David Bouley
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David Bouley

Bryan Miller / December 2010

Food Arts presents the December 2010 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to David Bouley, who for more than 30 years has been a leading American force in the evolution of modern French cuisine and whose cerebral product-driven philosophy has inspired generations of up-and-coming chefs.

It's been said that if ingenuity were currency, Bouley would be the Federal Reserve. Aside from infusing world flavors into French and American cooking, he has experimented with, in his TriBeCa domain in downtown Manahattan, Austrian-Hungarian (at Danube, now closed), its French-Italian successor called Secession (now closed), Bouley Bakery (ditto), and an eclectic cafe called Bouley Upstairs (afraid so). But what appears to be a crowded gastronomic graveyard is anything but. Few of the recently embalmed were in serious decline; indeed, many were quite vigorous. The reason is simple: Bouley likes change.

For all of his cross-cultural inventiveness over the years--today, mostly from Japan--Bouley, 57, continues to define his cooking as "fundamentally French." And he maintains that, while new projects are in the works, he's refocusing attention on the mother ship, Bouley, where he tries to be in the kitchen every evening. The sumptuous and pastoral institution opened in 1987 on tiny Duane Park, eventually earning four stars from the New York Times.

Born to a French family in the university town of Storrs, Connecticut, Bouley was a foodie before he carried a book bag. His grandmother, who spoke little English, raised several hundred chickens as well as rabbits and goats (she made her own goat cheese). His first real cooking job was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, working with Michel Richard, whom he followed to Los Angeles for a new project. His first of many professional mentors was Roger Vergé of the celebrated Provençal restaurant Moulin de Mougins. After stints with Gaston Lenôtre, Paul Bocuse, Joël Robuchon, and Frédy Girardet, he returned home and found work at a number of top Manhattan kitchens, including the then-four-star Vienna 79 and Le Cirque.

In a move that would characterize much of his career, Bouley climbed out on a limb in 1985 by teaming up with restaurant impresario Drew Nieporent to open an ambitious French restaurant called Montrachet, in what was then the remote neighborhood of TriBeCa. Two years later he launched a solo career that has been characterized by brashness, brilliance, and bewildering unpredictability. It often appears as if his intellect is 10 paces ahead of his inventions. Among his current projects are an enormous test kitchen where chefs from around the world can share their skills, a cooking school in the same space, a Japanese restaurant, and a catering operation. At least that's the plan for today. Stay tuned.