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Daniel Boulud on His New Cookbook, Twenty Years at Daniel, and 'Bad Ass Cuisine'

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Daniel Boulud.
Daniel Boulud.
Photo: Krieger

Daniel Boulud opened his New York restaurant Daniel twenty years ago, which has since gone on to earn three Michelin stars among many other accolades. To commemorate the anniversary, Boulud has released a new cookbook: Daniel: My French Cuisine, co-authored by Sylvie Bigar and Bill Buford.

Below, Boulud tells Eater the book contains the "DNA of twenty years" at Daniel. But it goes beyond that: he and Bill Buford recreated dishes from the 19th century, to explore the history of French cuisine, to explore Boulud's own past, and also just because "chefs love bad ass cuisine." Despite all this French influence, he calls himself a New York chef, and discusses finding the balance between living in what he calls "the most exciting part of the world to cook for" and his French soul. Throw in a truffle or two the "size of a small car," and you've got Boulud's French cuisine. The cookbook is out today from Grand Central Life & Style (order on Amazon); check out a preview here.

This book is a lot of things: there's a section on restaurant recipes, a section in which you and writer Bill Buford explore classic French dishes, a section on home cooking, and more philosophical subject-oriented essays throughout. Why do one huge volume? Why not multiple books? Or why not just do a straight-forward Restaurant Daniel cookbook?
I think it is a Restaurant Daniel cookbook. In my life here at Daniel there are many things happening. The front part of the book is about the life of Daniel as a restaurant, every day, and the food we make today and a short look at the past just to recap everything. The dishes are always seasonal. We could have printed a thousand recipes, but we narrowed down, narrowed down, and ended up with a great representation of what we do during the year at Daniel.

And then we often do very special dinners, and special lunches as well. These have a lot of meaning for me because I am cooking for a table of twelve or twenty, and I'm making a big piece. I am often making food that has to go with some of the greatest wines of the world, the oldest and greatest vintages. The greatest wines. I am often asked [to do this] by people who really are big wine connoisseurs and wine drinkers and wine collectors, they gather together. And I wanted to recapture a little bit the moments I had all along my career where I had a chance to cook food that would be beyond the plated food, beyond the food for a tasting menu, for a couple or for a la carte. And that's what I did with the essay on iconic recipes.

I call it My French Cuisine because the cuisine I do at Daniel today with the team and how we express what we like to cook. It has a lot to do with French [cuisine], and yet has a lot to do with the market we have, the food we touch every day, the suppliers, the ethnic supply we can get, and technique and texture and all that has evolved with time. But when it comes to French classic cuisine, it is much more grounded, much more rooted in classic and is less fantasy, I would say.

So by taking these different approaches to the restaurant experience, the book is a more holistic representation of Daniel?
Yes, yes, absolutely. Well, ha, I'm not expecting someone to come in and say, oh! I want the tête de veau en tortue! I will do it when I want to do it, and I do it for very specific reasons. But we have fun, we do great dishes like this, we constantly create dishes where we demonstrate the majesty and the power of French cuisine.

The black sea bass recipe. [Photo: Paula Forbes /]

The first section of the cookbook is recipes from the restaurant. How far do those go back?
Most of the recipes are within the last three years, I will say. What we have been cooking right now. I didn't try to do a collection of recipes over the twenty years, because we keep ever changing. For example, the first recipe in the book is a crab salad. The combination of the crab, the granny smith apple, the celery, and the walnut? I have been doing that for twenty-five years. But every year we change the approach to it, and so this was one of the latest approaches we've been doing. Which is far away from the first salad!

Definitely, the DNA of twenty years is in the book. That DNA is the core of the cuisine. But how does it grow? And how does it keep ever changing? That's what [the restaurant] is about, Daniel.

Some recipes are a little bit more classic, some recipes are a little bit more contemporary. Like the black sea bass on page 112. I was famous for having created the paupiette of sea bass, sea bass wrapped in crispy potatoes on a bed of leeks with a red wine sauce. When we redid Daniel six years ago, five years ago, the chefs didn't want to cook the paupiette of sea bass any more. They said well, we think you have done it long enough. We think we have to stop this dish. I had a little revolt! I said okay, I agree. But I would like at least to honor the combination of the sea bass, the potatoes, the leeks, the red wine sauce. So we keep that idea and we keep playing with it, any which way you want. Every year we're going to come up with a new collection. So that's how we play with that. I like the combination, and I don't want to go away from it.

The funny thing is then Gavin Kaysen at Cafe Boulud has picked up the sea bass and is doing it there in honor of Daniel. The first Daniel of 76th Street, we were doing the sea bass there. So it has found its home again. But it will not find its home at Daniel any more.

