Chefs Daniel Boulud and Jim Burke on Remaking the French Classics
"Often the best spontaneous ideas happen when we were cooking together, not trying to draw out a big plan."
Chefs rarely throw out the word "perfect" when it comes to making food. But in New York, where some restaurants take longer to open than they do to close, longevity is a pretty good sign of success, and enough sighs of contentment from regulars can make a practically "perfect" dish a menu fixture. So how do you re-energize a beloved menu and top your own classics?
Last week Daniel Boulud's DB Bistro Moderne returned with a redesigned interior, revamped menu and new executive chef, Jim Burke, who has been lauded for his refined Italian cuisine abroad and in his hometown of Philadelphia. He relocated to New York for the chance to work with Boulud, and together they've updated the classic bistro dishes and come up with a new section of the menu focused solely on seasonal ingredients. Don't worry, the DB Burger isn't going anywhere and hasn't been tampered with. But they broke down their process for us a bit, and shared why Chef Boulud will fight so hard for beets and kale.
What was the impetus for giving DB Bistro the facelift? Daniel Boulud: If I were in France I would have waited twenty years, but in New York ten years is a good time to refresh your restaurant a little bit. Here it's about saying "thank you" for the last ten years and looking forward to the next twenty!
What path did you set up to go on with the new menu, and a new chef with a more prominent background in Italian cuisine? DB: I've always said from the beginning that DB is a both a Paris and New York bistro, so the path was to continue to make it a relevant French bistro. We call it Bistro Moderne because we play with classics along with those that are more seasonal or contemporary. I have always had an array of chefs in my kitchen and I don't want narrow minded chefs—that's why I'm in New York, actually, otherwise I'd stay in France! Jim has the same passion for French cuisine as he does for Italian, and the touch we want.
Jim Burke: I think one of the things that interested chef from the start is that I would bring a different perspective. And from my end it's an amazing opportunity to learn the French classics from someone like Chef Boulud—a one in a million chance. It's inspiring, and made me a better cook already.
DB: But what is French cuisine today? And what is American cuisine? I think what's happening in America is based in French and Italian cuisine—it's market-driven, it has seasonality, it highlights ingredients, and the techniques evolved. A lot of chefs here go to France and Italy to inspire themselves. So it's fun to be French in New York as well, and that's what we do together.
When revamping your menu—which was already steeped in the classic bistro cuisine—how do you go about remaking your own classics? DB: It's all an interpretation—we can do twenty interpretations of a classic and call them the same!
JB: The classics, especially those that are close to chef's heart, were very exciting for me to work on. Like the pot au feu; it's usually a massive meal for an entire family where you're served the broth as a first course and then the meat and vegetables as the main course. It's very rich and nourishing, and we refined it and lightened it and turned it into a brothy soup that has all the original flavors but is presented in a way that's surprising for someone familiar with pot a feu. It eats really well, and you could have it as a first course and then have a pasta and full main as well.
DB: There's also the risotto with pollen and shrimp that Jim wanted to do. It has a sort of bisque reduction, like a shrimp jus, on the bottom that the risotto goes over, flavored with fennel and fennel pollen and then a carpaccio of shrimp on top, and the belly cooks with the heat of the risotto. To me it's simple—there's not too many fireworks—but it's delicious.
What about the new market menu? A quick glance reveals ingredients there on thousands of other menus in New York. How do you elevate ingredients that have become "trendy"? DB: Do we have to ban beets because too many people use them? Do we have to ban kale?! I go to a restaurant and always want a beet salad, so I stand behind the beet!
Ha, of course, yes! There are only so many seasonal vegetables in the northeast. But, for example then, what's your DB spin on the beet salad? JB: It's funny to consider that a trend because that's the way Chef Boulud has always cooked, and that's a way of life in Europe —it's just natural, because it makes no sense to cook or eat any other way. We do the beets cooked and raw, and serve them over a lettuce coulis, so we're sort of inverting the salad aspect and the lettuce becomes the dressing for the beets. We get a nice variety in and take advantage of the ingredients so that having them both raw and cooked brings out every texture of the beet. The ricotta salata gives a little saltiness, and a little light dressing with some vinegar keeps it simple but refines the technique and the plating so that people see the work that goes into it. That's important to us.
DB: For me, it's about cooking at the end of the day. Like you say, it's always fun to look at what twenty restaurants are doing, but I don't go out enough. I think sometimes I should go out more to understand the trends, but I've been around long enough to see trendy chefs come and go. With French cooking we have a guideline, and starting with that guideline we can play, but we have a core that we believe in and want to follow. The problem with eclectic, new, hip cuisines is, "What is it going to be left from that and what is the core?" Does anyone understand it? When I eat burnt eggplant I'm like, ok, it's good, it's fine. But are we going to want to keep that as the historical technique? We are accumulating a lot right now, but is it stacking itself up properly? I think that's important, to stack up across periods. I'm often inspired by French cuisine, so it starts with the classics and then there are some that are spontaneous things because of the market aspect.
Where does that spontaneous aspect show up on the menu? DB: For me spontaneity is important, and I'm driven by it, but you don't do it in the middle of service. I'm walking into the kitchen and I have this beautiful piece of fish. I'm seeing a couple of ingredients that will go well together. I'm playing with it. That's spontaneous. After that you have to build consistency, because it's not going to be Jim that's going to make the 25 dishes on the menu, it's going to be 10 cooks, so you have to train them and make them comfortable with what we do. But spontaneity we do more between chefs. Often the best spontaneous ideas happen when we were cooking together, not trying to draw out a big plan.
JB: I think the celery root is a perfect example of the collaboration. At one of the first meetings chef mentioned that he was interested in doing some vegetable in a different way, kind of treating them in a protein like a steak, like cooking them whole or presenting them in a different way. I started thinking about what would be available in the season and celery root came to mind—we cook it in a salt crust, whole, and then trim it into wedges and then we pan roast it as you would a steak. I tasted him on an initial dish, and he had some great insight as to what would make it better and we arrived at a conclusion with it. It was his comment that started for me, and then his years of experience enable him to pick out what might seem like a very small thing—the fat that you choose to cooking something on or a particular herb or how you cut the herb for a particular fish. There are a million details that going into making a dish.