3/28/2013 11:45:00 AM

Daniel Boulud on Daniel's 20th Anniversary, Fine Dining and More

Photo by Hernan F. Rodriguez
With one of the world’s most successful strings of restaurants, Daniel Boulud always has reason to celebrate. But his biggest excuse to party is happening this spring, when his flagship restaurant, Daniel, turns 20. To mark the anniversary, the chef will host 20 celebrations, starting with an alumni gala on Sunday, April 7, featuring over 20 chefs who worked under his tutelage. It promises to be quite the culinary extravaganza, with the likes of Alex Guarnaschelli, Harold Moore, Dominique Ansel, Riad Nasr, Michael Anthony, Francois Payard, Johnny Iuzzini and Jonathan Benno filling the kitchen while Boulud’s former events manager, Gail Simmons, will serve as auctioneer. Proceeds from the whole bash will benefit Citymeals-on-Wheels.

We caught up with the super chef at his latest opening - Café Boulud Toronto within the brand new Four Seasons Hotel flagship - to chat about the anniversary, his current Toronto projects and a bright future full of new plans.

Zagat: What drew you to Toronto?

DB: I have been coming here for quite a while doing dinners for charities, for almost 10 years in a row. So I always knew Toronto but I never knew I was going to open a restaurant here. Four Seasons approached me when they were building their new headquarters hotel and I thought Café Boulud was a perfect fit here. I have also opened the casual dbar here just below it. I think people don’t realize that there are 7 million people living in Toronto. I think it is the fourth largest city in North America. And there are a lot of local Canadian chefs, but I don’t think the French really had an imprint here, so there was room for me. 

Zagat: I enjoyed the poutine at dbar - spicy and delicious! Do you ever think that the US will ever embrace poutine? 

DB: They certainly have not yet but I am trying. The other day I was at DBGB in New York. While I was working with the guys there and I told them, “I want poutine on the menu! We have to represent the poutine because I have restaurants in Canada and I love poutine.” Poutine is associated as something you eat late-night after a lot of drinking. So DBGB would be the perfect home for it. I think we will be seeing some poutine on the menu at DBGB in New York soon.

Zagat: Do you foresee doing more partnerships with Four Seasons Hotels?

DB: I don’t know yet. It is too early to tell.

Zagat: There is a space available at the Four Seasons in Manhattan, where Robuchon used to be.

DB: I don’t want it. No thank you. [Laughs].

Zagat: There seems to be a new wave of French restaurants opening in New York - Carmellini’s Lafayette is coming; Montmartre has just opened; and of course the CIA has just rolled out The Bocuse restaurant. Do you think the French restaurant is newly ‘hot?’

DB: I think they see the lasting Pastis/Balthazar model and everyone wants to grab a bit of it. For me, I never did a classic French brasserie. I think the Balthazar model is very much what the French newcomers are modeling themselves after. I think it’s a very good model.

Zagat: Ruth Reichl said recently that she thinks high-end fine dining is coming back in full force - that diners are going to essentially demand it because of the higher prices of more casual spots. Do you agree?

DB: I think fine dining never died in New York, London, Paris nor in any of the great cities. But in the sense that everything is a bit more casual - fine dining is not about pomp and circumstance, it’s about the substance of the food and service. 

Zagat: There are rumors that you are plotting a return to Vegas. True?

DB: Yes. I think Vegas has been a consistent market for a casual restaurant like DBGB so we are looking into it. It is not a done deal yet but I think it will work well. I always had a good time and a good sense of people working in Vegas. 

Zagat: You have different models such as Café Boulud, Maison Boulud, db bistro in different cities… but no other Daniel. Will there ever be another Daniel?

DB: No. There will always be one Daniel. There will never be another one. 

Zagat: And Daniel is turning 20. What can we expect from your alumni dinner kickoff celebration? 

DB: Well, some of the alumni - I will be giving them assignments on what they will be doing, and some may be doing their own cooking. We are going to do two lines and during some courses there will be two chefs cooking two different dishes but with the same components or the same central theme. So for the wine it will be compatible but for the dish itself it is different. We’ll see if we serve the ladies one and the gentlemen another or if it will be randomly next to each other. There will be over 20 chefs in that kitchen! 

Zagat: Is it hard to organize so many cooks? 

DB: It’s going to be too much but it’s going to be fun, and the thing is I’m going to put them all to work because usually the chefs just stand there and watch and say, “OK send that course out!” But this time I am going to put them on the line, they are going to work hard and they are going to clean up at the end as the punishment! [Laughs]. For me the best reward of the night is the amount of money we are going to be able to raise for Citymeals-on-Wheels because we do it every year for the anniversary of Daniel. This year I hope we can raise $750,000 or more. 

Zagat: If you didn’t end up following the path of becoming a chef, where would you be right now?

DB: I think I would be in my hometown near Lyon. Maybe I would have been a farm boy. My parents wanted me to take over the farm we had and I wasn’t very keen on that. I was not seeing myself staying there and I was very lucky to start in a good restaurant in Lyon. At the time there wasn’t so much communication about restaurants. If you had money you knew them but the first restaurant I ever went to was the one I went to work for. Today parents take their kids out, many times to the best tables. I learned to appreciate the difference between where I came from and what I was trying to learn and do. 

Zagat: A lot of your peers, such as David Bouley and Thomas Keller, have gotten into farming. Do you have any desire to go back to your roots in that way?

DB: Yes, I am talking a lot about it, I have to find the right model for it, and I have to find the right people to do it with. If it comes together I am very eager to do it. I have a friend who is on the property of 3000 acres in the north Catskills. I told Thomas [Keller], why don’t we take the farm together? And he is very excited about the idea. We could raise animals—lamb, beef, calf, chicken, guinea hen, but what I would really like is to raise rabbit. Rabbit is one of the most sustainable meats. They eat grass and clover, they reproduce very fast and in great quantity. What’s dramatic is when the farmers work hard but don’t really have ends meet because he is always reinvesting in his equipment and it is not easy to make money on a farm. 

Zagat: But it’s not easy to make money in the restaurant business either, and that has never stopped you before.

DB: That is true. I now have 20 years as a restaurant owner to say that. 


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