And there was this incredible pool player—they had all the different pool [tables] of the world, not just the basic [ones] we know. Usually, it was the three-band pool, with three balls—I think we played with that. I was getting good at pool for a while. And then I moved. And so the academy stayed there, and I moved out.
SB: I want to bring up training, because training, in the context of time, obviously is also another fascinating element, your training in particular. Not only the time it took for you to move from one position or restaurant to another, but also the time it took to figure out individual recipes or ways of handling ingredients. Could you talk about time in that context? The training and the idea of how you have to really divide and create the time in order to move forward, in order to progress the way you have and did?
DB: Very much. And I think when you’re a young chef, while I think it’s not a competitive thing in the kitchen, you are in competition with yourself. If you have a good mentor, he’s going to train you to be very efficient, to be very fast at your task, to be very precise, to be consistent, and to be able to grow with your job. But if you lack a little bit of one, or if you lack a lot of one thing, that might slow you down in the growth of responsibility, in the growth of opportunity to learn more and keep learning more. The one thing you didn’t want in the kitchen was to get stuck in one station.
The progress was to be able to have access to the next station, which usually was harder, and was asking more of you. It was pretty fierce in the kitchen to be a young chef, especially in a high-pressure restaurant, in a three-star restaurant, where, every day, the show depends on you, and you are still sometimes green and kind of junior in the team. And the boss has no mercy about making any mistake or anything that could jeopardize his reputation.
Of all the young chefs I worked with in the past, I don’t know too many who have managed to swim up like I did. I don’t know. Some of them quit because they were right, after all, it was not for them, or they wanted to just have a quieter life, or maybe a small bistro somewhere or a small restaurant, or be a chef in an institution where their personal time and personal life was easier. I sacrificed a lot of things in order to be where I am today, for sure.
SB: And it obviously connects to this notion of investing time, the amount of time that’s required to be invested in order to even achieve anything close to what you’ve done. Could you talk about how you think about investing time when it comes to your work both as a chef and as a restaurateur?
DB: Yeah. I mean, when I was a chef, I think it was a very personal thing. It was just myself and whoever I was engaged with, and how much I wanted to give time for that particular job, that particular restaurant, that team, that person. But today, things are shooting at me [from] every direction. I’m trying to give time for everything, and yet I don’t give enough time, sometimes, for what I really like to give time, which is cooking, which is being in the kitchen. But I understand my responsibility as not only a chef, but also as an entrepreneur. There’s a lot of things I feel connected with, like when we develop restaurants. It starts from the blueprints to imagining the place and building the place and working with all the different trades and all that.
I mean, this has not much to do with cooking, but at the end there’s always the cooking in mind. Just for the fact that I know I’m going to live in it after, or I’m going to be working in it, I’m going to have my team performing in it. I want to make sure that that is done right.
I think the difference between a chef and a chef-restaurateur is very different because as a chef, there’s plenty of opportunity where you can just shut off and take care of yourself. You can take personal time. I think as a business, you shut off, but you’re always on the short pause, I would say. I don’t know. I don’t think there was a day where I didn’t get a phone call or a message or an email or something that was reminding me about some project we have or some things we do.
SB: Yeah. Or you’re thinking about time in the context of being in the front of the house and servicing the people in the restaurant and—
DB: Very much.
SB: —being the host.
DB: Very much. But that’s what I love. On that side, I have no complaints.
SB: Yeah. You’ve written that “becoming a chef, like making a good stock, needs unhurried, unpressured time.” It’s so interesting because it sounds to me like your life’s quite frenetic and busy—most of the time, anyway—and that in the kitchen, you’re just deeply, deeply focused and producing a lot. Where do you find unhurried, unpressured time to innovate?
DB: In the kitchen?
DB: I would say the best time is, of course, when you have peace and you can take a book, and you can read about cooking, just for stimulating your mind. I mean, it doesn’t matter what kind of cuisine I’m reading about, or what kind of chef. I think it’s very stimulating, or it’s entertaining sometimes, to just read a good book, even old French cookbooks. I think that’s fantastic. And also developing ideas together around the table with the team, the chefs, or being in the kitchen with them. We have a test kitchen down at Daniel, and we work on things there as well.