Sometimes it's hard to keep my feelings apart, because this is what people love us for. But changing and changing and changing I think is good. Some of the dishes I think look more artful, and maybe more modern. And some are more classic, because that's how I like myself to be. Food should have soul, but the soul is not always in every dish. Sometimes dishes are created because you want some interesting contrast, you want to create something different with the ingredient you have. But that does not mean the dish has found its soul yet.

Tell me about your collaborations on this book.
I worked with two people on this book. One was Sylvie Bigar, Sylvie is a longtime friend and a wonderful writer and a French person in America also. I really felt she could capture my voice very well. That was very important.

The second person was Bill Buford. There were a lot of things I could not write myself, or tell myself. What happens when I cook? I can talk a lot about the food I do, but I can't talk about what happens when I do it. I wanted more of a novelist to do that. I wanted a great writer, and I wanted a great chef. I say chef because Bill has been cooking and spending most of his energy on food in the last ten years or so.

How did the idea for the section on classic Lyon dishes come about?
Bill lived in Lyon for four years, I kind of sent him to Lyon. When he asked me and said he wanted to go to France, and figured out where he was going to go, I helped him settle in Lyon. He wanted to go to Lyon, I put him in connection with people there to settle and he lived four years in Lyon. And I always felt like he is cooking with all those French chefs in France and I never cooked with him. I would love to cook with Bill. And so I invited him to cook with me in New York. We're going to do dishes where you're going to cook next to me, and you're going to make your dish and I'm going to make my dish next to each other. We're going to double prep. And rather than write, I want you to cook. You can write later, when you go home.

I think it was a great collaboration. We had a lot of fun. We did it for the fun of cooking, for the pleasure of sharing the making of a recipe together. But also for the historical connotation to it. I really wanted him to cook old French. Old French affected me during my career. I have made those dishes before. I have seen, tasted those dishes. So I wanted to do a remake of those dishes that helped me in my career.

There's a quote from that section that sort of sums it up for me. One of your employees is trying to figure out how to flavor a mousse, and he finds a reference to a wine that was historically paired with the dish. Bill writes, "Cooking is like a court of law: if there is a precedent, you have a case." Do you find that to be true?
Yes, exactly. That's certainly my foundation as well. I will reference [the classics], and my chef Jean François [Bruel] will as well. But we always question that reference.

Why pick these dishes in particular to recreate?
Oh, I don't know. It wasn't really calculated with high precision. It was like let's do some fun stuff. Because each dish had a relationship with my past, and my career. Like the tête de veau en tortue, the one I learned to do when I was at Roger Vergé in France — where I had my first taste of tête de veau en tortue — has nothing to do with what I did [in the book]. It wasn't so elaborate and it wasn't so glamorous. I went back to look at a more historical reference than the one I knew at Roger Vergé. I felt we should recreate the 1800s version rather than the new version. So we went to 1881, where they really first had the reference to tête de veau en tortue. It was more about recreating some of the majestic things that made French cuisine what it is, but also chefs love bad ass cuisine. So this was my bad ass version of what I do at Daniel. [Laughs]

Truffles. [Photo: Paula Forbes /]

Scattered throughout the book are sections that focus on specific aspects of the restaurant, and since it's truffle season, I figured I'd ask you about that. That essay says you'd "pay as much as a small car for a truffle." What's the most you've ever paid for a truffle?
I spent one time something like $12,000 or $14,000 for a truffle. It was as big as the head of a kid. It was huge. It was the most expensive truffle in America that day, for sure! [Laughs]

That is, in fact, the price of a small car.
But the craziest moment I ever had with truffles was when [chef] Masa [Takayama] came to Daniel, before he opened Masa at Time Warner. He was joining some friends from Japan. He was having dinner, and when we served the truffle, he smelled the truffle, and he at an entire truffle the size of an apple. An entire white truffle. So basically, he ate like $3,000 of truffle in one shot. Or at least a couple thousand dollars worth of sales of truffle in one shot. The waiters went crazy. Everybody didn't know what was happening. He was just having fun! Well, I love truffle, I am going to eat this one all by myself! The next day of course he was embarrassed to have done that, and three days later he came by with a box and inside was a big truffle. He said, Daniel, I want to apologize. I'm sorry for what I did the other day. Because they were my guests, on top of that! They were invited.

But if I were a jeweler, and I were an artist playing with the most precious material, of course I will use diamond. I will use platinum, I will use all the stones that are meaningful and majestic and really beautiful and I think truffle is a jewel in the kitchen.

