Chef Daniel Boulud was born in France and raised on his family’s farm near Lyon. After being nominated as a candidate for best cooking apprentice in France, he went on to train under some of the country’s most renowned chefs. In 1981, he made his way to the United States, where he worked as a private chef for an ambassador of the European Commission, then as Executive Chef in New York at Le Régence at the Hotel Plaza Athenée and Le Cirque.
1n 1993, Chef Boulud opened his own restaurant, DANIEL, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which has been awarded four stars by the New York Times, received Gourmet Magazine‘s coveted “Top Table” award, and was rated one of the ten best in the world by The International Herald Tribune. At his restaurants, he has hosted prominent national leaders, including President Bill Clinton and Senator Bob Dole, and celebrities, such as Julia Childs and Sylvester Stallone.
Chef Boulud has been named “Chef of the Year” by Bon Appétit, and has authored numerous cookbooks. He has appeared as a guest chef on The Today Show, David Letterman, Live with Regis and Kathy Lee, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, The Food Network, and more. He has served as a guest instructor and lecturer at Cornell University, Syracuse University, French Culinary Institute, Culinary Institute of America, and The Institute of Culinary Education (formerly Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School).
Tell us how your career as a chef unfolded.
I was born in France and raised on my family’s farm near Lyon, surrounded by the rhythms of the seasons, the wonders of produce fresh from the fields, and my grandmother’s inspiring home cooking.
After being nominated as a candidate for best cooking apprentice in France, I trained under some of the country’s most renowned chefs such as Roger Vergé, Georges Blanc and Michel Guérard. Following two years as chef in some of Copenhagen’s finest kitchens, I made my way to the United States where my first position was as Chef to the European Commission in Washington, DC. Next, I went on to open the Polo Lounge at the Westbury Hotel and later Le Régence at the Hotel Plaza Athenée in New York City. From 1986 to 1992, I served as Executive Chef at New York’s Le Cirque. During my tenure there, the restaurant was regularly chosen as one of the most highly rated in the country.
In 1993, I opened my own restaurant, DANIEL, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side (it has since re-located to the former Mayfair Hotel on Park Avenue and 65th Street). In 1998, I opened Café Boulud, named for the gathering place my great grandparents tended on their farm outside Lyon at the turn of the century, and db Bistro Moderne opened in 2001.
Who were the biggest inspirations for your career?
Michel Guérard, Georges Blanc, Roger Vergé, Paul Bocuse, Fredy Girardet, the Troisgros brothers and Gaston Lenôtre.
What is your specialty and why did you choose it?
Contemporary French cuisine in harmony with the seasons is my specialty. It is so important to use ingredients when they are at their peak so that they are bursting with flavor.
Some of my signature dishes are:
- Paupiette of Black Sea Bass in a Crisp Potato Shell with Tender Leeks and a Syrah Sauce
- Sea Scallops in Black Tie
- Duo of Braised Beef Short Ribs in Red Wine and Roasted Tenderloin with Celery Root Purée and Celery Stalks
- Stuffed Squab Breast with Foie Gras, Spinach and Glazed Turnips and Radishes
- Oyster Velouté with Lemongrass, Leeks and Oscetra Caviar
- Nine Herb Ravioli with Sheep’s Milk Ricotta, Chanterelles, Tomato Coulis and Shaved Parmesan
What do you enjoy most about being a chef?
The progression of responsibility from commis to chef-owner, the creativity, and the never ending will to make everything better.
You’ve received great recognition for your work as a chef, from the James Beard Foundation to being named Bon Appetit Magazine’s “Chef of the Year”. Daniel has also received Gourmet Magazine’s coveted “Top Table” award. How important is this kind of recognition to you, personally and professionally?
Since its opening, DANIEL also has been awarded four stars by the New York Times, and we were rated one of the ten best in the world by The International Herald Tribune.
These recognitions are very important, especially if you are committed to maintaining your standards. You can never take that kind of recognition for granted.
Is there more still that you want to accomplish in your career?
Yes, there’s plenty to come! I have a lot of projects in the works for the future… I’m thinking up some new cookbook projects, and we also hope to produce some archived video-like short recipe demos and a tour of our wine cellar, for example, that will be available on the site all the time.
What exactly do chefs do?
Chefs cook, of course, but they also do a lot more; they need to hire, teach, manage, inspire and encourage young cooks. The chef-owner has to do all that while keeping the department heads on track and giving direction to the business.
What are the tools of the trade you use most? What are your favorite kitchen gadgets?
Copper pots, our induction stove top, Mac knives and our Pacojet ice cream machine. The microplane zester is one my favorites – it’s great for finely grating black truffle.
How much of your work is done outside of the kitchen?
Not very much – my office overlooks the kitchen, so I can keep an eye on everything, even when I’m doing office work.
How important are certifications in the profession, such as Executive Chef or Master Chef?
Recognition by customers, peers and press is what matters most.
What are the best ways to find a job as a chef?
I think you mean cook, and not chef. In the Daniel kitchen, for example, I have with me Alex, my Chef de Cuisine or Executive Chef, three Sous-Chefs and about 40 cooks. In order to be a great chef or sous-chef, you have to be a very good cook first.
Other than creating great food, what are the most important qualities that make a successful chef?
A successful chef must have management skills, must be a leader, a visionary, a good teacher, and must also be honest, economical, well-organized and efficient under pressure.
How is the job market right now for culinary professionals? How do you think it will be in the next five years? 10 years?
The job market right now is very good in general.
What are some trends that you see in the field of culinary arts that might help prospective students?
- Wine pairing with each course
- Professional service
- Kitchen discipline and respect
What are the hottest culinary specialties for the 21st Century?
First-class cooking delivered to your door via the Internet.
How has advancing technology and the Internet affected the culinary profession?
We do a bunch of things with our website: danielnyc.com.
Customers can view our current menus for all of the restaurants whenever they would like and can take a look at the dining rooms and our banquet room. Clients can order gift certificates, cookbooks and my private stock Iranian caviar and smoked Scottish salmon. Our special events page posts information on special wine dinners, upcoming cooking demonstrations and other happenings. And, of course, we have recipes up on the site. We also have an employment page for jobs.
Tell us about your culinary education. What did you like and dislike about it?
I started my three-year apprenticeship when I was 14, and I cooked (and learned) for 10 years before becoming a chef. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now if I hadn’t spent the necessary time learning everything I could, and then using that knowledge to launch my own career.
For those who have the talent already, should they go to culinary school and why?
If necessary, yes – but they should focus on their weak points (pastry, bread, management, etc.). When choosing a school, consider what kind of cooking they wish to do and what chefs they are inspired by. Then, they should try to learn the most they can about the basics and the type of cuisine they are inspired by. Once they start to work in a kitchen, only 10% of their time will be available for education.
Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the five most respected and prestigious culinary schools in the world that really make a difference to students who graduate from these schools?
- Le Ferrandi in France
- International Culinary Center in New York City
- Culinary Institute of America in New York
- Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco
- École des Arts Culinaires et de l’Hôtellerie in Lyon
- And there’s a school in Japan called Schuchi – I’m not sure if I’m spelling it correctly.
Is there a major difference in the industry between graduating from a prestigious culinary school and graduating from a college with a culinary program?
No school can give the gift of talent; it can only prepare you to be more knowledgeable when you start out in the industry and to keep you aware of the latest food laws, trends and news.
If you have any questions for Chef Boulud related to this interview, please contact him through his website at danielnyc.com.