But cooking, yes, is a science, but at the same time, it all depends. There are certain recipes that are so natural because of the season, because of the moment of the ingredient itself—it’s driven by ingredients, and not technique, right away. And so every time you think of a recipe, it has a different form or reason for why you want to take that direction, or you want to think that way particularly, because some recipes are purely out of technique. We know the composition, but how can we get the technique down? And some recipes, it’s purely about the ingredient and how we can make that ingredient feel the most composed and the most natural and the most delicious. And some recipes are out of soul, totally—an old classic recipe, which you want to reinvent and you try to recapture that classic, authentic flavor. It’s something you really have to also teach and mentor. It’s difficult to share this kind of recipe. Once you have been mentored to do it right, you have to pass it along to someone else, because there’s nothing to change about it. It’s just, you have to know how to make it right.
I think that it’s very interesting because, versus creating a new dish—you can share that with the other chefs, you can let the chef start the first test, you do a few trials of it—it takes time to develop. Sometimes it becomes an instant classic and we change nothing out of it. And sometimes we keep working at it for ten years and you still think that the recipe is great. It’s not going to make it as a classic, but for that short time we’re going to make it, it’s good. Because we come back to recipes, and we reinvent them in certain ways, but some of them don’t need to be reinvented.
SB: It’s like thinking fast and slow at once. Pretty fascinating—in the kitchen you have to work quickly, but you’re also thinking about things over decades, years.
DB: Of course. And centuries even. And that’s why I think the spontaneity in the kitchen is so important, but also, I think the reference to the past and the nostalgia of cooking is also something that is very nourishing. And I think when you put the two together and work with [them], sometimes you’re very spontaneous. The best time I have in the kitchen is when you sit down in the restaurant, and I don’t know what I’m going to cook for you. And I’m starting to go around the kitchen and gather things on the tray, and start to shop and cook, and make a very spontaneous, fresh dish. And it has no name, it has no composition, per se, of reflection or anything, it’s just very spontaneous. I get excited doing that.
SB: I wanted to bring up wine because wine, of course, is such a big part of your restaurants and a huge interest of yours. How do you think about time when it comes to wine?
DB: That’s the best time, I think, is when you are with a friend. And usually, wine is something you don’t want to share with too many people, if it’s a good wine—you want to have enough for yourself. I really enjoy moments where, with a [small] group of friends, we can open a good bottle of wine—or a few more—and really have a downtime, a time where we reflect and unwind first. I have a lot of good friends who either are good professionals in wine or collectors, or amateurs, or lovers of wine. With each one, it’s a different moment and different experience.Wine is not all about money and how much you can afford. But I think I am very excited with the Beaujolais, by a small producer who does something very unique as much as a DRC [Domaine de la Romanée-Conti]. I know that I can afford the Beaujolais; I don’t know if I can afford the DRC. But if I have a friend who will open a DRC, I really appreciate the moment. [Laughs] I think wine is always about good times. Wine is not fuel, the way food can be. Sometimes you eat for pleasure, but you also eat for necessity. Wine, you don’t need to drink for necessity, you only drink for pleasure. I think it’s a little different.
SB: The experience of time and connection to your restaurant and what you want people to feel at your restaurant—how do you think about time in that context, the time one spends in one of your restaurants? How do you want people to come away from that window, that moment of time?
DB: When people come to my restaurant, they should feel like they’re coming to my home—except I don’t have forty-five waiters in my home who can sometimes affect the welcome, or impact the experience. [Laughs] Of course, we try to not unify or standardize the service, the experience, the welcome, but we really try to be genuinely sincere in our hospitality. I think, for me, the restaurant, of course, starts with the front of the house. And with every character working in that front of the house, everyone has to be able to play the right role so the customer feels that it was a special moment to be here. And of course, I am at the restaurant, but I’m often more in the kitchen than the front of the house. The interaction with the guests is always a little more short than the service is with the guests.
Right now we are in the middle of a pandemic, and in New York City, the only thing we had to save us was the sidewalk. We built this sidewalk at Daniel—I’ve done that at Café Boulud or on Bar Boulud on the West Side, but I’ve never done that at Daniel, and I would have never imagined that I could really welcome people on the sidewalk on 65th Street—and here we are. [Laughs] And so it’s a confusing time right now. I know that we could do so much better, but we are limited by what we have to deal with and live with.
