Culinary virtuouso

Daniel Boulud is not only a great chef; he’s a great humanitarian as well.

The small hamlet of Katonah can now boast of being home to a celebrity chef of the megawatt variety, and one of the greatest chefs to ever come out of Lyon, France: Daniel Boulud.

For the past two years, Boulud, his wife, Katherine, and their two young children — he also has an adult daughter, Alix, who was married this past year — have been settling into their country home. 

“I wanted something far enough away from New York but not too far,” he says during a recent interview in the chef’s skybox, overlooking the humming kitchen of his eponymous flagship, Daniel, on East 65th Street in Manhattan.

Rather than jumping right into his backstory, we start with a free-wheeling discussion of some establishments that formerly had their heydays in the hills of northern Westchester, like the Box Tree Inn, a luxe inn and restaurant under the stewardship of an eclectic Bulgarian he knew well, Augustin Paege, in Purdys. This brief glimpse back to local lore with someone who has reached the top of his ranks is delightfully indulgent and unexpected.

So, what are the places he and his family frequent? There’s The Whitlock over by the Katonah train station, and The Reading Room for coffee and interesting wares, he tells me, also in town. He’s a fan of Dave DiBari’s places, The Cookery and The Parlour. In the neighborhood of Daniel in Manhattan, where he maintains a residence above the restaurant, he likes JoJo, Jean-Georges’ cozy townhouse restaurant, for Sunday dinner, Mezzaluna for pizza, Yasuda for sushi and Casa Enrique, a popular spot in Queens, for authentic Mexican.

But, don’t get the impression that this chef is kicking back too much. He tells me that some of his clients host him frequently at their clubs to play golf, something he took up later on in his career. When I inquire about his game, he responds, “How would it look if I told you I was a scratch golfer? People would think I wasn’t paying attention to my restaurants.” And Boulud is a chef and restaurateur who pays meticulous attention to every aspect of his operations — his faithful clientele, back and front of the house employees, menus, vendor relationships and we haven’t even begun a discussion of his philanthropic endeavors. Time is a precious commodity on his schedule, but one he shares generously.

Meeting with Boulud on Giving Tuesday, the day set aside to encourage charitable giving through social media, we turn to his own philanthropy, before getting to that backstory or talk of his empire. On the world culinary stage, the talent, artistry, success and status he has achieved is matched only by his humanitarianism, one of the key ingredients that make him great. He becomes especially animated when talking about the organizations he supports and the programs he has developed for young chefs.

More than 20 years ago, Boulud saw the need to join the ranks of New Yorkers committed to giving back to the community and supporting those in need. In his case that has been, foremost, Citymeals on Wheels, an organization for which he serves as a co-president of the board of directors. Since 1997, Restaurant Daniel has annually hosted one of the organization’s many yearly fundraisers, the spring gala named simply Sunday Supper — a festive, multicourse affair for 150 guests. 

He can rattle off all the facts and figures that tell the story of the group’s mission to feed homebound, elderly New Yorkers by delivering meals to some 18,000 recipients. In 2014, he co-developed an offshoot program, together with chef Charlie Palmer, called Chefs Deliver, wherein a pool of 50 rotating chefs from city restaurants prepare and deliver a specially created chef’s meal, featuring a menu their clients may not normally experience. 

Taking the extra step, enhancing the experience for others, is the common thread of Boulud’s ethos. Take the case of his chairmanship of another foundation, Ment’or, which provides opportunities to members of the culinary community to further their studies through continuing education programs. 

“It’s a way for them to feel and be supported,” he says. “It is structured for an existing, serious cook already in the path of becoming a chef, to travel to other kitchens or spend time in programs that will further the culinary training they have already received.” He cites an example of a young female pastry chef in New York City who was given the opportunity to apprentice in the kitchen at Le Meurice, the Michelin-starred restaurant of Alain Ducasse in Paris.

For the younger future chefs, there is one other organization of which Boulud speaks proudly of his involvement, and that is C-cap, Careers through Culinary Arts Programs. This one is focused on a high school students who are considering pursuing a culinary career. 

