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My Dinner With Daniel Boulud

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By James Geneau

Daniel Boulud - photo credit: Owen Franken

On my 21st birthday, I was working in Paris on a school exchange program and fully in love with the city, the lights, the people, and the phenomenal food. Some colleagues on the trip had heard it was my birthday and they coordinated a special evening for us with a local Parisian friend of great influence, whose name shall remain secret. A great surprise was planned for me and I was simply told to dress to impress and be impressed. The evening started in a glorious suite at the George V with our own private garden terrace where we enjoyed canapés and the finest of champagnes. This was followed by a ten course Asian feast including the famous Peking duck at Tse-Yang in the 16th Arrondissement. The finale was a tasting of great French Cognacs and a five layer birthday cake delivered to me at a small little tavern close to the hotel. As the cake arrived the patrons all joined in a lively singing of happy birthday (en Francais bien sur) and a multitude of two-cheeked kisses followed from some of the loveliest, and well known, Parisians. It was the most memorable food and drink experiences in my life. That is, until my dinner with Daniel.

It was 7:45 pm and I was late. I sat my cocktail glass down on the table at The Peninsula and headed for the doors. The doorman called me a taxi and I immediately told the driver my desire to be taken to Daniel. After two days in a city where the taxi drivers would surprise me if they knew where the Empire State Building was located, I was impressed with his response. “On East 65th Street, correct?” he uttered. Yes, I replied, still half shocked as I came to the realization that everyone in New York must know Daniel, even my new friend Tony from Queens. No pressure James, it is just dinner.

A modest five dollars later, I approached the great doors to what was to be a special evening with Daniel Boulud, the man who for the past 25 years has been a driving force of French cuisine in America. A three-time James Beard award winner, a member of France’s Chevalier de la Legion, author of six books, and the leader of a fine dining empire reaching as far away as Beijing. These were the thoughts running through my head as I opened the doors and entered to meet my fate.

The first thing you will notice when you enter Daniel is the attention to detail during every second of the experience. Immediately upon entering, I was greeted by the concierge who confirmed my reservation and welcomed me to my dinner. “Welcome Mr. Geneau. We are just preparing your table.” the lovely and friendly concierge replied. “If you do not mind the mild inconvenience, we would like to offer you a glass of sparkling wine in our bar while we finalize the details of your dinner this evening.” A young and impeccably dressed man then turned to me, smiled, and personally led me to the bar. On our way, he asked if there was anything I needed or if I had preferences for seating. Nothing came to mind and I was seated in a low bench chaise with an almost theatre-like view of the other patrons in the bar. This was immediately followed by a small canapé and a glass of the 2001 Soutiran "Cuvée Daniel" sparkling wine from Sonoma County, a special reserve vintage made especially for Daniel Boulud.

As I sat and enjoyed this crisp and refreshing sparkler, I watched an endless parade of guests being welcomed, escorted to the bar, and served a glass of the bubbly. It was perfectly orchestrated like a fine ballet as concierge, guest, server, and sommelier flawlessly mingled amongst each other. The lighting was perfect and the buzz amongst the patrons, electrifying. I was mesmerized by the activities for about five minutes before I detected a shadow above me. I looked up, and was greeted with a smile. “Hello, my name is Daniel Boulud. Welcome.” the man in the crisp white chef’s attire uttered as he extended his hand towards mine. “A pleasure”, I responded as I raised myself slightly to shake his hand. I introduced myself and we exchanged pleasantries. He asked if I had been here before, where I was visiting from, and my thoughts on the sparkling wine. His tone and mannerisms were friendly, approachable, and ever so humble. This was his home, and the discussion was no different than if I had been invited to a stranger’s house for dinner by a common friend. “I look forward to speaking later and I hope you enjoy your evening with us” were his final words and with a smile introduced me to another member of “Team Daniel” who walked me to my table. As I looked back, I could see him meeting and greeting with the couple who had been sitting next to me. Smiles, handshakes, and pleasantries once again delivered to another group of guests to Daniel’s house.