SB: Yeah. Health protocols…
DB: Health protocols. And we have to break down everything every night, and we have to rebuild every day. I’m very proud of the team, who are working very hard to make sure that we meet in safety for our guests, but also we feel that there’s this hospitality and sincerity around the experience that I think reminds them that they’re still at Daniel a little bit, even if it’s more casual and less expensive and less formal.
SB: How has time shifted for you personally in this slowdown period? Since the lockdown and the quarantine began in March?
DB: Well, I don’t know. I think if I had to quantify when was the worst time in your life as a chef, as a restaurateur… [pauses] …. Yeah, I think that was that time. You’re making me choke [up] now. No, but I think the time, this Covid time, I think what was the hardest was certainly to separate yourself from everything, from the staff, from the customers, from the suppliers, and really trying to rebuild something, which is not really reality. But, I mean, I’m good, I just never talk about it. You caught me at a wrong time.
SB: We’ll get to a lot of happier moments in your past. Before we jump back to that, what’s giving you the most hope right now?
DB: Well, I mean, we have been able to bring back business for sure, in some part. I think what will bring me the most hope is to be able to reopen all the businesses. Of course, next year, I have some new opportunities coming with the new restaurants and new business, and certainly getting the chance to be able to bring something new to New York, to my time here in New York. It’s a new chapter as well.
I think the excitement of looking at next year—I mean, we have to pass this phase right now and get out of it, and try to save as many people as possible, from the one who lost their job and all that. I’m excited, in a way, that next year, with this new project at One Vanderbilt, I can bring back almost all my staff, I hope, that haven’t left New York City and are looking for a job and all that. Because right now with the situation, I won’t be able to do that. I think it’s exciting also to see that New York City will have a real… I mean, I want to make sure that I contribute to the re-launch from this period of downtime, for sure.
SB: I want to ask one more thing just because of where the conversation went. And then I want to go back to your childhood and talk about Lyon and France. The thing I wanted to mention, though, was this idea of standing the test of time—outlasting trends, maintaining consistency, and—in the context of the current moment—pushing through a really difficult situation. How do you get into that mindset? What allows you to maintain such a strong sense of self and level of consistency across your operation, despite obstacles, including a pandemic?
DB: I think, of course, I can contribute that to the team who works with me. While it was maybe challenging to reopen the restaurant in the middle of the pandemic, we started to reopen downtown by contributing meals to New York first-responders, and elderly New Yorkers, and all that. We keep making those meals downtown. That brought back a team down there.
SB: And that’s with City Meals on Wheels?
DB: Yes. City Meals on Wheels. And we did World Central Kitchen first, and also with Food 1st. My new partner at One Vanderbilt has created this fund, where he dedicated that just to give gift meals to special charities. There are basically fifty different spots in New York City where they’re dropping meals. He wanted to really re-launch his tenants, who had restaurants all over the city, as a real estate landlord. He wanted to help them re-launch their kitchens. And so he made this initiative of creating Food 1st, and I helped him launch that.
We have gifted, I don’t know, almost three-hundred thousand meals by now, and it’s really a good initiative and I’m happy to continue to work on it right now. That was what gave us a chance to bring some people back. And then, of course, at Daniel, bringing back the talent as well, little by little, and especially the people who have been very loyal to me and have been with me for more than twenty years… I felt terrible that they were on unemployment and that we were totally disconnected.
And Bar Boulud—we had the chance to also bring Café Boulud to the Berkshires, in Lennox. And so that was exciting, too, because it gave an opportunity for the team of Café Boulud to be in the countryside and out of New York. And also being that wonderful property there. All those initiatives helped certainly preserve the talent, who are very important to me, and also give hope that we can carefully start to get back in business.
SB: I want to go back and kind of walk through with you a little bit how we got to here, how you became who you are. Obviously, there’s a deep, deep connection to Lyon and the region. You were raised on a farm outside of the city. Could you describe, in very specific terms, what the farm was like, sensorially?
