Daniel Boulud Comes to Dinner

June 2, 2008

Once upon a time, grand French chefs at epic, eponymous establishments—Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy, Georges Blanc—pretty much lived in their restaurants. The four walls, the garden, and the small gift shop were enough to contain their enormous egos and exceptional talents. Their self-esteem and reputations were bound up with ardent customers who travelled to their little places in Paris or Vonnas or Lyons. 

That was before the advent of TV programs featuring eccentric chefs palling around with culinary buddies, or touring exotic spice markets, or eating potentially poisonous lizards in Indonesia. It was before chefs could even imagine having the power and credibility to construct culinary empires that include product lines as mundane as canned soup and frozen pizza (those courtesy of Wolfgang Puck, whose company has annual revenues topping $350 million). It was before chefs like Emeril Lagasse became household names on the Food Network and began demanding enormous fees as guest speakers. Want Bobby Flay at your event? For $50,000, he’ll get back to you.

Fine dining has changed: restaurant business plans are ramped up by investors with very deep pockets; sous-vide cooking (which ensures uniformity of sauces and textures and viscosity and taste) has allowed chefs control in absentia; and couriers can ship ingredients overnight from virtually any corner of the world. Today, the biggest, best chefs—the ones with the grandest visions, the greatest creativity, and the organizational skills of a five-star general about to launch an invasion—are naturally playing a massive, global game. So when Daniel Boulud arrives in Vancouver this summer to take over Lumière and open a db Bistro Moderne next door, “I’m not opening by myself. I have 550 people just in my company in New York City. And 30 are top management who can go all the time to any of my restaurants if need be.”

Boulud comes to town not as a solo toque, in other words, but as the face of his Dinex Group—a vast consulting and holding company made up of hundreds of cooks, managers, sommeliers, operations directors, and chefs. His is a first-rate business informed by a passion for food, an instinct for service, and demonstrated logistical prowess. “It’s naïve to think of a chef standing behind a stove all the time these days,” says the 53-year-old Boulud, who made his North American reputation as executive chef at Le Cirque in New York before opening Restaurant Daniel in 1993. “It’s about being a great chef with a great team. And being well-capitalized.”

The success of his team is evident in well-defined restaurants that consistently receive critical acclaim and deliver a deeply satisfying dining experience. In New York, besides Daniel, there’s Café Boulud, db Bistro Moderne, and Bar Boulud. In Palm Beach, he has Café Boulud. In Las Vegas, in the Wynn complex, there’s Daniel Boulud Brasserie. Soon there will be Maison Boulud in Beijing, which he plans to open in advance of the Olympics. And now, of course, there’s Vancouver.

Dinex’s talent is consistently on the road, tuning in-house management teams at each of its restaurants. A Dinex SWAT team—including Oliver Muller (executive chef, db Bistro Moderne), Jean François Bruel (executive chef, Daniel), Eric Bertoia (corporate pastry chef), Brett Traussi (director of operations, Dinex Group), and Stephane Istel (chef, Feast & Fêtes Catering)—accompanied Boulud to Vancouver in March, when the chef spent a couple of days sampling the fare at Cioppino’s and Tojo’s, and meeting with people from Vij’s and West. He also cooked a spectacular lunch at Lumière for 80 local chefs, media members, and friends of the restaurant.

Another member of Boulud’s entourage will be arriving later. Michael Lawrence, his second operations director. Attempting to explain that title, Lawrence laughs. “I take care of VIP guests, troubleshoot complaints, run training programs. It’s everything and anything from coffee for the front desk to offering my opinion on new aprons for the cooks.” Lawrence was assistant general manager at Daniel when it relocated in 1998, became general manager in 1999, and joined Dinex in 2005. “I’ll be very involved with Vancouver,” he says. “I’ll probably be there consistently from the time we open.”

And if anything goes awry? If the service, ambience, or food is not up to snuff? “We’ll send in the troops from New York. Call in the cavalry. We do that a lot. I just came back from Las Vegas, where I was checking up on new managers. I recently had to send someone to Palm Beach when a sous-chef cut himself. We send in reinforcements all the time.” Boulud himself was shipped about as a young chef and, 30 years later, he makes a habit of sending his top protégés to far-flung postings. His staff do not have geographic limits; they go where they are needed, a multi-national corps that can be positioned and repositioned like culinary militia.