Seated, I absorbed the surroundings. Rich and opulent, yet classic, would best describe the main dining room at Daniel. A soft glow from the lighting above, a low murmur of guests sharing stories at various tables, and an endless parade of servers ensuring the needs of every guest are met. Within seconds of being seated, I was greeted by my waiter for the evening. I was to enjoy Daniel’s tasting menu that evening and I was already giddy with anticipation. Immediately after he left, another server arrived with “A Tasting of Pea”, a lovely trio including split pea salad with lobster, carrot confit and bacon chips. This sat next to a minted pea mousse, crispy shallots, and espelette oil. Finally, a red wine poached octopus with pea coulis, red onions, and crisp savory.

I savored these three delectable tastings while watching the events unfold around me. Chef Daniel could be seen floating around the room from table to table meeting the patrons and sharing stories. This was the perfect example of a man who not only loves good food but appreciates the people who enjoy his offerings. After all, food brings people together and at Daniel, the connection he makes with the people who enjoy his creations is of the utmost importance. Watching him work the room speaking to every single guest is inspiring. In a world where the celebrity chef mass produces experiences and is pretty much unapproachable, the trend stops at Daniel's door.

Here, the chef is humble and approachable. Like an artist at his first gallery show, Chef Daniel works the room. There is no pretention in his tour. Rather, a genuine interest in the guest's experience. Why? Perhaps because Daniel, God forbid, understands the fine art of both cooking and hospitality. Keep it fresh, keep it real, and never forget who you are eating with. I begin imagining what a dinner at his home would be like when I am greeted by the sommelier with my first paired wine.

It is a lovely Gewurztraminer from Alsace, the 2004 Rolly Gassmann “Oberer Weingarten” to be precise. Soft, supple, and truly divine. A perfect pairing with my first course, a Pâté of Squab and Foie Gras served with Sicilian Pistachios, a Blood Orange Chutney, and Lillet Gelée. It is a perfect combination of flavors to serve with such a delicate German wine.

The next wine was the 2007 Nigl “Freiheit” Grüner Veltliner from Austria, the land of palate cleansing vino. This particular vintage was so light, I questioned if it was even a wine at all. A few sips later and yes, this was a wine I liked and perfectly paired with a Tai Snapper Ceviche with Persian cucumber, shaved radish, tapioca pearls, and dill oil. The dish was light and refreshing and the wine felt like a glass of cucumber water after a deep muscle massage. How is that for a metaphor?

Next, a 2006 Domaine Servin “Montée de Tonnerre Chablis 1er Cru paired with a paprika crusted Maine lobster tail, broccolini, pine nut gremolata, and piquillo coulis. Growing up on the east coast, a stone’s throw from Maine, lobster was so plentiful I never thought of it as more than a summer dinner special enjoyed during weekends on the coast. But this dish almost made me cry and I immediately felt a small sense of pride for this delicious little gift from the sea, so beautifully presented and full of flavor.

At this point in the evening I remember looking around and once again admiring the clientele at Daniel. It was a mix of people from the table of three young socialites exchanging smiles with me as I sat alone to the celebrity singer (to remain nameless) enjoying dinner with a new girlfriend, or so it would appear. Further away, three couples enjoyed a dinner together sharing photos of their children next to another table of business men, clearly not the ex-employees of a battered Wall Street financial firm. Variety was the theme that evening with Daniel’s guests coming from a wide list of social genres with one goal, a lovely dining experience.

I was awakened from my people watching by my new best friend, Daniel’s sommelier, excited to share with me the next great course. Chateau Mont-Redon’s 2007 Châteauneuf-du-Pape. By the glass, if you can believe it. So refined. As if it was meant to be served with the Beaufort ravioli with green peppercorn, black trumpet, mustard greens, and Speck ham. Delicious and I devoured it with such zeal that I am certain I disgusted my three new female fans eyeing me from the table next to me. I didn’t care, I am who I am, a foodie in love with his fifth course of the evening.

There was nothing left when the server took my plate and the sommelier returned with yet another great find, the 2006 Domaine Jacques Bavard Puligny Montrachet. This was paired with a lovely piece of Halibut baked on Himalayan sea salt and served with a fennel confit, Thai basil, and an Old Catham Yogurt curry sauce. Sublime. I kept waiting for something that would make my tongue curl but Daniel would have nothing of it. How on earth could a critic ever say something negative about Daniel? I am certainly not a restaurant critic by any measure, but I know a good experience and this was by far one of the best shows on earth. The halibut was magical and the delivery a show on its own as the server plated my meal before me with the highest degree of care and love for his art.