DB: Well, the beauty of the farm, of my parents, is that they were not just doing one kind of thing, like grains or cows or dairy. They were doing everything. We were doing grains, we had cows, we had goats, we had chickens, and ducks, and Guinea hens, and squab, and rabbits. What else? Of course, big vegetable gardens. We were growing a lot of garlic and onions and potatoes, and we were making our own wine, and we were raising our own pigs, and making our own charcuterie. There was this ecosystem at the farm. We were living on what we were making, all the time. And only on Fridays we would buy some fish, because we didn’t have any fish pond or any place to really go fishing.
SB: But other than that, no store-bought food?
DB: No. No store-bought food. We made our own butter. If you needed cream, you would go to the milk tank before the truck came up to pick up the milk, and skim the cream on top. And making a lot of goat cheese, and making our own bread. And the life of the farm was really the noise in the morning. I mean, first thing in the morning, the rooster was, of course, the first one to wake up everybody, but it’s all these animals who lived around you.
Summertime, it was the time where you harvest the hay, then you harvest the wheat, and you harvest all the different grains. Those grains were to feed the animals during the winter, of course, including the hay as well. There was this cycle of life where there was never a break. Everything was a celebration. Every day there was a celebration of something of some sort. It was hard work, but the harvest was constant.
And maybe the only break you had at the farm was when you were starting to reach late fall, winter, where there was less to do, a little bit. And so we would crack all those walnuts we got from under the tree, all those hazelnuts in the winter, and find occupations to do. You could not only take care of the harvest you got during the season before and all that, but also do all kinds of tools, and hunting. Hunting was big also. Going hunting with my father was always very exciting because usually they don’t take children. I had to wait until I was 8, 9 years old, to be able to be invited to go hunting. Of course, I didn’t carry the gun, but at least I held the dog once in a while. [Laughs]
SB: So before entering the kitchen, you were sourcing the food, really?
SB: I understand you had a grandmother, Francine, and your parents, Julian and Marie—they were all cooks in their own rights. Could you talk about the food that they would make?
DB: Of course. Besides this abundance of food we were producing and making, my grandmother was often in charge of doing all the cheese, manning the goats, taking them to the field in the afternoon, and all that. I would do a lot of trips with her, and cooking. And that’s maybe where I spent most of my youth, at home, was also to spend time in the kitchen as well—or at least helping and being interested always by what was happening in the kitchen. She was a good cook. I have fond memories of things she made: the way she’d cook potatoes, and also I think the freshness of [the] food, directly from the ground to the table. I mean, when we were eating a green salad, it was so crisp, so fresh. I mean, unless you grow your own salad, and you cut it and wash it and eat it within an hour, you never find that crispness in the lettuce. Certainly not in New York. [Laughs]
SB: As a teenager, you have been described as “a little wild and very independent.” Could you describe how you went from this wild, independent child to becoming a chef—or at least, start working in a kitchen at 14? I understand there was a woman who called herself Countess de Volpi. Could you talk about who she was and how she led to you basically becoming a chef? [Laughs]
DB: Very much. She was my savior. We had some noble people living in the village: the doctor at the castle, and there were a couple of other people. The notary usually was also living in a big house, and all that. But the Countess de Volpi came to this village, and she was really coming out of another planet. She was a wonderful lady. She knew about food a lot. She, right away, figured out that we were the best farm in the village, and that’s where she would get her eggs, her cheese, her ham, her chickens, and many things.
And so I was doing a lot of deliveries in her home all the time with my bicycle. And she always loved me. She was giving me gifts, and all that. She was kind of a funny lady, she was driving that—and that’s why I liked her very much, because she loved cars. She had a Mustang. She had a Lancia. She had a Fiat, but with a special engine in it. She was in her seventies, maybe. She was super beautiful. And always smelling of a lot of perfume, had a poodle, drinking two bottles of whiskey a day with her friends, and smoking so much, and being just a grande dame.
SB: She called up these chefs for you, trying to get you a job in their kitchens.
DB: Exactly. She was eating in all the two-star and three-star restaurants in Lyon. She had a best friend who was the best surgeon in Lyon, as well. The two of them would go and do all the tables, the best tables of Lyon. When my parents were desperate about me, and what to do and where to go after a stint in the cooking school, which didn’t work out too well, she said, “Well, let me help you.” And she went around Lyon. She went to Fernand Point. She went to Alain Chapel, she went to [Paul] Bocuse, she went to Nandron. She asked all the two- and three-star [restaurants], “Who can take a young apprentice?” I fell into Nandron, that fantastic restaurant in Lyon.
