A man known for his enviable supply of charm and energy, chef Daniel Boulud always seems to be moving on to the next thing. It's both strange and pleasant, then, to see him stop and look back, as he has occasion to do now. His flagship Daniel is celebrating its twentieth year in business, and even though Boulud may now have a management company and restaurants spread throughout the world, he doesn't forget that it's the first restaurant — the one that he owns — that started it all. Last week Boulud sat down in his office there (they call it "the skybox," since it has an aerial view of the kitchen), to talk about his early days cooking at Le Cirque, how he went about opening his first restaurant, and what it takes to manage an empire. Here's part one of the conversation:
Daniel has now been around for 20 years, so I thought we would start by talking about how the restaurant came about.
Daniel on 76th Street was fabulous and extraordinary, but this opportunity just came up one day. I considered that I could just stay up there and run with that, but this, even though it was a risk, was appealing.
Why was it more appealing?
What I think was exciting here is the historical part of it. It used to be the Mayfair Hotel and it had Le Cirque, where I was executive chef for six years. But it wasn't Le Cirque anymore. I have always loved the location. It was unique to be able to have the chance to come back here, and what maybe drew me here the most was that I could buy the real estate. They gave me a really good deal so that we could own it. It was a big investment, but owning it and being successful here would be my retirement plan. At some point, I thought, I could always sell it. In all our other restaurants, we are tenants who have to sign a lease and negotiate with a landlord. I don't have to worry about losing this, and that's the reason I did it. I wouldn't have done it otherwise.
I also wanted to make it one of the best restaurants in the country and make sure I was here all the time.
Let's go back and talk about Le Cirque, leaving that restaurant, and what you wanted the first Daniel to be.
I wanted to be totally different from Le Cirque. I was French, and Le Cirque was Italian and New York and kind of pseudo-French. There were lots of things I liked about Le Cirque. Coming here to New York and being able to work there, at one of the best restaurants in the city, for six years was a big deal for me. I had no money and couldn't open my own business. In order to be able to prove myself and show other people — the customers and the media — I had to work hard at it. And Le Cirque was maybe the place I have worked the hardest. When I went to do my own thing, I didn't really consider it a lot of it work, since it had my name on it. It was different.
But Le Cirque, in the '80s, fit the time and city perfectly. Sirio took a gamble compared to the more established and predictable French restaurants at the time, which basically all had the same menu. Sirio wanted to change, and by hiring me, he took a chance, since he didn't know if I could handle that kitchen, that restaurant. He also didn't really know what I would end up doing with the food.
When did you transition into Daniel?
There came a point I was going to go back to Lyon, around 1990. My daughter was born in 1989. So we had to decide what we were going to do with our lives, really. For two summers, around 1991, I spent five weeks in Lyon looking for restaurants. I had no money, but I was trying to use the city of Lyon and my resources — friends and family — to try to make something happen. It was difficult for me, because I already had a book going in New York. I knew too many people in New York. I realized that New York had become home. I was a young chef in France, but I really made my mark here. Going back to Lyon would have been fine eventually, but the typical political problems in France and all those things made it too complicated.
So in the summer of 1991, we were with some friends, Tom Danziger and Lili Lynton, and my wife and I brought up how we were considering leaving and going to France. Lili immediately said that she would help me set up a business here, in New York. They are the ones who helped me. Publicly I didn't want to show that I was trying to open a place, so they did so much behind the scenes to make it happen. They looked at spaces, met with people, raised money. Then I had the chance to meet Joel Smilow, who was the uncle of Lili Lynton, since I heard he wanted to be an investor. I was trying to raise close to three million dollars, and he told me that he had never invested in a restaurant, but that he would much rather be the only investor and not just one of several. So, finally, in 1992 I signed the lease at Les Pleiades uptown.
You mentioned, when talking about Le Cirque, that it was a gamble putting you in charge and that you didn't quite know if you could handle it. How did you pull it off when you opened Daniel, and, more importantly, when you started to grow the company?
Le Cirque really gave me the confidence, to be honest and simple about it. One year in, we started the catering company next to Daniel. Then, about two years in, I hired François Payard, who was at Le Bernardin and had previously cooked with me at Le Cirque, to be my first pastry chef at Daniel. Le Bernardin, by the way, had never had a pastry chef before François. He was an extremely hard worker and talented, so we decided to do something like Lenôtre in Paris on Lexington Avenue. That was François Payard. We eventually broke up with him, around three years later.
At this time, we were getting ready to move Daniel, which is when Café Boulud came about.
Did you make a conscious decision to keep growing?
No. I had to do something with my lease up there, and I figured it was time for me to do something more casual. It's named after a café in my hometown, so there is that connection to that feeling. In 2001 came DB Bistro, in 2002 Palm Beach, in 2005 Las Vegas, and along the way Bar Boulud...
But was it a challenge adjusting to something that was getting bigger, where you'd have to do a lot more management?
At the beginning it was really, really, really difficult. It was a small crew. Joel Smilow, my partner, was CEO of a huge company, and even though he has been a silent partner, he was very important in helping us manage and learn to manage. Lili was a Harvard Business School graduate and has been very good with operations. But the management group system, that came about when we were doing Payard and moving Daniel. It just became too big, I realized. So we had to have a director of operations and just restructure the company, so that I could still manage to be a chef and work in the kitchens.
Do you ever find yourself missing when it was a smaller operation?
Yeah, definitely, but at the same time, I started late. Today, a kid starting at 25 or 30 could burn out quickly or get scared. I think I've done my share in the kitchen, and I also felt that I started at an age where I was much more stable and surrounded by really good talent. Of course you get scared and frustrated sometimes and wish you could just be the guy you used to be, focusing on one thing and cooking, but I really enjoy every level of this growth. I sometimes envy my young self, but this is pretty cool. I still make sure that I stay connected with the food, with my chefs. That can never go away.
What I really do love when I travel to my restaurants, is that I don't have that sphere of management around me. That goes away. I spend time with the cooks and develop the food. That is great. I like how we can do test after test and make sure it works, and take ideas from everybody. You know, you could have a system where you do everything yourself and have 20 seats, but it's hard to think that is sustainable. I came from a very modest family, so I count my blessings every day. I have to make sure everyone is taken care of and that I work really hard.
You're known for being the most energetic guy in the room. When, if ever, does it get to the point where you're beat?
I just did a charity event in Miami where there were 80 tables. The tables, two by two, were linked by a service station so the diners could cook and finish their meals. So I had to scream over 800 people for hours and teach them all how to make a sauce forestière, how to make a pasta dish, how to make shrimp. It was a four-course menu that I had to teach them to prepare in real time. That was completely exhausting. That was heavy. But I have fun doing all of these things.
And you'll wake up in the morning and go through it all again.
Yeah, I'll go to the gym, I'll do pilates. It's exhausting, in some ways and on some days, but this is also a very stimulating business. I figure the average age of the people who work for me — there are 750 employees in New York — is around 28. That definitely keeps me young. I have no choice.
Tomorrow, in part two, Boulud talks French cuisine, how New York's dining scene has changed, and his legacy.