At this point my head started spinning from all of the decadent food and the free-pouring actions of my sommelier friend. But we still had two courses and I needed to pull it together. No time, a glass of the 2007 Copain Pinot Noir “Tous Ensemble” from Sonoma was presented to me for my next course, a ris de veau with crispy sweetbreads, fava beans, and morels. A lovely wine and oh so representative of the region. Soft and flavorful, it was a great addition to this dish of meat and starch, exactly what I needed to clear my head.

The grand finale was the combination of my two favorite terms in the foodie language, lamb and braised. Had Daniel gone to some great length to research my previous articles and blogs to know what I loved? Maybe they ran a Google search term model on my articles and discovered a clear trend and bias towards slow-braised meats and lamb chops? I smiled at the thought and in my drunken state may have actually uttered the words “yeah right, like he has nothing better to f#@k’in do” under my breath. Either way, I was in heaven with his “Agneau de Lait Basquaise” of braised baby lamb shoulder with sweet pepper ragoût, along with roasted leg and rack with Wisconsin ham and sautéed ramps. This was paired with a lovely 2003 Château Talbot Saint-Julien. I savored this dish with the attention it deserved and as I placed my fork down I was caught expressing my full orgasmic pleasure by my host as he greeted me at the table and asked if I cared to join him for dessert. A little shocked, and embarrassed, I followed Daniel up the stairs to the back bar where he and I could have some privacy and discuss his fantastic career.

I had so many questions racing through my head as we sat down to begin our chat. This was supposed to be an interview but it felt more like a “bro-mance” first date. I wasn’t sure how this would go, so I told him I had few basic questions and then the rest we could simple ad-lib. He laughed and said sure and away we went. The first thing I needed to know was why he spent so much time in his kitchen. After all, very few “celebrity” chefs these days are even within a 5,000 mile radius of their restaurants. They simply hang their name on the door and call it a day. His answer was simple.

“I live upstairs!” he responded laughing, and I immediately knew this was going to be a fun evening. He continued to explain that he “likes to meet his customers” and that once you reach a certain level of celebrity status you can “afford to hide”. “I cannot afford to hide yet” he added, “so I continue to do what I love and be as familiar with my customer’s needs as possible”. I remember thinking to myself how profound a statement that was for the millions of young chefs out there striving to be TV celebrities, create cookbooks, slap their names on barbeque sauces, and push their name onto inferior cookware made in third world countries. Daniel Boulud does not think he is a big enough celebrity to forget his customers and at the end of the day, he is probably one the most celebrated chefs around.

So I brought up the topic of the new entertainment focused food programming out there and the “celebrity chef” explosion. What did he think? “Half the shows are bullshit and the other half are good” he quickly shot back with a big smile. “To me, I was living in Hell’s Kitchen at Cirque. I would take a cab three blocks to get home because I was so sore from a night of cooking.” He added, “People are entertained by seeing the pressures of cooking and many never experience the fine dining. That makes it weak as a comparison.” I agreed and immediately thought of how “off the mark” these shows are. After all, cooking in a kitchen for a fine dining establishment is like being in an artist’s studio, not a race against time. Sure, there are pressures but many of the people watching these shows will forever have an image of cooking being nothing more than the back-end rush of the prep line at Applebee’s or The Keg. But enough about the other clowns out there, I wanted to learn more about my new “buddy” Daniel.