SB: And that was where you had your first fine-dining meal and experience, I understand?
DB: Absolutely. Before that, before she helped me to go into the restaurant, she said—I mean, I was lightweight. I was not too tall, and lightweight. And she said, “Maybe you would be interested to be a jockey?” Because she had horses in the racetrack. [Laughs] And I knew about animals. I knew how to ride a horse. She said, “Would you like to try, and maybe work at the…?” She must have had a stable with a lot of horses, all racehorses. She was a big gambler also. She was spending nights in the casino, burning down her fortune.
But anyway, the jockey thing. When they started to tell me that the process of becoming a jockey is, first, you have to clean the horse all day, and you’re not going to race that fast. And so you have to get up at five in the morning, and you have to clean the horses, and you have to manage the stables, and there’s all this apprenticeship which—
SB: The parallel is kind of interesting, though. I mean, they’re both about speed and precision and a lot—
DB: Very much.
SB: —of training, a lot of cleaning.
DB: And to share your life with a partner who’ll make you win! It’s a chef with you— [Laughs]
SB: You’re kind of a jockey in your own way, I guess. [Laughs]
DB: Yeah, very much. I felt like, no, this was too much back to the farm. Getting up early and cleaning up after animals is not my thing. I kind of skipped the jockey thing. But, though, she was nice to suggest that.
SB: Tell me a bit about your experience in Nandron. I understand it was really a revelation for you, working there.
DB: Yeah, it was a revelation and a challenge. Coming from a farm, I’d never had the chance to really enjoy a two-star or a three-star restaurant. I had no idea the level of complexity, sophistication, service. I’d never stepped in a restaurant other than casual restaurants when we traveled in Normandy or the South of France and sat down at a terrace and had a plateau de fruits de mer. I mean, that was kind of the extent of my high service I got before [then]. And going to Nandron—the good part of that restaurant was, the father of the chef I worked for kind of wrote the apprenticeship program for the city in the forties or fifties. He made sure that he did a lot for education in cooking and wrote the apprenticeship program and the curriculums.
And so, the restaurant was perfect to be an apprentice [at], because they had about three apprentices every year. Two or three every year. Over three years, we were like, five to six apprentices. They were really this sort of step-by-step [process] of becoming a chef, to learn through. I started as the lowest job in the kitchen, which was to wash vegetables and do all the crappy work that no one wanted to do. Clean the fish and wash the vegetables and do mise en place and start to cook for the staff. That was the biggest challenge because every cook, and every waiter, was a critic. When you had to help cook for the staff meal, I mean, you were canned all the time. [Laughs] But it was good.
They called me “the Beaver” for a while, because I was in charge of the two big sinks in the kitchen, where I was washing everything for everyone. And then in the fall—the owner of the restaurant was a big hunter. He would go to Alsace. He would go to the south of Paris, and go on these big hunts and come back with his trunk full of birds, and full of wild hare and birds. I mean, the car smelled like hell. And then, I was in charge of plucking the birds. I had to go in the basement, in this dark, humid cellar. You’re in the city, where the cellar was dug into the ground, so it’s not like it’s tiled and it’s air-conditioned and beautiful. It’s just dark, humid, sandy. But the cellar was big.
I was in one of the corners and there was one bulb in the ceiling. I had my pile of birds, and my buckets. And because there was no air circulating in the cellar, it was just as calm as a cellar can be, so the feathers were not flying everywhere, so I could pluck the birds all day. That was the dirtiest part of my job there as an apprentice. [Laughs]
SB: And you’re 14, 15, and like, “I’m gonna become a chef.”
DB: Yeah. But as a farm boy, I was kind of okay. I was fast at it because I knew how to pluck a bird, for sure. I was proud of making sure that I didn’t rip the skin while doing that. While if you gave it to another kid, he would destroy the bird because they were so delicate. They were woodcocks and pheasants and partridges. But the worst was wild hare. Wild hare, because the French think that game should be gamey. They kind of wait a couple of days before they start to pull the skin off, and the guts—-it was just disgusting.
SB: You also were working as a server at the brasserie next door. You did a two-week stage with Paul Bocuse.