The Boulud empire includes restaurants, private dining rooms, the catering business Feast & Fêtes, five cookbooks, a volume of counsel called Letters to a Young Chef, his private brands of Iranian caviar and smoked salmon, and his own cuvée of Champagne. A noted night owl, he turned his late-night Manhattan peregrinations with other chefs into a TV series called After Hours. What’s remarkable is that, more than other restaurateurs at his exalted level, he’s been able to stay true to his philosophy even while expanding ever outward with commercial efforts and the staking of new claims.

Most chefs find it challenging enough to run a single room. But then, most chefs don’t have Boulud’s ability and creativity, or the sheer restlessness we associate with great artistry.

In the end, of course, it is his cooking that makes it all possible. His food really is an expression of the French countryside’s soul. That’s where he grew up, and it’s what he seeks to remember through his food. In a fundamental way, Boulud’s remembrance of things past is meant as an inspiration to anyone lucky enough to enjoy his food. The troops understand—and know how to implement—his views on gastronomy, dining, and luxury.

Having grown up on a farm in the Rhône-Alpes, near Lyons, Boulud still has a lot of the country boy about him. His grandmother Francine’s cooking was an early inspiration; he was surrounded by the freshest ingredients imaginable, which were cooked with simplicity and according to tradition. That early influence has been pivotal to his career.

Not one for sitting in a classroom, the young Boulud took his first chance to escape. In 1969, at 14, he began work at Nandron, a two-star Michelin restaurant in Lyons. By 1972, he was a finalist for the title “best culinary apprentice in France.” Soon he was being taught by the illustrious likes of Georges Blanc (1973) and Roger Vergé (1974), chefs who coaxed intense flavours directly from the food, without an abundance of cream or butter.

In 1982, having worked in Copenhagen and Washington, D.C., Boulud at last reached New York—where he joined the team that opened the now famous Polo Lounge in the Westbury Hotel. Then he went to La Régence at the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. At Le Cirque—his final posting before becoming independent—he worked as executive chef for Sirio Maccioni until 1998. The wunderkind was now ready to scream at his own staff.

Metropolitan American expansiveness, then, has been wedded to Boulud’s French country childhood. At his restaurants in New York, the food is refined and executed with precision, yet retains a rustic quality. The resulting dishes are unlike what’s being served in comparable rooms. Items like pork belly, calf’s head, and baked potato with white truffles appear on his menus. As the food critic Alan Richman wrote, Boulud serves “French comfort food better than anybody else in America.”

Unifying themes in his cuisine are high-level technique and the use of the finest ingredients, even when they are not rare or associated with luxury. His Crisp Paupiettes of Sea Bass in Barolo Sauce, Marinated Lamb Chops, and Chicken Grand-Mère Francine are all deceptively simple and have in common an emphasis on small bites of intense flavour—almost as if they’re sushi from a French tradition.

That and his overarching, meticulous attention to detail account for his having become one of those few chefs working in New York (along with Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse, Joël Robuchon, Eric Ripert, and Mario Batali) who have transcended the hype and created food specific to their sensibility. You taste Boulud’s food—whether it was cooked by his hand or under his culinary directive—and you know it came from his kitchens.

“We’re not a concept restaurant,” Boulud clarifies. “I’ve never brought ‘my concept’ to a town. I heard that Jean- Georges and Nobu will both be opening in Istanbul, for example. There won’t be a chef—it’s going to be a copy of what they do in New York. I’m not like that. If I could carbon-copy what I do, it would be much easier. But I don’t. I work much harder than that.”

Indeed, his focus is intense. “He pays attention to every detail,” says Andrew Carmellini, who was executive chef at Café Boulud for six years and is now chef-owner at A Voce in Manhattan. “It could be that he wants the EXIT sign six inches above the door frame, rather than 10. It could cost thousands to move it, but he would insist.”

“He’s the most hard-core New York chef I know,” agrees Thomas Haas, the award-winning chocolatier and pâtissier now based in North Vancouver. From 1998 to 2000, Haas was head pastry chef at Daniel, where the two men became close friends. “So many celebrity chefs go after the money and power, but with Daniel it’s all about the work, the commitment, the enthusiasm. And through it all he’s remained simple and approachable.”