Further discussion ensues about the famous Boulud “alumni,” culinary luminaries in their own right who trained with Boulud and other masters, as he did, before setting out on their own. To discuss all the stories of the many talented Boulud alumni could be a book in itself. Legions of highly regarded chefs and restaurateurs have worked under and alongside him in kitchens around the world — his network in the industry, enormous, and their camaraderie, well documented.

The award-winning pastry chef, Dominique Ansel, was the pastry chef at Restaurant Daniel for six years, before he opened the highly acclaimed Dominique Ansel Bakery in SoHo, birthplace of the “cronut.” In the foreword of the book, “The Secret Recipes” by Ansel (Simon & Schuster, 2014) Boulud writes, “As a chef-owner, I always focus on our own program, but I strongly support the talent of my team members. I was happy to see that he (Dominique) could make his dreams come true on his own.” 

Boulud speaks with me about his great fortune in being raised in Lyon, the fertile breeding ground of classic French cuisine. The landscape enabled him to serve in many capacities, even working for a producer of foie gras and a vintner along the way. He cites his appreciation for the chances he was given, the opportunities that presented themselves along the way as he did his “tour de France,” honing his craft “with the finest masters in the world — chefs whose lineage and birthrights helped them advance easily along their paths to those who worked their way up the ranks solely on their own.”

He told me, also, about an interesting phenomenon of which I was unaware, what he called “the flock of French chefs that came here for the World’s Fair in 1964 and stayed in New York.” These talented chefs went on to open some of the most iconic, classic French restaurants “of the day,” such as Le Pavillon, Le Grenouille, La Côte Basque, Le Chantilly and many more.

His own journey to the United States in 1981 was preceded by time in Paris and Copenhagen, until he was lured by a fellow chef from Lyon to assume the head duties in the kitchen of a European diplomatic embassy in Washington, D.C. But, a year later, New York beckoned, and Boulud traveled north to cook in the kitchens of Le Polo (with Roger Vergé), La Régence in the Plaza Athénée and Le Cirque, ironically the space where Boulud’s restaurant came to be located.

A man of drive and passion for all aspects of restaurant operations, Boulud says he had some good opportunities and generous partners, but adds, “to be a success, you have to provoke it.” He had set his sights on opening his own restaurant from the time he was growing up and, eventually with the support of partners, he was able to open Daniel on East 73rd Street, now home to Café Boulud, and the rest is culinary legend.

His is a long “histoire” of accomplishment in furthering the movement started in the 1980s, he explains, of creating lighter, more modern takes on French cuisine steeped in tradition. In Boulud’s domain, the numbers speak volumes. There are currently seven restaurants in New York City, not counting the three locations of Épicerie Boulud (his grab-and-go gourmet cafés), and nine more in other U.S. cities, plus London, Paris and Singapore. There are also 10 cookbooks, plus 1,800 Boulud employees in New York and other locales. We pause, briefly, to highlight this responsibility, something even Boulud seems to finds incredulous.

Twenty-five years later, Daniel, the restaurant, continues as a bejeweled crown, oozing with graciousness that starts with the chef and ripples down through every rank-and-file member of his formidable team. Creativity abounds and the gastronomic achievements have reached heights that only a boy from Lyon, with talent for the ages and a strong team of driven professionals, could ever have hoped to achieve: The legendary madeleines, the tableside cocktail preparations, the finesse and presentation of cuisine rooted in the French gastronomic heritage ever evolving with a nod to the seasons.

The reviews, articles and interviews are already logged, the volumes have been written and innumerable accolades and awards have been bestowed upon Boulud. Restaurants in his portfolio are regularly updated, and a new addition will be welcomed when One Vanderbilt, his latest venture, opens in 2020 on the ninth floor of the 57-story, 1 Vanderbilt Tower opposite Grand Central Terminal. Meanwhile, Boulud’s domain is flourishing around the globe and the Michelin stars are shining brightly at restaurant Daniel. 

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