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09.22.09

The Frenchman Who Rules New York

With a new downtown restaurant and an insane two-year food competition coming up, Daniel Boulud is at the top of his game—which puts him heads above everyone else.

Daniel Boulud is intensely polite. He apologized profusely for keeping me waiting two minutes for our interview. But because he is French and seems pretty formal, I restrained myself from outbursts like, "Oh, yeah, during those two minutes I was going to make a demi-glace."

So, the Cliffs Notes on Daniel: He made his name at Le Cirque in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, where he won the James Beard for Best Chef of New York City, then opened Daniel, which was rated one of the Top 10 Restaurants in the World by the International Herald Tribune and received an ultra-rare four-star rating from The New York Times. Now he has 10 restaurants, and countless glowing reviews to go with them. Jacques Chirac made Boulud a Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur in March 2006.

“I think about what I’ve built, and I think if I hadn’t done all of this in New York, what else would I have built?”

We met in the skybox of Daniel, a wonderful little space hovering above the busy kitchen at his namesake restaurant. Lyon-born Daniel is like the food ambassador of France, who has come to roost in the middle of New York City. He is very warm, and highly generous. I was torn between wanting him to spill some gory details of his life, some shocking bomb, and hoping that he was going to be as poised and elegant as he is reputed to be. It was the latter.

He spoke to The Daily Beast about his new restaurant in downtown Manhattan, the upcoming “Olympics of Food,” and why, despite his love for New York, he dreams of Brazil.

DBGB looks like nothing else you've done. What was the thinking?

Someone said to me that going there is like entering the brain of a chef, which I liked. We had no storage, so we decided to put everything out; we wanted to keep the spirit of the Bowery, of the kitchen-supply stores in the area. I wanted to put a bunch of pots around, but didn't feel like hunting for them at flea markets, so we asked friends to send us a pot. Paul Bocuse was the first to respond, and also included a photo of himself wishing us luck. Then Rick Bayless said, “I'm going to send you pots,” and it went on from there.

Were you nervous about opening a restaurant so much more downtown and homey than your others?

Not nervous about the food, but I was a little nervous about feeling out the neighborhood. I really didn't want to do anything trendy, and I didn't want to do another Balthazaar or Double Crown. I wanted it to feel crafty, unpretentious, like we really cared about all the little elements. I will say that it's the cheapest restaurant I've ever built! And also, the sausage and the beer are very important.

Tell us about the Bocuse d'Or (the cooking competition known as the Olympics of Food) coming up.   The Head Committee is made up of you, Thomas Keller, and Jerome Bocuse (contest founder and chef Paul Bocuse's son). Basically, every two years you set about training America's great white-jacketed hope to compete against 23 other countries in Lyons. The next one starts in January 2010. What does this entail?

Applications are coming in through November, and then this coming January we have The Bocuse d'Or USA semifinal and final competition. A winner is picked from a competition of 16 chefs and their assistants, who have 5 1/2 hours to prepare their platters. We don't know what the proteins are yet, but in the final Bocuse d'Or in Lyons they will be using dorade, the fish, and lamb, so we'll pick something close to that. Last year, some of the judges were Jean-Georges, Daniel Humm, Andre Soltner and Alain Sailac, Traci des Jardins...

The winner will then have a year to train. It's like being a gladiator; the whole thing takes two years to prepare. The candidate tells us what he likes to do, for his dish. We consider the dish against a lot of history—what were the top five dishes in every previous competition?—we evaluate them, study the DNA of what has been done: the complexity, the simplicity, the balance. We work on the candidate’s dish and create an intense training schedule for him, and then he'll probably travel all around the country preparing it for the advisory chefs, who will give their input.

The replica kitchen (exactly the same kitchen used in Lyons) will be moved to where the candidate is. It's very important—the candidate must learn to be very efficient, to robotize his production to the point that he could do it in his sleep. He has to be completely confident in himself—this is key. It's very intense; you never know how good your competition is, the training is private.

Some amazing chefs have come out of your kitchens. Who are you very impressed by?

Harold Moore at Commerce, a great young chef. Andrew Carmellini at Locanda Verde, of course, though he was pretty much trained before he came to me. Adam Perry Lang is also great. Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson at Balthazaar and Minetta Tavern, David Chang of Momofuku cooked at Cafe Boulud and is amazing. There are a lot! I've been cooking for 40 years this year.

Who inspires you? Who do you learn from?

My chefs. Jean François Bruel, executive chef at Daniel, and Eddy Leroux, chef de cuisine, in particular. I want my chefs to show me their talent, to collaborate, as long as it fits within the model.

What do you wish people would order that they just don't?

Oyster soup. Grouse. Some people do order that, call ahead to make sure I'll have it, but it's just a few people, but they really love it, so that's important. Also canard a la press is kind of an insider dish. Calf’s liver is a surprising success. A lot of these things are cravings, having to do with memories of food and cravings, which is a beautiful thing in life.

You have a night off and you are going to grab a bite with friends. Where?

Sushi at Sushi Seki on First Avenue, or some prosciutto at Cesare Casella’s Salumeria Rossi. I like the salumi, and I like Cesare—he's crazy.

What does no one ask you about that I should ask you about?

Personal or professional?

Either. Both.

Well, I think about what I've built, and I think if I hadn't done all of this in New York, what else would I have built? It probably would have been in France, probably Lyons, but it wouldn't have materialized to what it is. My life is in New York. I have enough debt here, but I find myself dreaming of Brazil all the time. It's a relaxed life over there, less pressure. We'll see.

Click here for Daniel Boulud’s recipes from Cookstr.

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Katie Workman is the Editor-in-Chief and Chief Marketing Officer of Cookstr.com, a Web site devoted to great, tested recipes from chefs and cookbook authors. She writes about food for various blogs and websites. Katie is on the board of City Harvest, and actively involved in Share Our Strength. She lives in New York City with her husband her two boys, ages 6 and 9.