With 13 restaurants/bars and three Épicerie Boulud locations, 10 books, several James Beard awards, multiple Michelin stars, a variety of World’s 50 Best distinctions and more, Daniel Boulud’s accolades seem to know no bounds. And it’s clear that he has earned every ounce of his massive success. Raised on a farm in Saint-Pierre-de-Chandieu, outside of Lyon, France, Boulud is somewhat unique in today’s world of celeb chefs in his resourcefulness—he grew up hunting and raising livestock; he can make his own wine and cheese; and he’s constantly investing in ways to be more efficient. In the world of fancy fine dining, at his core Boulud is sophisticated without pretense, with a warmth and charisma that make you eager to be a guest at his table. Now, after 25 years at the helm of his flagship restaurant Daniel in New York City, Boulud has a new restaurant on the horizon and continues to innovate while remaining rooted in tradition.
You grew up a country boy. How did your upbringing influence you?
We had big gardens, lot of livestock, we were making cheese, we were making our own ham and charcuterie and sausage, and we were making our own wine. It was just like a microworld of food and wine. I started helping from the age of 4, basically when I was useful to shell peas. On a farm, everybody is busy. Kids like me can’t stand five minutes without an activity. So shelling peas, breaking walnuts to make oil in the fall….there were always tasks to do with the harvest.
Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?
Once I went to a vacation with my parents in Brittany—maybe the revelation started there. We went to this restaurant on the beach in Saint-Malo and had a huge plate of fruits de mer and it struck me as maybe my greatest meal on earth. I was 10 years old. At 14, I told my parents that I didn’t want to go to school anymore and they didn’t know what to do with me, so they put me in a cooking school near Lyon because I wanted to cook. A month later, I told them I didn’t want to go to that school because the food was worse than at home and nobody was going to teach me anything good. Our [farm’s] best customer in the village found me a job at a restaurant called Nandron. I started in July/August. By September the hunting season started, and I basically spent September through November in the basement plucking birds.
How often do you go back to France?
I’m going back in July for two weeks at my home with my parents. Twenty five years ago I transformed the [family] farm into what I call a Club Med. I built a huge pool and poolhouse with a wood brick oven, wood barbecue and table where we can seat 30 people, tennis courts, pétanque fields. It’s always hard to leave.
What are you most proud of?
Having been able to open a business in New York, having been able to sustain 25 years with Daniel and make a name for myself in America and around the world as a chef, but also the impact of mentorship throughout all those years is the most rewarding. Of course the clientele’s loyalty is also something we take a lot of pride in. We earn the attention of people, but we have to keep the attention of people. Another [thing I’m proud of] was to have my portrait in marble in the [2nd Avenue 72nd Street] Subway. I’m basically going to be there for 100 years [laughs].
What was your reaction to seeing that for the first time?
I couldn’t believe it was life-sized and so prominent! I know the artist who did it and one day he just called me and said, “By the way, I need to take a picture of you, I’ll tell you later what I’m going to do.” I had no idea.
What do you love most about New York?
I love that it’s a relentless city that keeps giving to you and challenging you and rewarding you. While I’ve lived in America longer than in France, I’m still very French. It doesn’t matter where you come from and who you are, and what your religion or nationality, you feel comfortable in New York.
You’ve said that you still a have a lot you want to prove in the world of cooking. What do you mean by that?
At Daniel 25 years ago, I wanted to do it all. I wanted to do everything from very soulful bistro dishes to very refined gastronomic dishes. Then, little by little, I have been opening different businesses, I’ve been able to shed a little bit of things I was maybe doing for the passion of cooking, but maybe not for the right reasons for the restaurant. Today, it’s more about staying focused with restaurant Daniel and continuing to grow our reputation and excellence and training. I have a new restaurant coming up that is going to be very different from what I’ve done. It’s going to be in the fine dining realm but in a more up-to-date sort of style and composition around the food and ingredients. It will be called One Vanderbilt for right now, next to grand Central. It will be super fun. March 2021 is the projected opening. We’ll offer both a casual grab-and-go café with our fourth location of Épicerie Boulud as well as a new fine dining restaurant on the second floor overlooking 42nd with great ambition of cuisine and service. It’s too early to tell about the new concept, but it will be part of our family of fine dining along with Restaurant Daniel, Café Boulud and Boulud Sud.
Because you weren’t busy enough already…
You only live once, what can I say. [laughs]
What culinary trends are you loving right now? Are there any that you feel are overrated or overdone?
How hospitality and technology are converging. I’m working with four MIT graduates who recently opened Spyce in Boston, [MA,] a fast-casual dining destination centered around an innovative robotic kitchen. When one of the founders first reached out with a video link, I was intrigued. I had never heard of a robotic kitchen before, let alone seen one. I went to Boston and was impressed by the technology and the possibility to offer people affordable, fresh and delicious meals in an efficient way. I was convinced that the robotic kitchen could provide the chef and cooks preparing the warm and tasty bowls with a new kind of precision and support. I was motivated to invest and excited to get involved with the young and talented Spyce co-founders. I also introduced them to Sam Benson for [the role of] executive chef, who previously worked for me at Café Boulud in New York but also had experience working in a fast-casual test kitchen. Together, we look for interesting and diverse flavor combinations using nutritious, simple and appropriately-sourced ingredients to ensure that each bowl is prepared with care by our team for guests to walk away from Spyce happy and satisfied.
What drives you crazy in the kitchen?
When the gas is turned on for no reason, when the water runs for no reason, when the lights are on for no reason, etc. Basically, when we are wasting energy.
Do your kids like your cooking?
My [eldest] daughter hates mushrooms because we live above the restaurant, and we were eating the food we make at Daniel very often [when she was younger], and there was always a lot of mushrooms in the fall and spring. Now I have a four-year-old, but he eats everything. The other day he was eating clams! I have an 11-month-old daughter who seems to be eating everything too.
What do you do in your downtime?
Well, I had a period of time where I had a little bit of time to myself, but now I have young children again. I try to have downtime with them, if we can call it that. Reading, watching movies, trying to play golf. I hope to play more tennis because I have a tennis court in the country. Now that my son is going to be 5/6 years old I hope to do more activities together. I’ll be in charge of the sports department. I’ll take him to soccer!
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?
I think it changes every day. I’m now wishing for more time for myself. I’d love to do something artistic, at least to have a studio where I can just be with myself and paint or sculpt or build. So I hope, in the country, we’re going to do an artist studio there.
You’ve been involved with CityMeals on Wheels for a long time. Why is it so important to you?
There’s a large aging population in New York and they are not well enough to cook for themselves or go shopping or don’t always have the resources financially. We have been doing a gala at Daniel for the past 20 years and we’ve raised about $13 million so far. They serve 18,000 meals a day; that’s 2.1 million meals a year. It’s more than a meal—it’s a hand to support.
What words do you live by?
Excellence shall prevail!