How do you describe the experience at Daniel to someone who has never been there? In essence, that's what you're trying to do with this cookbook.
What's unique about the experience at Daniel is first, of course, if you never have been to the restaurant you may have looked on the internet and seen maybe some of the food, the decor, and all that. But I think the place is unique in its location, the place is unique in its history. This is a building built in 1920, and it has a lot of classic structure and bones and the ceiling, the walls will speak the past. It's quite beautiful. And then after that, there's a modern feel to it. It will make you feel a little more at ease, and less intimidated than you might at a grand restaurant like that.

But the most important thing of course is the staff, the people who make this restaurant and make the experience. So the front of the house, you have a wonderful welcome and then there's the lounge to enjoy a moment before your dinner, enjoy an interesting cocktail. Our cocktail program is always very elaborate and interesting and ever changing. And then you go to the dining room, and there's a certain sense of grandeur and timelessness and elegance, but not stuffiness. It's not stuffy, it's not pretentious. It's not over-the-top, either. I think the striking balance of elegance and timelessness and modern at the same time give people a certain comfort.

Then we start to approach the customer with how we are going to have the experience together. And then of course it starts with the captain explaining the menus and offering different opportunities to dine, either with the tasting menu or a la carte. And trying to advise on wine, but never in an intimidating way, always trying to read what the customer wishes. I think it's very important for us.

And then we start to cook for them. I think we have a cuisine contrasted with tastes, texture, flavor, and smell, sometimes. It has a lot of vegetables in the preparation often, and it's amazing, even when we have vegetarian diners. Last night there was this young lady, 25, maybe late twenties. And she's a vegetarian, and she lives in Tribeca, and she'd never been at Daniel. She was there with her young husband. And she was almost in tears for how happy she was with our vegetarian menu. We did a tasting menu for him which was totally meat-centric, fish and all that. And for her, totally vegetarian. And she's hooked, she's coming back already. She made a reservation on the way out, because she wanted to come back. So for me, the biggest satisfaction is when we really read our guests well, and give them an experience they may not know what to expect, but at the end feel totally hooked.

Buford and Boulud prepare the tête de veau en tortue. [Photo: Paula Forbes /]

The book celebrates twenty years at Daniel. How have diners' tastes changed over the course of those twenty years?
There's definitely a mix in New York of a lot of different kinds of clientele. Since my first restaurant Daniel and every other business I grew, I not only cultivated a great clientele who has been following me along in every one of my restaurants, but we constantly also adopt new customers of new generations. So twenty years later Daniel is as young and fresh and attractive as it was twenty years ago, and quite relevant to its time. The clientele, they change, but they don't change that much.

I remember twenty years ago when there were young people who didn't have much money, but wanted to try the best restaurant in New York and came to me. And we made them an experience we really felt was something very special for them. They grow up, and maybe are more secure in life, earning a little bit more and maybe doing a little bit better in business. They never forget that first trip, and it becomes for them an important thing to go back to the place they really trust, love, and adopted in a way. We have every generation of customer, and that's what I think makes the restaurant very unique. But I really take pleasure at making people discover our restaurant, because once they know it and they know the staff — many of our customers know the name of every waiter and every maître d — they know everyone. It's important to me to make sure, then, that the customer feel connected and wants to come back because they had a true, pleasurable experience.

Another quote from the book that stuck with me is from the introduction: you call yourself "an American chef with a French soul, or a French chef with an American soul." How does that play out in your food? Do you find yourself leaning more towards one than the other as time moves on?
Twenty years ago, or twenty-two years ago, I realized that I was going to be an American chef. I wanted to go back to Lyon. My daughter was born in 1989, and in 1990 I was still at Le Cirque and I was deciding on my future. I had promised Le Cirque I was going to stay five years, and then I wanted to look for what was going to be next. I wanted to go back to Lyon, my hometown. I tried for two years to figure it out, how I could come back to Lyon. And after two years, I decided New York was really the city I wanted to be in. And I knew I was going to become an American chef, but with a French soul. I wasn't taking the French away from me. I was going to be part of the team of chefs in this country. They're ambitious and amazing and they come from every country and every culture and every cuisine.

But the second part is the French chef in America. This is the book: My French Cuisine. It hasn't gone away yet. It's still my strongest inspiration. I feel the two together, it's very much who I am, what I do, and how I live. There is not a day when I don't speak French, there's not a day that I don't think French, but there's not a day I can think I am French. I am definitely feeling more American.

Do you find that's changed your approach to food at all?
Of course, of course. I think the stimulation, the ambition here in America, there's no comparison with any other country. The competition, the stimulation, and certainly the ambition of chefs in this country, the talent, everything make it very exciting to cook here today. I think it's the most exciting part of the world to cook for, and yet every country has its own excitement. I love everywhere I go, to discover new cuisines.

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