TOMO Magazine: Star-struck in China’s Culinary Landscape

tomo magazine

Chef Daniel Boulud shares his inspirations and formula for success.

The two-star Michelin chef is best known for this eponymous restaurant, Daniel in New York. Raised on a farm outside Lyon, chef Daniel trained under the older generation of classical French chefs and had distinct memories of good food growing up. Maison Boulud Beijing is his first restaurant in Asia, housed in the grand colonial building of Ch’ienmen 23 and opened its doors in 2008, just before the Olympics.

He arrives a little shortly after our scheduled interview as he tells me he was “working on some radish for the dinner service”. One would have thought that an executive chef hardly gets hands-on after building an empire in his name. He begins by telling me about meeting the then-newly elected President Obama with his daughter and gestures to the portrait taken at the White House placed by the entrance to his restaurant. The New York Times had reported a nine-herb ravioli being served to the President at the White House. While foodie forums debated what was the special dish fit for a President was, a quick search turns out that it is a signature dish prepared at Daniel, New York. This delightfully refreshing dish is also on the menu at Maison Boulud, Beijing that we common people got to try.

The culinary guru is soft spoken but animated in his narrative. He speaks modestly about his achievements and has an admirably open-mindedness about the trade. When I asked if he was afraid of food critics, he chuckles and answers confidently “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.”

As foodies around the world continue to celebrate the magnificence of Michelin-starred restaurants, the world’s most consistent two-starred chef tells us jokingly “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.” Yet, the man himself gives full reins to his chefs to exercise their creative muscles in the kitchen, without lording over them in creative direction.

While the cooking is French, gourmet burgers are also available on the menu at Daniel Boulud’s restaurants. Cooking in New York wasn’t about adapting to the American palate, but cooking the way he always wanted. Chef Daniel tells us “I’m not a French man from France anymore, I’m a French from New York. Not American, there’s a slight difference.”

Perhaps food comes across as the strongest memory trigger. From Proustian madeleines to nostalgia of childhood or the best vacations one’s taken, people reflect on the geography and time frame of that best meal they have ever had.

His own soft spot for soup stems from his childhood. “To me, food was always marked by the seasons. Every day without fail, we’d have a soup to start the meal. I’ve always loved soup and I always have a lot of soup on my menu. It has stayed with me all my life—it’s like a little security blanket.”

Chef Daniel also makes an interesting comparison of food across cultures. Explaining the fundamentals of French cooking, he draws similarities in geographical location and the authentic recipes of provinces and regions. Illustrating the importance of terrior where fresh ingredients are grown, it also boils down to “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.”

Despite his long-term residence in America and having build his successful Boulud empire on that side of the world, he maintains that “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. “

Daniel Boulud is truly a culinary visionary who celebrates the centuries of French gastronomy in bold and creative ways in his kitchens.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

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