DB: I always kept myself busy. When I went to Bocuse, I was an apprentice in a two-star, and Bocuse was a three-star, so it was really eye-opening. I could see how macho and tough that brigade was there, as well, compared to the restaurant I was [at]. At least where I was working, there was not a sense of family, but at least they were a little bit of a smaller team.
SB: And this led to a series of opportunities at other restaurants with other chefs, many of whom became mentors. Could you talk about a few of these chefs, like Georges Blanc or Roger Vergé, and how they impacted your thinking and your evolution in the kitchen?
DB: Very much. After this apprenticeship in Lyon, I wanted to pursue the opportunity to keep learning with some other chefs. And I asked Nandron to take me to Georges Blanc. I wanted him to help me get into Georges Blanc. And Georges Blanc was a fantastic family-run restaurant, where you really had a sense of family there. They really adopted me right away. I was maybe also well-trained as an apprentice, so that gave me an edge in terms of becoming responsible for more things right away. The restaurant was just taken over by the son. The mother was the chef before. And the grandmother was the chef. The mother was the chef. And now, the son is taking over. He was 26, 27 years old when I arrived there. Super young, ambitious, starting to break down the walls and start to give a new direction to the restaurant. That was a very exciting time.
I left after two years there, and went to the South of France. So Georges Blanc was in Burgundy, and I went to the South of France after. Within a couple of years, he got his three-star there. It’s always exciting to be in a restaurant [that is] aspiring to be on higher ground and earn three stars. From Georges Blanc, I moved to Roger Vergé, and he had just got the three stars there. And so that was also, again, almost a flashback to Bocuse, the big brigade. But the spirit in the kitchen was very different than Lyon. It was the South of France. The cooks were coming from all over France, all over the world, even. Very cosmopolitan, very fun, great people, great cooks. And the food, the ingredients, the flavor, the smell—working in Provence was really special. And that was really the first time I really spent time down there.
SB: And so you’re fostering this whole realization of becoming a chef in France. And then, in 1977, you go to Copenhagen. Could you talk about your time in Copenhagen and how that opened your mind outside of the French cuisine that you’d been grounded in?
DB: Yes. After two years at Roger Vergé, I wanted to go back to Lyon. That was part of my tour de France. I had in mind to go out of my region, but I wanted to go back. And Roger Vergé felt that it’d be a great opportunity for me to go to Denmark, because he was doing consulting there, and he was doing a menu at The Plaza Hotel, and providing chefs. I felt like, Well, I’m kind of free, it’s not so bad. I will have a job. They’re giving me free lodging. And I would be able to represent the cuisine of Roger Vergé. I was 20, 21 years old, and I was already in charge of representing the cuisine of Roger Vergé in Copenhagen because I was the only young chef who had worked at the Moulin de Mougins. And all the other chefs were either French but didn’t work there, or Danish.
Copenhagen was a fantastic city. I always felt that Copenhagen was very distant from France because the French didn’t really look at Denmark, except for the few who lived there. But it was not a tourist destination, per se, of French tourists or any French connection there. I kind of embraced the Danish culture there for a while. It was great to cook there, discovering new ingredients, trying to understand their culture, their cuisine, their customs. I really enjoyed that time. I felt that, at certain periods of the year, there were really incredible traditions and incredible dishes coming out of the restaurants.
I left Denmark after a year and a half, and wanted to go back to France and do another three-star. I felt I was way too young to be a responsible sous-chef like that in a hotel. And I went to Michel Guérard. I spent a year there, at Michel Guérard, one of, again, three-star, very creative chef, very inspiring. Each chef I worked with had such a different style and such a different mindset. It helped you, I think, build yourself, from the one who is jovial and really warm, jovial, and passionate about art. Like Roger Vergé, who had such great relationships with artists and farmers, and embraced the local Provençal style way of life, in a way.
SB: This whole time you’re like a sponge, just soaking up all these different influences.
DB: Michel Guérard was so different. He was a poet. He was someone who had so much sensibility. His cuisine was definitely so personal, and so different than maybe the conventional chef. Because he was a pastry chef before, then became a chef. And I think that was wonderful to be able to work in his restaurant. Versus Nandron, who was more of a businessman. He was not in the kitchen so much. And Georges Blanc was a rookie, so… [Laughs]
SB: Yeah. And it’s interesting to think about how maybe you took some of the poetry, you took some of the businessman—
DB: Very much.
