Milwaukee meets France: A chat with Chef Daniel Boulud
For the seventh straight year, October is Dining Month on OnMilwaukee.com, presented by the restaurants of Potawatomi. All month, we're stuffed with restaurant reviews, delectable features, chef profiles and unique articles on everything food, as well as the winners of our "Best of Dining 2013."
Daniel Boulud, a native of Lyon, France, is today considered one of America's leading culinary authorities and one of the most revered French chefs in New York, the city he has called home since 1982.
Before leaving France for the U.S., Boulud trained with several renowned chefs, including Roger Vergé, Georges Blanc and Michel Guérard. Following two years in Copenhagen, where he worked as a chef in some of the city's finest kitchens, Boulud took a position in the United States as chef to The European Commission in Washington, D.C.
Boulud then opened the Polo Lounge at The Westbury Hotel and later Le Régence at the Hotel Plaza Athenée in New York City. In the late 1980s, he was invited to take the helm of what The New York Times dubbed "the most glamorous and electrifying setting in New York," Le Cirque.
Pushing the boundaries of both classic and nouvelle French food, Boulud incorporated American and international ingredients into his dishes. And while embracing both his Rhone Valley farming roots and modern techniques, Boulud laid the foundation for modern French-American cuisine.
In 1993, he opened Restaurant Daniel in New York and has since brought his culinary philosophy and style to four cities and three countries, making him one of the world's best-known American-French chefs.
Boulud is the author of seven cookbooks, the recipient of three James Beard Foundation awards, including Outstanding Chef and Outstanding Restaurateur and was named a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government, as well as Chef of the Year 2011 by The Culinary Institute of America. He is a generous and energetic supporter of Citymeals-on-Wheels, serving on their board of directors since 2000 and is also co-founder and Chairman of the Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation.
I had the opportunity to chat with Boulud late last week by phone. We talked about his background, his philosophies, his legacy, and what he's looking forward to most when he visits Milwaukee later this month.
OnMilwaukee.com: You grew up working on a farm. How did that impact your relationship with food?
Daniel Boulud: Yes, I think it had a huge impact. As a chef I work with seasonality. I always understood local… local suppliers, local seasonal ingredients. That's what I grew up with, but also what's practiced in restaurants.
Especially Lyon and New York. We have the four seasons there, and right now it's game season in New York. Just like it would be game season in Lyon.
OMC: Who first taught you to cook?
DB: At the house the chef was my grandmother, and the sous chef was my mother. Now, my grandmother was actually the better cook, because she did it every day. But they both taught me the tricks of the trade so to speak.
Besides that, after I had the chance to start very early cooking. I started at 14 and I started with some of the best chefs in Lyon. I was an apprentice.
While I was working at this two star restaurant. I would go to many different restaurants and see different styles, different energy, different cuisines. I think that's what gave me the desire to travel, diversify my learning.
We have something in France that we call the Tour de France – as a chef you travel the country and get to know each region. After Lyon, I went to Burgundy where I studied with Georges Blanc… then Provence with Roger Vergé …
After, I traveled to Europe and then came back to France… I had to do the southwest of France, since their cuisine is so different. I worked with Michel Guérard was one of the biggest influences in French cuisine in the 1970s. Then I came and discovered and conquered the U.S.
OMC: And conquer you did! You gave us French-American cooking! What do you say to critics who claim that French food is no longer relevant?
DB: (laughs) I am sorry for them. Then, I don't know what's really relevant to them.
French food has been lasting for hundreds of years. I don't think it's going away anywhere. But, I do think that French food is evolving and reinventing itself, and that is keeping it relevant.
Do we have enough French chefs in the U.S. to keep it relevant… that is more the question. You do see see the ones who are doing it right. There is Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Thomas Keller – he's one of the most French chefs in America. What can I say?
I will say, there is a lot of other influence in the world today. Like Scandinavian influence. But, will it last for hundreds of years and remain a reference as French cooking has? I don't know.
But, one thing is for sure, if you need to eat one cuisine for the rest of your life, it should be French… (pause) and Italian. French and Italian are two cuisines I could live on for the rest of my life.
OMC: Speaking of cooking and eating, what are some ingredients/items you always need to have in your kitchen?
In the dry pantry there is of course seasonings, seasonings are important. Lior Lev Sercarz worked for me for many years. After he left me, he started La Boite Aux Epices.
You know it?
OMC: Yes, I've heard of it.
DB: And now they take care of all of our private spice mixes. Some have been done just for us, and some are part of his line. So that is very important to have. Also a lot of vinegar from all different parts of the country and the world from Germany and France … and homemade vinegars.
And oils from grapeseed to olive oil – again, from different countries, America, France, Italy, Spain, Tunisia And often I have a nut oil, walnut oil.
