In Conversation with Daniel Boulud

Last month, I spent two hours chatting with chef Daniel Boulud over tea. I was terribly nervous the night before meeting the culinary giant, but it was silly of me as he was possibly one of the most personable and modest people I’ve ever interviewed. As I took alot of his energy and time harassing him with endless questions, I am very grateful for that. This is a pretty lengthy interview even after I’ve spent a large amount of time editing and cutting it. The Thai version with more Thailand specific questions will be published in Food Stylist Magazine come June/July 09. This interview was cross-posted on the expat rag’s blog.

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Why did you decide to start a restaurant in Beijing instead of Shanghai as the market there for fine dining has already been established?

Yes, that’s true, but you know at the same time, it’s better to be the first one in Beijing than the last one in shanghai. Shanghai has already seen a lot of great chefs, some concepts work, and some don’t. I think it’s a little more avant-garde in Shanghai. Beijing is a little bit more traditional and I think it fits me well.

Are you very traditional? Your cooking is very modern.

Well, my cooking is light. I’m not a French man from France anymore, I’m a French from New York—not American, there’s a slight difference. Here, we try to find good local ingredients we can work with and we have already found a good amount. Everyday we’re discovering more. We don’t take Chinese ingredients and confuse everyone with it, I still need to remain in part French. But then again, the French food here at Maison Boulud is American, as is the sous chef. They’ve worked with me for a long time so they understand my philosophy about cooking and running a restaurant, but I also give them the freedom to be creative. The restaurant has to keep evolving, it cannot be frozen still to what I say and do. I think it’s working out well here. I didn’t adapt to the American palate when I opened my restaurants in New York, it was cooking the food the way I wanted and making sure that people understood and appreciated what I was doing. For food memories, people only remember things that are more classic. I think people have nostalgia for food and with modern cuisine today, it’s very hard to have nostalgia unless you have a chef who is consistent in certain dishes and makes them forever. I always like to practice playing with tradition dishes, giving it a more contemporary approach with the seasonings.

How would you describe your cuisine?

My cuisine is very French, very contemporary but it’s not avant-garde. I definitely have nothing to do with the Spanish movement like molecular gastronomy for example. I’m also not a traditional French restaurant. I make food that pairs well with wine. That is very important for me and that’s the essential part of French food—it is made to go well with wine. If I start making very spicy food or very greasy [fried] food, it might not fit well. At the same time, I am very open minded. I have five different types of restaurant. All of them are very French but very evolutionary in their own way, like Café Boulud for example, the menu is divided into four sections. Here in Maison Boulud, it’s a blend of Daniel, DB bistro and Café Boulud. We play with the concept of the three of them: a bistro, café and restaurant. These are a source of inspiration to fit into what we do in Beijing.

Also, if you want to be the greatest restaurant on earth and charge for it and still afford to have customers come to, then it’s wonderful. For me, coming to Beijing was not to try to create a three-star restaurant. I wasn’t thinking about stars, it was trying to fit within what we could offer in Beijing that the city didn’t have. A restaurant that has personality, soul and character. Most of all, where the food is understood and people come back for it.

We place emphasis on the quality of food and service, most importantly the consistency of it. We watch our ingredients carefully and what we do with our selection of it. I want my restaurant to be able to deliver with a casual approach and have people be surprised by the quality of it rather than pretending there is quality—the approach then gets too serious.

I think the business model here in Beijing is working well. As long as I have been cooking it’s always been work-in-progress. You always feel good where you are at the time, but you always want to keep moving, to keep improving. I think that’s what I’ve been doing.

What was the biggest challenge opening in Beijing?

Our biggest challenge was sourcing ingredients. I think Shanghai is better equipped with reliable suppliers than here and Hong Kong of course. Likewise in Singapore and Tokyo, it’s much easier to get ingredients there. To do Western-style food, especially beef, I wish I could find the best. We tried the Mongolian lamb, but it’s fresh and too chewy. Sometimes we get them fresh and sometimes frozen, the suppliers unfortunately never informs us. We just have them delivered. Locally, there is so much potential in China for great food and they already do that with Chinese cuisine. We like to know the origins of our produce and how exactly it is grown.

What is your opinion on the slow food movement?

I was born on a farm. Everything I grew up with was all homemade. From farm raised animals to cheese to vegetables to charcuterie. Especially the veal, we’d have calves in spring and they’d still be suckling. After six weeks, they usually go to the pastures, but we kill them at that time and freeze them. All year long, we’d be eating our own cow that is very well conditioned. When we wanted a roast, we’d take it out. We also had many goats to do goat cheese. It was wonderful. Let’s hope this form of farming will work in China. It’s all about terrior—trying to protect and encourage people to make more natural foods, following a standard because you can accomplished anything you want today. You just have to take good care of the soil and from there work on the procedure of growing and harvesting things. For me, slow food is a wonderful thing, but it’s not always understood. [To me: If you do your job well, people will be educated, you journalists just have to keep talking about it.]

How do ensure your absolute top standards in your Boulud empire when there’s only one of you flying around the world?

First, a company is made of a restaurant group and within each restaurant, there is a General Manager and an assistant manager. My chefs are very competent, we’ve been together for 12 years at Daniel. We have trust and confidence that they can do as well as or even better than myself. The business can’t exist without me, because I’m the driving force behind the restaurants.

How do pick your staff?

We have a specific hiring criteria, I have seen very talented cooks who can’t manage. It’s one thing to be a very good cook and another to become a managing chef. They have to be fully responsible for managing the food, the staff and the costs. All my restaurants are not subsidized by the hotel or by someone who has a fantasy to open a restaurant. People move on and I hire new people, but I make sure they are highly motivated to work for me and they see the support that I can give them. In Beijing, it is a big challenge as we’re co-managed by Ch’ienmen 23. The bottom line is no matter what country we’re in, we need to deliver.

