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Daniel Boulud on the Bocuse D'Or, His New Restaurant, and Thieving Cooks

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Photo: Joshua David Stein / Eater.com

Dimpled and Gallic, Daniel Boulud's smiling mug dominates the New York restaurant scene. With his flagship gastronomic restaurant, Daniel, he honeys the monied with three Michelin stars while at his latest, DBGB, he clogs the arteries of the downtown set with his infamous burgers. Between those two, a continuum of bars and bistros bearing the Boulud name bring his Lyon on the Hudson cuisine to a wider market. I caught up with Boulud after a panel discussion at this year's Gastronomika.

You're in the home stretch now, the Bocuse D'Or is on January 27th in Lyon. How do you peg team USA's chances?
I think we have a good chance. Have you seen what BMW has been preparing for us? The BMW design center has done a platter design, so we have a very cool design for the fish platter and the meat platter. Everything has to be an integration with the theme the chef chooses. For James Kent [who will be representing the United States], for the fish the theme is [REDACTED 1-DEC-2010 UNTIL 25-JAN-2011 PER REQUEST FROM BOULUD AS TO NOT PREJUDICE TEAM USA'S CHANCES].

Does he get to communicate the story in any other way than the dish?
We were thinking of maybe giving an iPad presentation to the judges but that's kind of like if they are going to take them home, it would be like buying them off a little bit. So we'll see if Apple will give us iPads.

You had mentioned the deleterious effects of technology in your talk, but that it also seems to facilitate the exchange of information between far-apart chefs.
No, c'est vrai. When I was young, I was typing recipes at night or writing recipes in books. Then I would exchange that with other chefs. We'd get together drinking beer and exchange recipes. "Oh, you work with Girandais. I work with so-and-so." And pass recipes. Chefs still pass recipes but there's so much more access.

But you also said that now that people would be more distracted by technology.

[Boulud is checking his Blackberry under the table.]

[Distractedly] Yes, for sure. I have no idea what is going on with my phone right now. Let me see if Thomas Keller is still looking for me. No ça va.

[Returning to the conversation]

With technology, everybody is so A.D.D. You get so distracted all the time. But I think technology is the best thing ever for culinary performance. Technology is the best thing ever for communication for our cooks. We constantly make descriptions of things and we communicate that to everybody. Now we can do live-conference with Beijing, Singapore, and London. Thomas [Keller], for example, has a video feed of the French Laundry kitchen at Per Se and vice versa. It's good and not so good. I don't know. I would freak my chef out if I had a screen with every country.

I recently did a piece on Chef Geoffrey Zakarian. He has a program called Total Control where he can watch 18 cameras on his iPhone?
Yeah but that's not good. I leave that alone. First I am not going to be able to catch mistakes. We try to be very careful, but we know things happen in restaurants. For example, we always feed the staff after work. But one time at DBGB, a cook decided that he would sell the burgers to the waiters at the back door. He didn't last long. At one point he wanted to raise the price but then there was an uproar. We found out about it. I love technology but I don't want to be paranoiac about it. I don't want my staff to be paranoiac.

Do you see a connection between the sort of A.D.D. impatience wrought by technology and what you mentioned in the talk about cooks wanting to become chefs after three to five years, when in reality it takes much longer?
Well, in New York, cooks have backup. Many don't even know how to clean a fish. They don't know how to butcher or truss a chicken. It's amazing those cooks who think they know how to cook but they don't even know how to do the basic staples of cooking. Every cook should be able to prep as good and as fast as their prep cooks but they don't bother doing it. You can see who has learned well and learned his basic staples of cooking right away.

You are almost American, do you think that is more an American problem than a French, Spanish, or British problem?
I don't know. I bring French cooks over to the states and many of them don't know how to butcher fish perfectly. That's one thing with the Japanese. The Japanese will spend two years being a butcher, just to know the art of butchering. They understand the importance of simple tasks and basic tasks. When I was a young chef in France, in every restaurant I worked, there were about thirty chefs working with me. Out of those thirty, many failed. They were good chefs then but they didn't pursue the hard road of cooking. They went into an easier road like being a chef for a less ambitious restaurant or working for a collectivity or quitting cooking. It's the same today with this generation. Only maybe 10-20% will stay on the road and keep climbing. The rest will find a plateau where they belong. If a chef hasn't made it by 26-32, they won't make it.

It's not easy to choose to open your own place and not be successful. There's a lot of young chefs who open their own place and they struggle so hard and they don't know why. Sometimes it is better to step down in your ambition and be a little more popular than trying to make it. I had this young chef in New York Alain Allegretti [of the recently closed Allegretti], a very good chef, very well-trained French chef. He had a wonderful restaurant but the location wasn't perfect. The size of the restaurant didn't work. It's difficult to tell a chef what he should do because you don't know the strengths of his business or his team. Sometime rather than having this very talented chef elevating himself a little too much and alienating himself from success, he should lower himself and do things that are a little more understood or more popular.

Have you ever lowered yourself?
No, no. No, but I had the opportunity to open those restaurants. When I opened Café Boulud, it was the kind of restaurant I would have done if I didn't do Daniel. It's very hard to start with the casual and go up to the gastro. It's very hard because it takes a lot of structure, commitment and dedication to create a gastronomic restaurant. It takes much less structure to do a casual place.

This new restaurant next to Bar Boulud is casual, right?
Right, it's called Boulud Sud. We haven't told anyone the name yet but it's Boulud Sud. That's what we hold on to now. Then there's either Epicerie Boulud in the front or Comptoir Boulud. But the word Boulud?

You like that word.
I'm comfortable using it because it is my casual side. It's not Daniel. I would not call it Daniel.

Usually it's the other way around. But with you your first name is formal and your surname is casual. What's your middle name?
Joseph. So nothing to go there. But Boulud Sud will be a Mediterranean interpretation for me. It's more of a Mediterranean grill. I'm more influenced in the influence from the whole entire coast from Spain to North Africa to Turkey, Greece and coming back to Italy. At Epicerie Boulud we are going to have a patisserie, viennoiserie in the morning. It is going to be an all day dining/buying place.

Is there ever going to be a Boulud food court?
I don't think so, but Eataly is a phenomenon. It is fantastic. I think they have the pilot model in Europe and I think they expanded for the size of New York and made an impact. I'm very impressed by that. Could there be a French model like that? It could be.

You could call it Joseph.
Le Marché Joseph. Voilà.

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