Food Arts presents the December 1998 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Daniel Boulud, whose unerring mastery of the bourgeois, classical, and modern haute elements of French cuisine has reinvigorated Americans' centuries-long infatuation with the Gallic kitchen.
Perhaps better than any other, Boulud can lift the common to the sublime, or, conversely, transform the ethereal into the accessible. Since arriving in the United States 15 years ago, Boulud's unfussy, concentrated style—demanding in execution, commanding in taste—has served as a paradigm for other chefs.
"Daniels' flavors come from deep roots and techniques that are centuries old," lauds Ariane Daugin, co-owner of the Newark, New Jersey—based foie gras/game purveyor D'Artagnan. "His food possesses a focus and a concern for the product; if he's going to cook lamb, he'll ask himself, 'How can I make this lamb be the best that it can be?"
Armed with this culinary ethos, Boulud bolted to acclaim and fame in the late 1980s as executive chef at Le Cirque (now Le Cirque 2000) in New York City, where his liberated range of dishes—the pot-au-feu commoner and the truffled noble cohabited the same menu—had the see-and-be-seen set lunging for their forks and knives. What the elite eats makes noise—especially when Sirio Maccioni is fronting the oohs and aahs for his chef—and Boulud had the name of Le Cirque on the tongue of anyone interested in great food.
"Sirio took a big change with a young chef like me," recalls Boulud, who was 31 when Maccioni plucked him from Le Régence in the Plaza-Athenée Hotel (NYC). "Sirio understood the potential of his restaurant—everything from the simple and rustic to bistro to four-star. WE were very playful with Sirio's idea, and there was tremendous energy and drive in the kitchen."
By spring 1992, after 11 years in the United States, Boulud was caught between a longing to return to his native Lyons to open a restaurant and striking out on his own in New York City. "I didn't come here as a mature chef," says Boulud, whose first American stop was as private chef to the ambassador of the European Commission in Washington, D.C. "But I grew to be a chef in America. I was already waist deep here; I had started a cookbook, Cooking with Daniel Boulud (Random House, NY, 1993) and had had a newsletter (Easy Cooking with Great Chefs). I had created a name for myself, and to drop it all to move back was too much of a risk.
Instead, in 1993, his Lyonnais restaurant became New York City's Restaurant Daniel. And just like that, a restaurant that was supposed to be "something more provincial" became something reverential. Restaurant Daniel dripped accolades. "I wasn't trying to create one of the great restaurants in the city," Boulud says sheepishly. "There was ambition, but no pretension." What happened? "We just kept cooking and cooking and cooking—until last summer."
That's when he closed the doors, rearranged the furniture and reopened the space as Café Boulud, a homage to the village gathering place his great-grandparents started on his family's farm in Saint-Pierre de Chandieu. A new Daniel, unabashedly luxe—"the fulfillment of a dream"—will debut next month where Le Cirque once stood. As partner with his one-time pastry chef, François Payard, in Payard Pâtisserie & Bistro (NYC), and as co-owner of Feast & Fêtes, his domain's catering division, Boulud governs a thriving colony of French cuisine.
An affable family man with great reason to smile so easily, Boulud casts himself as "a humble cook who loves what he does and loves to give pleasure to people and wants to make my friends happy. All the creativity and energy I have goes to them. I don't know what I'd be doing if I weren't doing that." "And," Boulud adds, "I try very hard to be myself, to know where I come from and why I'm doing what I'm doing."