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Love, Loss, and Inspection at the Daniel Game Dinner

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A Pheasant, Stuffed Two Ways
A Pheasant, Stuffed Two Ways

By the time I had arrived at the private dining room at Daniel, a taxidermied ring-necked pheasant regarded silently a mostly empty tray of its deceased kin, done up as a terrine with foie gras and figs. Thankfully there was plenty of woodpigeon and chestnut ballotine left, an untouched warm Juniper scented grouse pâté and a whole foret of game to come. This was the annual fall Game feast at Daniel, an event wherein wild game is served to an assemblage of guests who pay $1,000 to eat it. Tonight's feast doubled as a fundraiser for the Bocuse D'Or USA Foundation, which raises money to send an American team to the biannual culinary competition held in Lyon and for which Boulud serves as chairman. It also served as an object lesson in grace under pressure and love and life after loss.

Daniel Boulud is a smooth operator. One could only tell by a slight tightening in his smile that he was under undue stress. But under undue stress he was. As he stood at the front of the room, flanked by Gavin Keysen, Bocuse D'Or competitor of 2007, he apologized to the guests for not being more present. "The restaurant inspector is here so we're very busy," he said gravely. From the peanut gallery a man yelled out, "Well, you can grouse about it!" then he turned to his wife, "I'm sorry but I had to use that." "We do well usually but it's difficult when we have a special event.' Boulud smiled, dimply and simply, and continued, "We're going for gold this year but we'd be happy on the podium." (The last two competitions the United States placed 14th and 6th, respectively.) Then he disappeared back into the kitchen.

Frank J. Zitz, taxidermist par excellence, mingled amongst his well preserved turkeys and pheasants, well dressed patrons and patronesses. Farmer Lee Jones of Chef's Garden in signature red bowtie and overalls, was in from Ohio. "Gavin is coming out next week," he said, "the Bocuse D'Or is very important to us." Then we sat down at a big T-shaped table, laden with stemware and a taxidermied covey of birds. A stern turkey — the one bird we would not be eating — puffed its chest and stood sentry.

Boulud was MIA most of the night, dealing, no doubt, with a restaurant inspector who spent the entire evening in the kitchen. (Who knows, maybe he was just lonely and wanted to hang. Boulud is a fun guy to be around.) In Boulud's stead, Ariane Daguin, founder of D'Artagnan who had donated most of the game to tonight's dinner, held what was essentially a glorified pub quiz about game. Did you know the difference between squab and wood pigeon is that squab is 28 days old and wood pigeon's meat is darker? I did — she had told us moments before — and now a saucisson sec is mine. Did you also know — and this she finds ridiculous — that in the United States game must be inspected ante-mortem whereas in Europe, game can be inspected post-mortem and that this severely hampers the consumption of wild game? Also, a night when Daguin brings a sackful of dead pheasant is not the best night for a restaurant inspection. Thankfully, she left them outside.

I sat next to a woman named Susan, a widow whose husband Harry had died the year prior. Susan is a nice older woman born in West Virginia. She met Harry when she was young and was living on the Upper East Side in an apartment without a kitchen. "We had a hotplate in the bathroom," she recalled, "Harry taught me how to cook." The two were married for 35 years before Harry succumbed to ALS last year. Before he had died, Harry had programmed her Blackberry, a device that is indeed confusing, and so Susan received unbidden emails about the Game Dinner from Daniel. "At first I thought, 'I'm not going to go to this!' but I got three emails and I thought, 'Harry is trying to tell me something."

So Susan came and since she knew the names of the Four Musketeers — Anthos, Porthos, Aramis and D'Artagnan — she too won a saucisson sec. Later in the meal, Daguin proffered up the grand prize. The question was a simple one and the bounty enormous: a wicker basket full of pheasant, black truffle butter, pâté, sausage, and foie gras. "Who is representing the USA in this year's Bocuse D'Or?" There was silence. More silence. The silence seeped into the feathers of the stuffed birds. The silence was unruffling. I raised my hand. "James Kent." Now I have a fridge full of pheasant and pâté.

The capstone of the evening was to have been a live auction with Daniel Boulud. But Boulud was still back in the kitchen, sweating his grade and sweet talking the inspector. So Daguin took over. The first item was a three-course Thanksgiving dinner to go from Daniel. It would be served on an All-Clad roaster. The bidding started at $700. French-cuffed hands went up. Diamond studded fingers wiggled. These people were adept at spending money. But the momentum slowed at the $900 mark. Georgette Farkas, Daniel's tres charmante press lady, threw in a deal to sweeten the pot. "Daniel will sign the roaster and we'll have it engraved."

Susan, to my left, raised her hand with a sly smile. "$1,000," she said and murmured to me, "Someone will outbid me." Silence again descended upon the game dinner. Silence. Susan smiled. "1,000 to Susan!" said Daguin triumphantly. Susan still smiled. A few minutes later, Norah Carey, executive director of the Bocuse D'Or USA Foundation, approached her. "What would you like engraved on the roaster?" Susan thought for a moment then said, "For Harry."

· All Daniel Boulud Coverage on Eater [-E-]

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