Yesterday, in part one of our Kitchen Time Machine interview with Daniel Boulud, we took at look at how he manages his global empire. Since this series was occasioned by my upcoming book about the American chef and restaurant movement of the 1970s and 1980s, today we crank the machine up and take a trip back to the past, to the moment when Boulud rose to prominence after moving on from Le Régence at the Hotel Plaza Athénée to take over the kitchen at Siro Maccioni's Le Cirque, where he was chef from 1986 through 1992, moving on to open the first iteration of his own Restaurant Daniel.
Andrew Friedman: Tell me about coming to Le Cirque; how did that job come about?
Daniel Boulud: When I first met with Sirio, it was in the spring of 1986. There was a little room on the side of the hotel, a dark room. That's where we had our first meeting. It was very discreet at the beginning because we wanted to make sure the whole world — I mean, there was no social media — but we didn't want anybody to know that we were speaking.
Little by little I was trying to learn about Le Cirque, Sirio and all that, so knowing a little bit where I was going to step in. I knew of the place. I had eaten there. But I didn't know too much. I had never seen the kitchen or anything. So I'm taking a job and I haven't seen the kitchen even, because I couldn't show my face there.
That same week, independently, Andre Soltner called me because he had a chef named Jacques, and Jacques was leaving and he needed to replace him with a chef de cuisine. But Andre was the chef-owner and he needed a chef de cuisine. So I went for an interview with Andre. But I could really feel that with Andre it was going to be Andre's cuisine, versus Le Cirque where Sirio was not in the kitchen so that was going to be my game. And I think for me it was absolutely what I wanted.
What was most appealing to you about that possibility?
I felt like maybe Le Cirque was the one that would give me the most freedom, the most opportunity to show my talent.
I felt like maybe Le Cirque was the one that would give me the most freedom, the most opportunity to show my talent. And then, you know, besides the pleasure of transforming many of the classics of Le Cirque into better classics -- making the bouillabaisse better, making the pot‑au‑feu better, making the bollito misto better. All the classics Sirio loved to have, but also to bring many of the dishes that became iconic.
Were the dishes that ended up becoming classics there, that you introduced there, were they things that you had in mind already? Were they things that you had done versions of already? Or were they specifically conceived for Le Cirque?
They were absolutely specifically conceived for Le Cirque. I mean, if you take my first cookbook they are mostly all there, the paupiette of sea bass, the black tie scallops, the tuna tartare with curry. But also, I was making majestic pot‑au‑feu, big platters of pot‑au‑feu. Big platters of bollito misto. We were taking pleasure at making really big dishes like that. Le Cirque was great when it came to show off for the customer. It was all about great food but in a very sort of grand way.
When you name some of those dishes how would you characterize them? Were they for you French dishes? Were they for you modern American? You just mentioned curry. Where do you place that at that time?
I don't know. For me I always liked curry with celery and radish and apple. First came a chicken salad. We had to have a chicken salad at lunch for Le Cirque. I came up with this chicken curry salad. They were doing a chicken salad but I didn't like it so much and I wanted the curry sauce to have much more flavor from the base, where you sweat onions and apples and celery and make a real fruity savory base and then add the curry. And then with that paste we made a base paste and we finished it with a mayo. And the chicken was a chicken breast salad where it was cut in batonnets and tossed into this curry dressing.
I had lived in Denmark before I came to America, and there, for example, they were doing herring with curry. So one day we made a tuna tartare with the curry sauce, and the tuna tartare was the one maybe that became more iconic.
That's fascinating. The history of a dish. Take me through another classic or two.
Le Cirque was great when it came to show off for the customer. It was all about great food but in a very sort of grand way.
The black tie sea scallops were first featured in an article — I can't remember if it was Food & Wine or an article presenting me at Le Cirque — the first year I was there. It was a picture with me and the sous chefs and the black tie was just layers of scallops and truffles served over spinach with truffle buerre blanc. That was the first phase.
New Year's Eve the following year, I wanted to do something special for New Year's Eve and that's where it took its name, Black Tie, because on the menu I put Sea Scallop Black Tie because it was a black-tie night anyway. So, layered scallops, but because they were American scallops coming in the shell rather than the French scallop which was a little more flabby, a little more soft, a little more watery, they had a natural sort of collagen so the scallops sticked at each other. We could slice them, put things in between and reconstitute the scallops and they would hold up perfectly together. And so I did the scallop like that wrapped in the spinach leaf, so the spinach is not on the plate but it's around the scallop, and wrapped that in a very thin dough of puff pastry where it was all about cooking the dough at, you know, 375 degrees or 425 even, and wrapping the scallop in the puff pastry with a band around and two disks on top and on the bottom. This dish became an instant classic right there because suddenly, it was like, boom, nothing could change anymore.