Which is not to say he was easy to lure to Vancouver. In the past, Boulud has turned down opportunities to open rooms in both Toronto and Montreal. His decision to enter the Canadian market in this city does more than affirm its stature as a culinary destination; it markedly strengthens the existent scene. Why Vancouver? On the surface, the answer is plain. He’s taking over a room with an international reputation and a Relais & Châteaux designation earned under Rob Feenie (a Boulud acolyte himself, who hung Boulud’s photograph on the wall at Lumière and whose menu paid tribute to a number of Boulud’s recipes). In Lumière’s owners, David and Manjy Sidoo, he has well-heeled local partners whose passion and commitment became clear during their courtship of him. Boulud also has a long connection with Canada—besides Haas, many Canuck cooks have worked in his rooms. At the moment, Toronto’s Patrick Kress and Vancouver’s Roger Ma both cook at Restaurant Daniel.

And the timing could not have been better. As with the opening in Beijing, host of this summer’s Olympics, Boulud is setting up shop in Vancouver at a time when the world’s attention will be increasingly focused on the city. Mere days after the announcement of the partnership, Lumière was fielding calls from groups inquiring about the room’s availability during the 2010 Games.

There are other, less obvious motivations that drew Boulud to Vancouver. The Sidoos made him an attractive offer, encouraging the Dinex team to run the rooms as they see fit. And a quick survey of Boulud’s latest conquests (Palm Beach, Beijing) suggests that he’s happy to be the biggest name in town.

“When I open in Vancouver,” says Boulud, “my restaurant will promote the city. I’m not going to try to reinvent what I do in New York or Palm Beach or Las Vegas. I’m going to adapt. Of course, there will be traces of my cuisine—we’ll try to redo certain favourite dishes. But all of my restaurants are very seasonal and dependent on local ingredients.” In other words, Vancouver diners can expect the famous db burger—an exterior of ground sirloin with a filling of boned short ribs braised in red wine, foie gras, black truffle, and mirepoix of root vegetables—but also dishes that rely on “salmon, seafood, northwestern mushrooms, and all those western farms. We’re going to serve real French food—farm to table.”

A big part of Boulud’s success in New York is attributable to his having adapted to that city. Daniel is not a French restaurant per se, but rather a New York/French restaurant. There’s an informality in the ambience, a sense of humour in the service, and an infusion of Boulud’s Gallic warmth that pairs well with the spontaneity of Manhattan. Boulud, in other words, exemplifies the customer-driven nature of any great restaurateur.

It’s true that he has done very well. He lives with his wife of 22 years, Micky, above Daniel at Park Avenue and 65th, in an apartment equipped with a small kitchen. (He uses the oven to store beer and soda.) He tears around in an Aston Martin DB6 2000, à la James Bond, and regulars at the restaurant include Bill Clinton, Sean Combs, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé. Bill Cosby, who has the run of the place when he visits, once opened the kitchen door in the middle of dinner service and shouted “Immigration!” (The hoax didn’t cause the intended fuss.) But it’s not only celebrities who are given the ooh-la-la treatment. Boulud has a gift for relating genuinely to people of all sorts; he’s steel tempered with true Gallic charm. He’s not happy if you’re not happy.

Contemplating Vancouver, he admits to some nerves. Every restaurant is a high-stakes puzzle, a fresh challenge with its own special demands. “Opening there will be trying to learn all over,” he says. “New customers, new colleagues, new suppliers. Frankly, I’m very intimidated by Vancouver.”

And Vancouver, perhaps with more reason, is intimidated by Boulud. “There are restaurateurs who are crapping their drawers,” says one local food critic. “There’s a lot of competition for the fine-dining dollar here. It’s not like New York, where there are so many people with money that a great restaurant can count on being full every night of the week.”

Others welcome the challenge. “It’s a great compliment,” says John Bishop, a dean of the local industry. Don Letendre, executive chef at Elixir in the Opus Hotel, takes the same view. “We’re not good in Canada at recognizing what we’ve got here. This is great recognition. It was only a matter of time till the big boys arrived. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nobu or Morimoto set up shop.”

“It’s tremendous for our city,” agrees Michel Jacob, whose Le Crocodile, opened in 1980, helped elevate fine dining in Vancouver. “And I don’t think he’ll be the last superstar to come here.”

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.