What else I have in my kitchen?
I always have avocado because I like avocado and when I go home at midnight and I need something to eat, I split an avocado, put a little bit of balsamic, salt and pepper, olive oil and a bit of cheese. And I eat it with a spoon.
OMC: What is your favorite thing to make, just for the sheer pleasure of cooking?
DB: One pot meal. I mean I love to do that. I love to make old fashioned dishes. If it's at home it's a one pot meal. If it's at the restaurant, it's an old fashioned dish. That's why the book I just did – it's representing the old cuisine. Sophisticated, complex, sometimes ethnic. The technique is French, but the flavors are ethnic. I love to do old classic dishes.
OMC: Is there anything you absolutely do not enjoy eating?
DB: I don't like bananas. I don't care too much about sea cucumbers. When I go to China there are all sorts of things I don't like. Sometimes it's the taste, sometimes the texture. I don't like when things get too gooey.
OMC: You've mentored so many chefs over the years. What's the biggest thing it has taught you?
DB: I think first I will have quit that job a long time ago if I didn't have this amazing young energy around me from the young chefs who have worked with me, spent time with me, saved with me.
What I've learned is that there is amazing passion, discipline and respect for cuisine in this country… and a lot of talent. Thirty years ago when I arrived, there weren't so many chefs; they were rough around the edges. But, I think for me today we have an amazing array of sophistication, creativity and eccentricity sometimes. And definitely ethnicity as well. And today every region can take pride in their young chefs
Do we need as many French chefs as we used to… to teach Americans how to cook? No. But, the good ones, we should still welcome them.
I think what I've learned also is that camaraderie here. We have chefs who no one – the media or anyone – can affect the relationships between chefs. Chefs are competitive, but not always in competition. You do it for your customer, your community, your city.
OMC: Speaking of community, you've been very involved with community-based charities like CityMeals-on-Wheels over the years. What made you decide to give back?
DB: Well, I think that's by nature … choosing to be a chef is also choosing to be generous, to be giving.
When I was an apprentice every restaurant was in charge of one or two homeless. We were in charge of feeding them, and then they could sleep in the restaurant. I always felt that the person I was working for in the restaurant was generous to offer the corner in the restaurant to the homeless. He fed him. He cared for him. And sometimes to get him drunk… but that was bad.
Growing up in New York, it's obvious that there are many charities. I think CityMeals was closest to the chef community; there was a relationship between chefs and their program.
I take care of the people who make the city of New York what it is. So, we do a lot of events together during the year, including our gala once a year. The lowest we've made was $600,000 and the highest was $1 or 1.2 million, so it's always very rewarding.
This year I celebrated the 20th anniversary and I had 20 other chefs from New York cooking with me in the kitchen. That was so rewarding. That was really fun. I want them to get involved in giving back as well, so I have a little group of the alumni of Daniel and we are going to be doing events together in the future.
OMC: What's the most difficult part of being such a public figure?
DB: To be in the restaurant business you understand that you will be a public figure. It's not a private club… you have the public in your restaurant every day. It's not a life when you can live your life without the public and the media.
I hope it will get easier for the generations to come… For me, I never banked on my popularity as a person – it was more my popularity as a chef. Every young chef has to understand their biggest strength and make the most of it.
OMC: Do you think about the legacy you'll leave behind for the next generation?
DB: Yeah, but it's not totally achieved yet., So, I have a lot of things that I want to do. I hope that I will leave at least … not so much about the legacy… but being a window in a story of New York and the country. I think we all lean on the past in order to move on with the future. And for me I don't know what will be the legacy I leave, but I know that I will live in the history of chefs in America.
OMC: One last question – you're headed to Milwaukee on Tuesday, October 22 for a dinner at Bartolotta's Grain Exchange. Have you been to Milwaukee before?
DB: No, I'm sorry. I haven't.
OMC: Well, that's OK. We love to welcome new people to our city! What are you most looking forward to experiencing while you're here?
DB: I think I'm going to be totally in the hands of the Bartolotta family. I'm counting on them to make me discover their Milwaukee.
Later this month, Boulud will pay a visit to Milwaukee to promote his latest book, "Daniel: My French Cuisine." During his visit, The Bartolotta Restaurants will welcome Boulud to The Grain Exchange for a culinary experience unlike any other.
On Tuesday, Oct. 22, attendees will enjoy five courses with wine pairings prepared by a team of Daniel's NYC-based chefs. Courses will include Lobster Biryani Masala, slow baked sea bass, Duo de Boeuf, as well as dessert. The event is $150 per person, plus tax and gratuity. Each ticket includes one signed copy of Boulud's book. For a full menu and to purchase tickets, visit bartolottacatering.com.
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