By this point it was clear to me that Daniel was a very sensible and down to earth man. Not a celebrity in his own world even though he was clearly one in mine. I asked him what he did on his days off and if he actually cooked at home. “I cook every day at home but I really love to cook at my parent’s home in France” he told me. “For Summer vacation, we head back to St.Pierre de Chandieu and almost everything we cook is outdoors. We make a leg of lamb over a fire we create with old vines from the vineyards – the flavor is fantastic!” Was it a family affair? A combination of food and family, according to Daniel. “Sometimes I will bring over some soft-shell crab from America and my mother will grill some local fish” he said and I immediately pictured an outdoor kitchen with a glass of Chardonnay and the smell of the smoke from the lamb, the soft-shell crabs, and the fish dancing in harmony through the country air. But what about at his New York home? What did the man who just served me eight fantastic courses do on the weekend? “It is cold in New York in the winter. That is when I like to braise” he responded explaining to me the various meats he liked to experiment with – many of which make it onto the menu at some of the restaurants. I wondered how many socialites living on the Upper East Side braised meats on the weekend. It sounded a little out of place in my mind and then he answered the question for me…”I really miss living downtown. I miss the markets and the fresh ingredients everywhere. I love making soups. If I make a meal at home it always one that is wholesome and filling. When you are close to a market, you have so many options for creating great wholesome dishes.” Wow, I thought to myself. This guy wants my lifestyle? I go to the market every Saturday in Toronto. On the weekends, seasonal homemade soup is a staple in our house. I wondered for a minute what it would be like taking Daniel to the St. Lawrence Market on a Saturday and watching him select some leeks, potatoes, some fresh herbs, and a cut of lamb for a stew or a slow-braised dinner. What a day that would be.

Since we had stumbled upon Canada in our discussions, I asked him about my homeland and why he chose Vancouver for his first venture north of the border. Or as I worded it, “Vancouver is nice, but not enough people drink and smoke there…what made you think a French restaurant would work?” I did this with a stern and puzzled look on my face which showed a few signs of a smile forming. I was frank with him; partly because of the several glasses of wine we had both downed that evening and my current love affair with my two official home towns, Toronto and Montreal. He laughed, clearly understanding my style of humor, but we were then interrupted by a server with some desserts for us to try. A Kaffir lime infused Mango with Buddha’s hand confit and pink guava sorbet. A cilantro poached pineapple with coconut, lime-rum gelée, and pina colada sorbet followed. And then, a chocolate brownie with mascarpone and Ethiopian coffee ice cream. “Please. Try these”, Daniel quickly added, but I told him I would only try them if he answered my question.

He laughed again and said “I almost went to Montreal but I found Vancouver to be a neat experience. I have a big following in Canada but Vancouver was to be my only west coast presence besides Las Vegas. Montreal has plenty of great French chefs already and as for Toronto, I have not had much time to explore the city - with the exception of my trip there for the Grand Cru event.” Of course, I gave him an open invitation to visit us at Gremolata in Toronto and we talked about the many great things happening in the city. Mind you, not that the City of Toronto ever wrote me a cheque for being such a great ambassador, simply because I wanted to enjoy the Daniel experience over and over again without the three hour time difference in Vancouver or the $500 flight to New York each day.

And so, on the topic of Vancouver, I asked him why he thought it was such a “neat experience”? “Vancouver is a fantastic city”, he replied. “The food scene has a great following of eclectic people and the city is full of very talented young chefs. The chefs in Vancouver have already made it a culinary destination and I wanted to be a part of this.” Interesting I thought to myself. As he elaborated on this comment it became clear that Daniel goes where the scene is and has no delusions of grandeur one might expect from a chef of his stature. He doesn’t create culinary scenes, he prefers to join them. “How are the desserts?” he asked. “Terrible”, I responded with a mouth full of chocolate brownie and a faux-look of disgust on my face quickly turning into a wink and a smile. “Good. Have some more” he quickly responded with a laugh.

We got onto the topic of his New York restaurants and his career. I asked him if he was a French or American chef which caused him to laugh once again. “I have been in America for 29 years, so first, I would say, without hesitation, I am a French New Yorker” he stated, trying to be serious. A wink and a smile later, he added that “this is how I see it and it is important for every chef in America to keep their national roots when they come to America. They need to have a double dialogue if you will. It helps them to deliver a full experience with their cuisine!”

What about his chefs? I wondered if this belief applied to them as well. What did he look for when he was recruiting new talent? “They need to understand French cuisine with a strong background in the art of French cooking” he said with a very focused and serious look on his face. “Contemporary in his or her own person and not old fashioned” he elaborated. “What do you mean by that?” I asked. He reflected for a few seconds and then replied with “Young, passionate, and devoted. A good teacher and a good listener. If they are selected, they must first cook for me and show me what they know. If they have an attitude or a bad character, they are out the door. They need to know more than just cooking. They must truly understand the entire restaurant industry as a whole and love the bigger picture of what we do as chefs.” he responded in almost a single breath. Another pause and then he added “they need to be an example to others and I like to think that I help them move from being a cook to a chef.”