SB: You came to the United States in 1981, so it’s [been] almost forty years since you came here. I guess we’ll just fast-forward a little bit, to 1986, to ’92. You’re 31 years old in ’86, and start working at Le Cirque for Sirio Maccioni, another very influential figure and then very prominent figure here in New York.
DB: A very iconic restaurateur in America then. And for me, being in Washington, D.C., for two years, when I arrived in America and being a private chef in an embassy, it was just a sabbatical. When we talk about time, and having the opportunity to enjoy time and create time for yourself—I had plenty of time. I had so much time, then I visited America. I traveled through. I did the entire Florida state. I did the entire California state, driving around in an RV. [Laughs]
But then, after I wanted to come to New York. I’d worked in hotels for three years, and I’d had enough with it. And I really wanted to be a chef in a restaurant. The same week, André Soltner, the owner of Lutèce, and Sirio Maccioni, the owner of Le Cirque, were courting me for a job as a chef in their restaurants. And of course, Lutèce was also an iconic French restaurant in America, and the quintessential French restaurant in New York. I really admired André Soltner as a chef and restaurateur, but I knew that he was the chef there, and I would be his second in command. Versus at Le Cirque, the opportunity to be able to go into a kitchen where the owner was not the chef. They all called him the “ringmaster” of Le Cirque.
It was live-or-die there, because everybody thought that I was not up for the job yet. When I say everybody, many people, I think, in New York were certainly doubtful that I could pull it off. And I really pulled it off because, I think, the dream of Sirio Maccioni was to have four stars in The New York Times and to really make his restaurant known for the food more than for the social scene. I think combining the two together—because he was really a master in the front of the house and a restaurateur—he wanted his food to carry the past with it, but also to bring definitely some new tones in the cuisine. And I think I managed to blend the two very well. And that was the late eighties.
SB: Yeah. And by 1992, you’re developing a business plan of your own. Could you talk about what your vision was for Daniel, and did you ever imagine it would expand and expand and expand into what it became?
DB: I had a vision first by the fifth year at Le Cirque. I had the vision to go back to Lyon. And I wanted to, in that case, open my little restaurant there and have a nice place, maybe crank up the farm, and have this farm-to-table restaurant. But I don’t know, I felt that it was difficult for me to raise money in Lyon, and I didn’t have the money to build my own restaurant. And I decided to stay in New York City.
After two years of hesitation, I started to raise money, and tried to build a business plan and create my restaurant. I was lucky to find a partner, Joel Smilow, one of the investors [who] decided that being my only partner will be much better than one of ten. And so, that really sped up the process of everything, from finding a space, signing a lease, and now planning a restaurant. I had in mind that I wanted my restaurant to be very good, but different than maybe the model of a restaurant that was [from] the [previous] generation of French restaurants, such as Le Cirque, La Caravelle, La Grenouille. I wanted to be sort of a modern classic.
Daniel started in May of ’93. And I got demolished by The New York Times. At the time, the previous critic, Bryan Miller, was retired, and the new critic who was coming in, Ruth Reichl, was not in place, so they were using different critics. And one of them, I guess, wasn’t my friend, or at least wasn’t there to support me, or just be a fair judge. And it’s the opening of the restaurant. I mean, I care more about making my customers happy than The New York Times, I guess, at that time. And so I got a two-star review. It was fine. I told my staff, I said, “You may be disappointed. We could have at least deserved three. But we’re going to give them the best two-star they’ve ever seen in New York.”
SB: Of course, you went on to become a three Michelin star [in 2010], so.
DB: Yes. The review of the Times was in July, I think, after the opening, like four months, three months after the opening. And in October or November, I think, Patricia Wells, who was a writer for The [International] Herald Tribune at the time, she was doing a survey of the ten best restaurants in the world, and every month, she would have a double page in the Herald Tribune of the fine restaurants, the casual. And, of course, I was early on the list. I was voted number one restaurant in America, and one of the ten best in the world, like eight months [after] opening.