Why are you in Beijing?

I’ve always dreamt about Asia. If I never went to America, I think I would have ended up in Asia. I would have ended up either in Hong Kong, or Singapore. 25 years ago, Hong Kong was just like Beijing. Yet, because it was a British colony, you had a safety net if you wanted to see foreigners and expats and if you were homesick.

What are the fundamentals of French cooking?

The fundamentals of cooking first and foremost is knowledge. I’m part of the generation that still learned from the master chefs who knew their classics very well and mastered the art of French cooking. I think we still try to continue the tradition of passing that along to the younger generation. When I read a book from centuries ago, I’m inspired by reading about what was already happening with food in that era. The world hasn’t changed that much. Yes, we create different presentations and new dishes, but the joy of eating and the art of cooking was already ever present. It was so intense and so big. For me, it was very important to keep a French identity because I didn’t want to become American in my cooking. I did make burgers, but fancy ones. I still want to be referred to as one of the best French chefs in America. The most important thing in French cooking is the terrior. France, like in China has regional cuisines from different provinces which is an amazing source of inspiration. What is beautiful about French cuisine is gastronomy. It’s inspired by ingredients, techniques, history, talent and traveling—that makes it creative, eclectic and unique. There’s regional cuisine, if you’re from Alsace, Paye Basque, Provence, there are solid local traditions in all aspects of food, it’s exactly the same for Italy and China. These cuisines all have an anchored tradition that is part of a heritage. Also, there are many culinary secrets handed down over generations.

You started professional cooking at 14, and you decided at that young age you wanted to cook professionally?

Yes full time, I could have quit 2 years after, but I gave my life into suffering. Yes, it’s true, they do beat you up in the kitchen.

What is your biggest challenge as a chef/restauranteur?

When I open a restaurant, I want it to be what it is, I don’t try to hold on until all the press has come, before opening to the public. Some restaurants do that as they don’t do too many covers for the service, but as soon as the review is out, there is sometimes a lack of consistency when they are unable to handle the turn around when the restaurant is really busy. What they fail to understand is that what happens after the review is more important than before. We are always successful and busy from the start. Now, we have a structured management to help with the opening of new restaurants.

Are you afraid of food critics?

The chef will always outlast the food critic. I have been cooking for many years. I’ve seen The New York Times change five food critics and I’m still here standing. People move on, they either lose their jobs or move on to other publications, but the chef stays in his career path.

What is your best childhood memory of food?

I think as a kid, there’s are many different things. To me, food was always marked by the seasons. In spring, we anticipate the first harvest of vegetables and baby goats. Summer has a lot of light salads, in fall I go hunting with my father. Everyday without fail, we’d have a soup to start the meal. I’ve always loved soup and I have many soups on my menu. It has stayed with me all my life, it’s like a little security blanket. I think that a soup and salad with a good garlic mustard dressing is fantastic. Meals were never anything fancy, but always very tasty. On weekends, dessert for me was the highlight. Our whole family would come for dinner and there would be big tarts, cakes and chocolate mousse. It’s nothing fancy like a restaurant. As soon as I learned how to cook, I cooked with my grandmother and taught her how to make green beans just right. For me at the restaurant, we make them al dente.

What inspires your presentation of dishes?

For me, the food has to look good, but it needs to make you want to eat it. I love for example, we do a Orecchiette at DB with a little meat sauce and some cheese. There is no design, nothing, but it’s real food. Real food is food that has soul and it is very important for the food to have a soul. Sometimes I say to my chefs, it looks good, but the soul is missing. Not everything has a soul, for some dishes there are just techniques of contrast, texture and art. Food with real soul needs to connect with the diner—people remember it better. Some recipes haven’t changed for over a hundred years and are still the best. It’s a little platform that I work on, I am constantly inspired by it.

The Michelin guide caters to a very European palate, so how can they judge a different cuisine altogether as the taste and textures of Asian food are very different?

Yes, it is very different. I think it worked out in Japan because in some restaurants, there are only 8-12 seats and the chef makes excellent food daily so there’s obviously a consistency in the quality of food and service. We’ll see what Michelin will do next year as clearly Michelin wants to come to China as well. Eventually, not only the local market here, it’s going to want to go international, possibly also to Singapore and Bangkok etc.

What exactly is the judgment criteria for the guides?

Apart from the inspectors who dine at the restaurants, they also consider opinions and comments that people send in. The team of inspectors visit restaurants anonymously over a year, maybe 3-4 times at specific times, so they can see the consistency of the restaurant. Usually, the inspectors chosen have a full time job, they could be a lawyer, a banker or any other professional that is well versed in fine dining. It’s something like a mystery shopper who has good knowledge and taste, also someone who understands the business. At the same time, in my restaurant, I’m the most contradictory case because they gave me two stars which is fine and I’m very happy with it. I’m certainly the best two star they ever had in America and I can certainly kick a lot of butts of two star chefs in France and I can also kick a lot of three star chefs butts. I think it’s a combination that makes it a unique restaurant. Service and relationship with the customer. Food is the top priority. You can have confident service, but you don’t want robotic service. Sometimes in a three-star restaurant, it makes you even more uncomfortable. I think it’s important to be really open and to have a light hearted personality at the front of house. They pay attention to this in Europe. Here in China, it’s really difficult to be able to express themselves to the guest, almost impossible. They almost have to be in equal education in order to communicate or have a banter. It’s definitely not easy.

*****

On the topic of Orecchiette, I’ve had some great ones in China, they call them cat’s ears 猫耳朵. If I remember correctly, it’s a specialty of Shanxi province—a region known for their noodles.

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