"Cooking is sometimes emotional, sometimes seasonal, sometimes cerebral, and sometimes physical. So we have to live with the team, share that together, and take direction together."
"Hospitality" is something I only started considering seriously when I began this interview series over a year ago. The seventy or so chefs I've spoken with have taught me to expect more from my dining experience; to be open and understanding and communicative and, well, somewhat demanding. They've chosen New York City as theirs for a reason, ready to meet high expectations and work very, very hard to make their mark.
This month, Chef Daniel Boulud celebrates a very significant mark—twenty years with his flagship restaurant Daniel. For a man so busy, with many restaurants and a New York staff numbering over seven hundred and fifty, he engages in conversations and laughs deeply, whether it be during an interview or while making the rounds in his restaurants.
At his celebratory brunch this past Sunday—with every Daniel restaurant stationed in attendance and an overflowing crowd including an upstairs resident in jeans, Martha Stewart, Danny Bowien, and California forager Hank Shaw—guests seemed genuinely joyful and happy for the chef, and all overwhelmed at the generosity he shared that day and in his twenty years of feeding us. Later, Cafe Boulud Chef Gavin Kaysen tweeted, "This is one hell of a family to be a part of...thank you," with an accompanying image of Chef Boulud perched atop the filled room of staff who helped him celebrate.
To partake in this celebration, our interview was a meandering one about New York—why he chose us as the city in which to make his mark, how we've change in the thirty years since he set foot here, and what excites him about where we have yet to go. Here's what he shared.
So, first, congratulations Chef! Twenty years is a beautiful accomplishment. Yes, thanks, we're coming along!
Do you remember why you originally picked New York as your city? I was in Washington DC for two years and felt that it was a little tame for me. I had a chance to come to New York a couple of times and visit some of the best restaurants here, and felt that this was the best city to be in at the time.
New York was a rougher city at the time and food has changed so much since then... We think food has changed so much, and it has kept evolving in many directions, but there were a lot of good restaurants at the time. New York was so vibrant, so busy, and so crazy as well! Downtown was starting to flourish; Tribeca was starting to have some interesting restaurants. And chef-wise, when I arrived in New York in 1982 at the Westbury hotel, I had Thomas Keller as chef de partie, we had Alfred Portale, we were all young and starting in the business, you know?
Back then the home kitchen wasn't often as diversely stocked as it is now. Did you have a hard time sourcing products on a restaurant scale? I never felt any limitations. There were foods that were imported, and young guys were starting companies to bring in local foods. There was this big herb company in the Bronx in an old factory. And there were all kinds of suppliers emerging in every direction, and local fishermen and meat. It was really the beginning of a whole new generation of suppliers coming in and bringing us stuff. I never felt short of anything here.
Did this transformation start before you got here or were you on the cusp of it? It was just starting to transform. Before all the restaurants had amazing ingredients and they all had their own kind of identities but still things were imported. Italian restaurants were importing things from Italy, and French restaurants were importing things from France. But little by little you could almost still be "French" and local at the same time.
So that local push helped define restaurants? Absolutely. I don't know if there are more restaurants today than there were, but there is a great vibe today about food. That also has a lot to do with communication and social media and all that where you basically have instant pictures of anything, anywhere, any time, so it's different. Before—unless you were reading it in the press—discovering a new restaurant was a discovery. Today there's no discovery. If you miss the first day you see it all the next day!
All those social factors mean some of us don't just eat any more. It's very sad that people have to learn how to deal with it. And spend extra hours in bed on Twitter all night trying to catch up.
How do you focus amongst all that? For me it's the customer. The customer. We read every critique. We are always concerned about that; we can't be perfect—we're human—but at the same time we try to be very good at what we do and we have enough people to do it. But the customer does not need Yelp or anything to come back to a restaurant—they know if they want to come back. So in a way it's important to make a first comer very happy. And those people can really become your best PR. I don't know where it will go with all of this. Because it's mostly practiced by the younger generation. So far they're very volatile and they move a lot. And that's very fun—I've done it. Don't think that in the '80's it was so quiet and the world was born in the 2000's!
Do you feel fortunate that you came before this game? I'm very happy the way I came. I partied my share! But at the same time we'll see where it's going. There are so many positive things.