While we're re-visiting your greatest hits from that era, what about the paupiette of sea bass?
I came back from France doing two weeks at Paul Bocuse before I took [over at] Le Cirque because I was in Lyon doing nothing, so I called Paul and we arranged for me to spend some time at the Auberge before I took over at Le Cirque. And so I spent two weeks at Paul Bocuse and I saw the beautiful little rouget with the little scale of potatoes on top and a buerre blanc with it also.
I was also at Girardet, eating often there, and Girardet was doing a rouget with a little zucchini scales, you know, like the tiny little baby zucchini, and served it in a different sauce. So there was a pattern of fish with vegetable scales.
So I came back to New York and forgot about making little scaled potatoes for two hundred fifty covers, trying to copy Bocuse. But I liked the idea of the crispy potato around the fish; to me it was something that was so logical, that by the time you cooked the potatoes the fish was perfectly cooked.
And that's how we created the first paupiette of sea bass there. The first try was almost right. But only with sea bass. Striped bass was not as easy to master, and any other flaky fish or tough fish would not work. So in a way that dish could only have been born in New York because black sea bass is a local fish.
Those years at Le Cirque, obviously the clientele was a Who's Who of New York.
Of the world.
Photo by Daniel Krieger.
But this is also a time when ‑‑ you may not be comfortable talking about yourself this way — but you started to become very well‑known. Your own level of fame started to climb into a similar place, ultimately, to a lot of the people who were your customers. Do you remember being struck by that as it was happening? How do you remember perceiving that as the person who was going through that transformation?
For me, I mean, I think it was the most exciting time because I was part of this generation of chefs who was changing America. And I think the real first moment was when we went out to Aspen. There was me, Thomas Keller, Hubert Keller.
You're talking about the first Food & Wine Best New Chefs class?
Yes. There was Robert McGrath, there was in Chicago Rick Bayless. That felt to me it was like my entry to the club. It was my first entry to the elite.
That event was that meaningful to you?
Oh, yeah. Very much.
This whole sourcing revolution that starts to happen at this time, chefs finding people to grow things for them, chefs starting to rely on specialty purveyors. All of this stuff started happening around that time.
In the '80s every day somebody would knock on the door and bring something.
That you were looking for?
That we were looking for or we would discover.
There was a hotbed of activity in New York and people knew that guys like you were looking for product?
Absolutely. Absolutely. All the time.
How would this play out?
Well, I think through the media people knew who was cooking in New York. And I think the network among chefs worked very well. You could knock on ten doors at the same time because we'd help you enlarge the circle of chefs who were interested.
At the time, it was about squab, it was about duck, it was about herbs, it was about vegetables. We had to depend on the local purveyor who was importing stuff from California, from Florida, from France and all that. So there was all this distribution, but then after there was the local guy who was just crossing the country to try and find stuff, will always try to surprise everyone with something new, like live sea scallops. At the time it was incredible to be able to have access to ingredients. You didn't even know they were there, you know?
When you look at the turn of the century, there was so much food here. They had everything, everything, and then it kind of disappeared off the map. There were definitely cycles.
That was a lot of work for you guys. [Gotham Bar and Grill chef] Alfred Portale told me how he wanted to do tuna tartare at Gotham so he would go down to Chinatown because it was the only place he could get sushi-grade tuna. He'd bring it back up to 12th Street on his lap in a taxi.
I'm not surprised. We used to go to Chinatown.
It was harder but is there any part of you that misses that time? It must have been very exciting.
Well, for me it was.
You guys were creating a new thing here.
Yeah, but we also had very thoughtful suppliers as well, even like, you know, fisherman and all that. They would find us crayfish. If I wanted crab from Maryland, I'd get crab from Maryland. If I wanted anything, they'd find a way to get it to us.
So it was not that bad. I mean, there was a lot of food available; it's what you do with it. And to make sure that it was up to standard. The crayfish, they came alive. A lot of stuff would come alive. So it was good in a sense. I never felt that I was deprived from cooking because there weren't enough ingredients.
Top photo by Daniel Krieger.