At this point, the server came back and cleared the table. He was a young man with lots of energy yet clearly dedicated to the profession of hospitality. Having just been to Lumiere in Vancouver the week before, as well as DB Bistro Moderne in both Vancouver and New York, I had noticed a trend. Many who worked at his restaurants was incredibly young and surprisingly talented given their age. I shared this comment with Daniel and made particular note of Dale MacKay, the young chef running Lumiere in Vancouver. “When I first met him” I told Daniel, “I actually thought to myself, is this guy kidding me? How old is he? He looks like a corn-fed young hockey kid from Minnesota!” Daniel laughed at this comment. But I then told him that after meeting with him and sampling some of the dishes it was clear that he was years older than he appeared in terms of his depth of knowledge and passion for cooking.

“I am inspired by young chefs who are passionate about food” he replied. “I am 54 years old and I have been cooking for 40 years, but feel like I am 20.” I remember saying how I felt the opposite, probably from too much wine over the past 20 odd years and a liver that I think is officially unionized, and was wondering what his secret was. We both laughed and he stated that “I can stay young forever with so much young talent around me filled with passion. The most rewarding thing for me is to work with young cooks and help them become great chefs who can converse and share ideas!” Interesting I thought, but does he run the show at all times? “We produce more as a team” he replied. “No single chef can come up with their own dish. We all share ideas and benefit from the experience” he explained.

And that was it. He had summed up in a few sentences what I had already assumed by my two-week visit to some of his great dining institutions. At each of his restaurants the food had been innovative; the energy of the staff electrifying, and the response from me and my fellow patrons clearly indicated that this worked. What was Daniel Boulud’s secret? The 54 year old man, who did not look older than 45, was dedicated to youth and this was one of the key drivers to his success. He appreciates the work of young people, their passion to climb, and the creativity they brought to the table. However, he also knew what it took to offer an exceptional experience with his 40 years of experience being a grand restaurateur, not just a chef. He wasn’t just a father-figure to his own children, but to the many young people who worked with him in his restaurants. Guiding them, teaching them good values, and allowing them to excel – this was his passion.

His second secret was staying true to his personal belief that food should always be centre stage, not the prestige of being a well-known chef. In a world of celebrity chefs with shows, cookbooks, and brands, Daniel clearly stood out to me as an example that being true to your core values will ultimately result in great success. So many young people struggle and claw their way to become celebrities in this business and could only dream of having the same degree of success and wealth as this man. Dinex, the company Daniel owns and leads, is a multi-million dollar enterprise employing 1,000 people, with close to ten restaurants reaching from Palm Beach to Beijing. The company has acted as the consulting firm to the cuisine offered by Lufthansa and Cunard Line’s Queen Mary II, and Dinex’s leader Daniel has made countless television appearances. Fame and success was not the goal. It was the blissful end result for a chef who stayed true to his passion and never deviated from his core beliefs. As an example to young chefs everywhere, I could not think of a better candidate. I listened with great attention as he shared story after story of his philosophy and passion for food. Great wine, and great conversation was keeping me wide awake and I felt like I was catching up with, and gaining valuable advice from, a close and knowledgeable friend, not conducting an interview.

It was at this point I looked at my watch again for the first time since I left The Peninsula. Was that right? Was it really 1:30am? I was startled and quickly apologized for taking up so much of his time. “It was my pleasure. This was fun” he replied with a big grin and excused himself for a moment to grab his business card and a pen. He scribbled down his personal cell number and passed it to me. “If you have any questions or need anything, give me a call on my cell” he said. I thanked him for a lovely evening, shook his hand, and headed for the doors. I was the last person leaving the building and the streets of the Upper East Side were dead quiet. I grabbed a taxi, and headed back to my hotel. On the ride, I realized I never got a photo with him. Oh well, I thought. Probably would have been cheesy to ask for one. Anyways, I will be back. I will get one then.


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