At your recent annual dinner for CityMeals-on-Wheels celebrating your 20th anniversary as well, you were surrounded by cooks you've worked with and taught. Was education a big part for you from the beginning? Oh yes, of course. I've trained so many. First at Le Cirque when I was there for six years—many successful American chefs today went through the kitchen there. Then also at Daniel, the last 20 years. So over my 30 years here I think I've lived the most exciting time in America when it comes to food.
I've heard from some chefs of your generation that the competitive energy in the kitchens has changed a bit, where there's not so much abuse given to younger cooks as there once was? The problem is only the weaker feel the pressure! It's like when you play football; if you don't catch the football and make some points you're going to feel the pressure! But at the same time, today there is more support than when I was young. For me, to be where I am today, I basically had to do it the hard way, which meant working very, very hard. Those that follow feel the tension of course, but get more support.
Training has expanded, too, with more cooks going beyond France and Europe to learn how to cook, and more international chefs coming here. Do you think that will help us develop our own national identity on a more sophisticated level? I think a lot of things are cementing themselves along the way, and I think it is important step and improvement in reestablishing the standard that we seek. We've seen it a bit in barbecue, and it's good because it's really cementing that there are now better chefs getting into it and doing a better job at it. And now guys like Sean Brock and many other young southern chefs are taking the soul of their cuisine and making it technically superior with the taste and texture and presentation. So that's good to see. For me I just have to stay French!
You might have stayed "French", but you've expanded in many ways within your realm of cuisine. Yes, of course, from Daniel to Patisserie Boulud, it's a whole different range. And yet is Epicerie Boulud a "real" French patisserie? No. It's who I am here, in America. Is Café Boulud a typical French restaurant? I don't think so either. To me, I feel that I really fulfilled my dream of creating restaurants with strong identities that are French but also New York and me—we embrace the talent here, and the product, and the understanding of the clientele.
How do you continue to grow? It's not a race! I don't have to worry about growing. But I had the chance over the years to build gradually and surround myself with a lot of people.
But knowing what you do, how do you continue to grow as a craftsman? I know so little! I'm sorry!
Ha! Some might debate that! It's true—I know so little! Tomorrow I wish I could become a Japanese chef, or a Korean chef or a Mexican chef! But we grow within our team. Cooking is sometimes emotional, sometimes seasonal, sometimes cerebral, and sometimes physical. So we have to live with the team, share that together, and take direction together. And so we keep maintaining our standards—and that's the most important thing in our business. And, now, celebrating 20 years shows a certain consistency. It's important to maintain the highest standard but also to remain creative.
What is the most important contributor to consistency and obtaining those 20 years? Cooking is a very laborious and hard and demanding job. And for a lot of young chefs today I wish for them not to fall into the tumble of media and this and that so that they're never in the kitchen, because then you can't hold your business and you lose it. It's tough. It's a business of people and you have to be with your people. So despite the fact that we have many restaurants, I spend quite a lot of time here at Daniel and at the other restaurants communicating with my chefs and trying to stay close to them.
So you feel like you've been able to remain true to your identity even with so many restaurants? I don't try to follow every trend. I don't try to follow the identities of others. For me, my favorite restaurants in New York are the ones that are the most classic; the ones that "change and that never change." That's what I like. But once in a while we make a change to refresh everyone, to refresh their brain; we don't want to feel too self-satisfied with what we have.
This may be a bit too romantic a question for you, but what are you most proud of the mark you've made, or most thankful for? You've inspired so many chefs... Yes, of course, and what I'm proud of are all the chefs and cooks that have worked for me. To me all the chefs over the 20 years who have continued the dream that I have and the journey we've done together and continue to do together, of course.
New York is very exciting, very competitive, and not for everyone. But at I think it's the most exciting city, and for me to be on the first step of my twenty years, I'm very proud of that, and of the team that has followed me into that. I'm inspired, motivated and driven by new talent, all the time. There's always a good thing about having people around you that make you secure, and people that give you insecurity but more drive. And the customer, that's important—that's the key in our business, to have customers who will support you along the way. You can't expect to keep all your customers, but you keep them and keep renewing them. And that's been fortunate for me.