Zagat: Many now-famous chefs have worked up the ranks of your kitchen. Does anyone specific stand out as someone that you recognized as a future success right away?
Daniel Boulud: Daniel will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2013, and it's now just one of my 14 kitchens, so the number of talented Chefs I've had with me over the years is phenomenal. Some stand outs who come to mind are ...Andrew Carmellini, Laurent Cantineau, Francois Payard, Adam Perry, Philippe Bertineau, David Meyers, Zak Pellaccio, Riad Nasr, Lee Hanson, Michael Anthony, Alex Stratta, Alexandra Guarnaschelli, Dave Chang, Dominique Ansel, Johnny Iuzzini, Tony Liu, Hooni Kim.
Z: What makes a young cook stand out in your eyes?
DB: Focus, discipline, drive, energy. organization and creativity.
Z: French cuisine and its sauces are the building blocks for haute cuisine and the major components of a culinary school education. Do you think that this is the right foundation for a future chef or can other cuisines function as a jumping off point?
DB: Techniques serves as a foundation. For basic cooking skills, that foundation is still French. Mastering the skills and techniques that are the underpinning of French cuisine gives young cooks firm legs to stand on. From there they can apply their own creativity and explore other cuisines.
Z: Is it important for an up-and-comer to be well rounded or better for them to excel at one aspect of the kitchen?
DB: I am a big believer in focus. Our profession is challenging, so you have to choose a direction that really inspires you if you're going to stay in the game. One great example is Adam Perry Lang. He worked with me for years at Daniel, but then went to pursue his passion for BBQ. And he's the one of the best there is at it. He applies the same dedication and standards to his barbeque as he did when he excelled as a cook at Daniel.
Z: What’s one piece of advice for a cook hoping to be the next Daniel Boulud?
DB: Read Letters to a Young Chef…and question your motivation. Why do you want to be a chef? If fame and fortune are primary goals, being a restaurant chef may not be for you. If you constantly strive for excellence, have the discipline to stay motivated, truly love your work and derive pleasure from providing pleasure… you may be on the right track.
Z: Did you have a mentor?
DB: Several. Picking good ones is something I feel is important to your career path. My first boss was Gerard Nandron, owner of a restaurant in Lyon. I went there as a kitchen apprentice at age 14. He was demanding but kind and treated his staff like family. I learned from him how a great restaurant can become the center of a city’s social political and cultural life. From Restaurant Nandron, I created my own sort of “tour de France”, and series of mentors, thanks to chefs Georges Blanc, Michel Guérard and Roger Vergé. Blanc clearly attended to absolutely every aspect of his business, never missing a detail. Michel Guérard was a creative genius in his approach to cooking, and Vergé was the ultimate generous host.
Z: What is the hardest part of moving up the ranks of a French kitchen?
DB: Maintaining consistency.
Z: What do you look for in a chef who applies to one of your restaurants?
DB: A very strong recommendation from his previous chef. Even if I don't know his former employer, we will speak the same language. If the cook showed consistent discipline and dedication in his/her last job, they will again. I also want to hear what their motivation is. Why do they want to work for me? How can they be an asset?
Z: A recent trend has some back of house staff serving their food to the customer. What are your thoughts on this?
DB: Partly open kitchens at DBGB Kitchen and Bar and Boulud Sud and the charcuterie bar At Bar are as as close as I’ve come to bringing our chefs and guests together. Chefs serving guests directly is just not in my restaurant DNA, and I don’t see it becoming a lasting trend. I believe service is as much of an art as cooking and should be treated as a profession in its own right.