My Five Favorite Meals: Chef Daniel Boulud
The acclaimed chef and restaurateur, shares with us the meals that have mattered the most to him.
Daniel Boulud is one of the best chefs in the world.
This is a fact, not hyperbole, which is far too common in a food culture that now groups together anyone who has made a soufflé on TV and the real inspired geniuses of the kitchen.
Boulud arrived in New York from his native France in 1982, and a little over a decade later changed the restaurant landscape profoundly and forever when he opened his simply named, transcendentally good and exciting restaurant, Daniel. The food wasn’t just great, it was revelatory. Daniel was all that was the best and none of what was the worst about fine French dining. The menu was innovative and the chef was seamlessly accommodating of local ingredients. It set a very high benchmark for all the top American restaurants that followed.
Nearly three decades later, Boulud has five restaurants in Manhattan, plus several more across the country and in Canada, England and Singapore. He has numerous Michelin stars and has been awarded a slew of culinary awards. Yet, he still has a creator’s twinkle in his eye, a feat that is perhaps his most impressive accomplishment of all.
One Vanderbilt, which faces the city’s majestic Grand Central, is his next project and is scheduled to open at the end of the year. “This is really something quite different from what we have in New York. First, it’s in this iconic building, heart of midtown, really creating a space where architecture and nature live well together,” he told me. “The food will have a strong focus on seafood from New England, but also on vegetables, with a few compositions of meat—but mostly vegetarian and seafood, which is really my diet!” And he was sure to tell me that the restaurant will be in line with his overall cooking philosophy: “We always try to keep complexity and simplicity at the same time.”
So what are his five favorite meals of all time? This is what he told me.
I’m from Lyon and my family, of course, cooks a lot. When Anthony Bourdain was doing the show on Lyon he insisted we have dinner in my home. I told my parents, could you do dishes we used to have when we were children? Of course, we had what we call the cheese pumpkin. We turn it upside down and my mother fills it with layers of cheese, like comté, from the Jura region, and layers of onion, mushroom, of croutons of sourdough, creme fraiche, and seasonings, including nutmeg. We finish it with a cheese crust and it bakes in the oven for a couple of hours. After that we had pig trotters and calf udders.
After the harvest of the wine, my father goes and gets some grapes and makes a grappa from it, and we use that to make sausage and different pork dishes. We cook it in the must of the wine, the grappa and red wine, so it has that very funky flavor. That was a lifetime meal of everything I grew up eating.
Another favorite meal was at Alain Ducasse, but before anyone knew Alain Ducasse! He was a 24-year-old chef at La Terrasse in the Hotel Juana in Antibes. This was his first job as a [head] chef. It was just before I came to America, and I went to see Alain, who I knew, and he made the most amazing meal at the time. From all the seafood dishes he made, including rouget, to an amazing lamb dish where there were different parts of the lamb prepared differently, and then he finished with ice cream—every ice cream was just freshly churned. The meal was simplicity and yet everything was high precision and certainly high commitment.
Then he became Alain Ducasse! And then he left that hotel and he had an accident and almost died. He was the only survivor in a plane crash. He was in a coma for a couple of months and took a year-and-a-half to recover. When he came back, he decided to take over the restaurant in the Hôtel de Paris in Monte-Carlo and made the most iconic three-star restaurant in France, Alain Ducasse in Monaco. This was when Alain was quite young.
Another favorite meal was with Paul Bocuse in Lyon in early 2000. With Paul, when I went to Lyon, it was always a great celebration. Every year my team from America went to Lyon for the Bocuse d’Or, because every year 24 culinary teams come there and compete against each other. We have won the gold and we have won the silver. One of the early years we went there, we had the most amazing meal with Bocuse, choosing the classic Lyonnaise dishes, such as the quenelle, the poularde in a pig bladder, the famous V.G.E. soup, created in honor of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the Loup de Mer, with the puff pastry and truffles inside, and the red mullet with the potato scales, with the Choron, a sauce of Béarnaise with tomato. He finished with an amazing cheese tray and pastries. There were two full carts of pastry to choose from. To me, it was really a feast.
He wanted to impress the Americans! Paul Bocuse passed away after we won the gold, but he was very proud that we won it.
The next one is with a group of friends from New York—one of them had a private jet. We were 12 people flying to Barcelona for a dinner at El Bulli. Ferran Adrià would basically never take a big party like that but he did it for us. We must have had some 20-odd courses and we spent, of course, many hours at the table, and had the most amazing wine with it, all vintages of mostly French and Spanish wines. This meal was certainly a highlight. Afterward, El Bulli closed and Ferran retired, so it was kind of bittersweet to know that we could not recreate that one again.
The fifth is a tie between two very creative chefs who gave me the most surprising and most creative and unique experiences. In Chicago, the chef Grant Achatz at Alinea. The other one was at SingleThread in Sonoma Valley, where the chef is Kyle Connaughton. These two restaurants are unconventional. For me, these are the most creative chefs in America.
SingleThread feels like you are in a real ryokan, those little inns in Japan. The food is very creative, and connected with nature, and feels very logical and classic. It is delicate and tasty. It has Japanese influence but it’s American Japanese. The first course was where they have this mini-garden with this mini-bonsai, with all the moss and the vines and the trees and the bark, and you have to find the food inside, like he’s hiding it in nature. It was so delicate and refined. A stone can look like a stone, but then actually is something to eat.
At Alinea for most of the meal what was amazing was that we didn’t need silverware. Because everything you can grab with your mouth, with your finger or you can hold it in your hand. Every bite is a powerful message in a way. There you also get like 21 courses, so every little bite has so much complexity, yet it looks very simple—but it’s not simple. There’s a little bit of magic, and I think the provocation is in the fact they don’t take themselves seriously and yet they are very serious, and very good at what they do. They had a floating balloon, sort of a gelatin that is flavored. They blow it up with helium and put a string on it, and so this balloon comes to you and you just have to put it to your mouth, and you get the helium and eat the balloon at the same time!
There are many hysterical moments with Alinea. The most amazing thing was the dessert, where it was basically a live art piece made in front of you directly on your tablecloth. It was made with 20 different elements, from the sauce to the crumble to the sculpture in chocolate, with the liquid nitrogen coming in, smoking and chilling and breaking down the parts. And they smashed things on the table—it’s the most crazy thing. You eat right off the table. Grant is like a mad Jackson Pollock! Alinea is the hardest table to book in America.
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.