This was incredible because it really gave me the boost that, yes, we have the confidence that we can make this restaurant one of the best restaurants in the country. And following that, Ruth Reichl took over the Times. And that was one of their earliest reviews, to review Daniel again. And in early ’94, she gave me four stars. To me, that was [coming] full circle.
Daniel was an incredible restaurant because I think it was quintessential fine dining, with the spirit of a bistro. There was so much life and so much energy, and so much power with the food and the service. I felt that that was really special. And then I had the opportunity, five years later, to move Daniel to the old Le Cirque.
SB: Another full-circle moment.
DB: Yeah. That was the full circle there. [Laughs] But then, moving Daniel was a real challenge. I had a lot of pain to close that restaurant, but at the same time, I had so much excitement to give it a new start again, where it has been now for twenty-one years.
SB: And of course, your own empire with Dinex Group has expanded, with restaurants all over the world.
DB: Yeah, and creating Café Boulud, for me, to replace Daniel, was something very personal because, when I opened Daniel in ’93, the postcard I sent to everyone to announce the restaurant was the old picture of Café Boulud. And on the back it said that I’m opening restaurant Daniel, and all that. So, five years later, to be able to do Café Boulud where the old Daniel was, I think was all about nostalgia of my village, my hometown, my house where I grew up, where Café Boulud was, and to be able to reopen that year, that was kind of a moment of personal achievement.
SB: As all of this radiated out, and as things grew, how are you thinking about everything happening at once? I mean, obviously you had this incredible big team around you, building this with you, but what ultimately was your vision, was the sort of dream that you were building that started with one restaurant but became something much larger?
DB: I think it all came naturally. For example, when I opened Daniel, within nine months to a year, I started a catering company on the side. It was a very small catering [company] with a partner, Jean-Christophe Le Picart, and we just catered to small dinners at homes on the Upper East Side and sometimes out of New York. Just because I’ve always loved catering. I love the fact that you can transport your cuisine and offer it in someone’s home. And following that, I opened Payard Patisserie and Bistro with Francois Payard, my pastry chef. We didn’t get along, but at least we did it. I had it for two years, then I asked him to take it over and he ran that.
But then, following that, I moved Daniel and opened Café Boulud, and by then we had those two businesses, and there were opportunities also after to open Café Boulud in Palm Beach. That was great, but I opened DB Bistro because Midtown—again, it’s personal relations sometimes. The owners of the hotel were very good customers. The parents were very good customers at Daniel. And the parents said, “Oh, my son is opening a hotel on 44th Street. Would you like to put a restaurant there?” And so we talked to them, and here we are now opening DB Bistro.
SB: It’s like conversations beget conversations beget restaurants?
DB: Very much. And I think all the restaurants we opened were always out of relationships—out of personal relationships, customer relationships, business relationships. Rarely someone comes to you without having any connection to you or someone you know well.
SB: To finish, how do you think back on the last thirty years? The time of really building this vision, building this dream. What comes to mind for you when you think about three decades?
DB: Well, I think it takes at least three decades to build a legacy, I would say. Now, I have to work on my legacy, of course, and make sure that—it is important to be able to support the next generation. And it has always been about that. Through those thirty years, of course, the success of things, the failure of others, are part of the journey. But I think the reward is really all the opportunities you gave to so many cooks and so many waiters and so many people engaging in our company, engaging time with us and being with us, and having gone on their own, or traveled the world and lived somewhere else. There is a connection, there is an attachment, there is a true memory of our time together, but of the accomplishment of having made them also helped them succeed along the way. Just the way Vergé or Guérard or Nandron helped me, or Blanc, succeed along the way. Not only were they good mentors, but they were also good supporters in growing.
These thirty years have been very good, and I’m blessed that I had amazing, talented people with me.
SB: And your energy gets to extend out through time, too.
DB: [Laughs] Yeah. And I’m always there for anyone who needs me. I always try to count on my friendships with my colleagues to be able to keep myself motivated, of course. But there’s more to do. There’s more to do with our profession. Things are changing, and I think it’s changing for some good reasons. I think maybe time will be better for the future of chefs than maybe the time I had in the past.
SB: We’ll end there. Thanks so much, Daniel. This is great.
DB: Thank you very much, Spencer.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on Sept. 3, 2020. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity.