Sunday March 10, 2013
By PATSY KAM
A Frenchman in New York proves he can make a better burger, especially since he’s the award-winning chef Daniel Boulud.
IT’S uncanny, really. Just when you think he’s not watching, chef Daniel Boulud catches you sneaking a photograph of him from the corner of his eye. He then asks whether his eyes were closed. This happened several times.
Comes with experience, I guess, after having been interviewed by numerous newspapers and magazines. Boulud also had his own TV series, After Hours With Daniel, which looked into what chefs have for late-night dinners.
It’s not that he’s vain (well, a little) but it’s just that he’s the consummate perfectionist.
Which explains how Boulud garnered his many accolades including the James Beard Foundation awards for Outstanding Restaurateur, Best Chef Of New York City and Outstanding Chef Of The Year.
Originally from Lyon, France, farm-boy Boulud mastered his cooking skills in New York and is today considered one of America’s leading culinary authorities.
Under his management company The Dinex Group, there’s the catering company Feast & Fetes and six restaurants: Daniel, Café Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, Bar Boulud, DBGB Kitchen & Bar and Boulud Sud in New York City. Café Boulud in Palm Beach and the Michelin-star Daniel Boulud Brasserie (now closed) in Las Vegas are also his, and he has restaurants in Miami, Montreal, Toronto, London, Beijing, and Singapore. His eponymous three-star Michelin restaurant, Daniel, in New York City was cited as one of the best in the world by International Herald Tribune and given a four-star rating by New York Times. Just last month, it was inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame.
Whew, that’s a pretty long list of achievements, not to mention the six books which Boulud has authored, and another new one on his culinary journey, My French Cuisine, written by Bill Buford, scheduled to be out in October.
“The new book celebrates 20 years of Daniel, and will offer recipes from my restaurants, stories on making ‘incredible’ dishes based on old-world cooking dating back to the 1700s and 1800s, and iconic dishes which you can’t find anymore,” he explained.
At the db Bistro Moderne in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, Boulud sat down for a chat with a few Malaysian journalists to explain his menu. He had flown in to check on his restaurant (“I don’t come here often enough”), in conjunction with the recently concluded three-day food and wine appreciation Epicurean Market held at the Marina Bay Sands Convention Centre.
Apart from showcasing his restaurant at the exhibition, Boulud also held a masterclass together with Japanese chef Tetsuya Wakuda, and the session was probably one of the most iconic moments in gastronomy history. The cheerful camaraderie and comical banter that accompanied the cooking demonstration belied the chefs’ prowess, as the deceivingly simple dishes produced subtle yet delightful, tantalising flavours that teased the palate and had the audience begging for more.
‘I give the best’
Much like the original db in New York City, the Bistro offers a mix of traditional French bistro cooking and comtemporary American flavours, including a signature burger collection, in a casual and elegant setting.
The interior was designed by Jeffrey Beers, referencing a traditional yet stylishly contemporary bistro. The 185-seater restaurant offers a dining area, an informal cafe, bar and private room.
“It’s a reasonably priced, casual dining sort of place. You would never see a burger in a French restaurant but I can do that because I am from New York. It’s not about fast food, but casual food. Even for the burgers, we take pride and make it ourselves. We choose the meat, the condiments and everything else,” added Boulud.
Daniel (the restaurant), on the other hand, is all about luxury food and serving in detail, and “that’s what I work all my life for,” said the 57-year-old chef, adding, “I give the best.”
Make no mistake though, the Bistro may offer casual food, but it comes with the same commitment as his luxury restaurants.
“That’s what makes me diversified in my different restaurants. When you cook from scratch, the human factor is very important.
“Some are good days and some, bad days, but you make sure everyone gives their best.”
Both Bistros may exist in different parts of the world – “hot weather db versus cold weather db” – but it doesn’t make a difference to Boulud.
“As long as I have good ingredients and a good team, I’m happy. My cooking style is classic and authentic, creative and contemporary. I don’t try to be trendy and this (philosophy) has served me well. Thirty years later, I’m still here! I don’t have to be super hot or super cool,” he jested.
He swears by potatoes, the same way Asians love their rice but essentially, Boulud said his food is seasonally driven. The exclusive menus in his many restaurants boast what’s freshest on the table, be it a unique mushroom or rare eel.
Singapore resonates well with the chef.
“I like it here – there’s an amazing mix of all cuisines – Malaysian, Indian, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese (and it goes on) – and they all live together. That’s what makes Singapore one of the most metropolitan and vibrant cities in the world.
“New York has many cultures too but you could say Singapore is the capital of Asia, in a way,” he said.
What is it about chicken rice, I don’t quite understand, but Boulud is so taken up by the dish that he would like to come up with Chicken Rice Boulud, offering his own take!
If he were to open an Asian restaurant, Boulud said he would choose Indochine cuisine.
“Vietnamese and Cambodian food is clean and delicate, the flavours not too confusing; not as spicy as Thai or Malay food.”
Cooking comes naturally to Boulud, who was introduced to the kitchen at the early age of eight by his grandmother.
“The concept of farm to table is a big thing now in the United States, but as a farm boy (in France), we grew our own produce, made everything on our own including our own wine and cheese, and the only thing we bought were the condiments.”
What he loves best is being in his restaurant with his team when he’s back in New York.
“I love my team and train them well. What’s more important is longevity. You can be good but it’s hard to stay (sic). It’s not enough to be a great chef, you need to be a great businessman.
“For example, yesterday, the fridge broke down and to me, that is a bigger problem as I don’t know how to fix it. Then, the other day the supplier sent something that wasn’t right. Every day there is something,” he shared.
“We’re not a factory making one type of candy, that would be easier, no?”
For someone who works up to 15 hours a day and lives above his restaurant (in New York), you would imagine that he’d want to get away for a change.
But not Boulud, as he’s happiest when he “sits down with friends and fellow chefs, and talk about seasoning, concepts, techniques, texture. layering.”
“When I’m at home, I like to cook other people’s recipes and try ethnic cuisine, as I don’t have that in my restaurant. Maybe if I wasn’t a chef, I would like to do something noble and that would touch people’s lives. Perhaps, an artist or a sculptor?
“Maybe I would be a farmer like my father ...” he quipped with a twinkle in his eye.
That indeed would have been a great loss to the culinary world.