With over 50 years in the business, French native Daniel Boulud is widely celebrated as one of America’s leading culinary authorities. He sits on top of a global food empire of bistros, cafes and restaurants, including his two-Michelin-starred flagship Daniel, which he opened in 1993 at Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Outside the US, he has over a dozen dining concepts in Montreal, London, Dubai, Singapore and The Bahamas, to name a few.
This year, he opened his first restaurant at sea, Le Voyage, on board the Celebrity Beyond cruise ship by US brand Celebrity Cruises. He also launched a Japanese-inspired dining concept, Le Pavillon, in Manhattan skyscraper One Vanderbilt, showcasing a vegetable-forward and seafood-centric cuisine.
Not only is he a multiple award winner — mostly recently crowned the Best Restaurateur in the World by Les Grandes Tables du Monde — Boulud is also a cookbook author and philanthropist who supports several charities focusing on hunger relief and culinary education. He is also the co-founder of the Bocuse d'Or USA Foundation, which organises a yearly world chef championship.
One would think that with such a prolific CV, Boulud might have developed that hardened exterior often associated with chefs of his stature. Ask anyone in the industry, and they will all unanimously tell you that the affable Boulud is a culinary Mr Congeniality who counts veteran chefs Wolfgang Puck, Tetsuya Matsuda and Nobu Matsuhisa as his close friends.
“The beauty of the business is the fraternity among chefs. We all belong to one dysfunctional, sometimes obsessed, family, but we all know why we are in it, and that is what makes the team strong,” says the 67-year-old at a dialogue session held at Marina Bay Sands (MBS) earlier this year.
Originally from Lyon, Boulud grew up in a farming family. He embarked on his culinary journey at the tender age of 14 as an apprentice and helmed the stoves at numerous Michelin-starred restaurants in his hometown. After a stint in Copenhagen, he emigrated to New York City in 1982, where he was hired at the famed Le Cirque. In 1993 he struck out on his own and opened Daniel, following a string of eponymous concepts that serve soulful dishes grounded in French classical techniques and reimagined for the modern diner.
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“I think the recipe for success is my team, from service to back-of-house, as everyone can impact the guest experience and has an important role in building that experience. My most valued qualities are loyalty and dedication. At my restaurants, we make sure that we give our people the tools to succeed and exceed their goals,” he says.
In his early years navigating the exciting world of F&B, Boulud adds: “It is not about finding a fancy restaurant to work in — what’s important is to be patient and choose a good mentor who can teach and help you to become a good chef. I was fortunate to have had many good mentors whom I leaned on for support throughout my career. They travelled the world in the 1970s, from Japan to Brazil, teaching young chefs how to be great. A good mentor will follow you, advise you, and encourage you to keep growing.”
At his only Singapore restaurant, db Bistro & Oyster Bar at MBS, Boulud shares with Options how he continues to remain passionate about his craft.
What is the secret to your success?
I don't take anything for granted, I count my blessings, I keep reinventing myself, and I stay true to myself. But the real recipe for success is doing it as a team. We all have a role to play and have to responsibly manage that. Nobody is perfect, and we are constantly learning, innovating and evolving.
What is the most exciting part of your job?
Working on new projects, starting a new kitchen, creating a new vision – these are always exciting. But just going into work every day, protecting what we do, and constantly reassessing what we have to do to stay stronger and be better than the competition, that really gets the adrenaline going.
I’m a French chef who loves to cook French. I teach my people the virtue of organisation and the art of cooking. When I see my peers become more conscious of the quality of product and technique, and pour their soul into their work to create something so refined and elevated, it’s just so beautiful to see.
Michelin stars or customer feedback, which is more important to you?
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Of course, we all care about what we earn with awards and titles, but the customer has always been my number one priority. I can create beautiful restaurants and build a great team, but I am nothing without the loyal support of my diners.
With award-winning restaurants, you don’t know if people are coming to visit because of the stars, or that they genuinely love the food. I don’t want to just be another restaurant where people go to check a box. I could do a single tasting menu and maybe earn a third star, but that’s not who I am. I want to offer an ala carte menu with wider options to give people more reason to come back, as they have always been for the last 30 years, and to know the name of every waiter and busboy, or have a relationship with the bartender and chef. I think to me, that's important.
By the same token, I do want to make sure I'm rewarded fairly for what I do. I'm very good at observing competition. If I feel tasting menus are what people are going for, who knows, maybe I might switch things up in three to five years’ time!
Which do you like more: being a chef or restaurateur?
Definitely a chef. I love being in the restaurant so much that I live directly above it (Daniel is located on 65th street at Park Avenue). The first thing I do when I go to work is put on my chef’s jacket and go to the back-of-house to get updates from the team on kitchen matters. And then during service hours, I go to the front-of-house and greet my customers, take their orders and pour wine. The restaurant is not only an extension of me but it's also an extension of what we do as a team.
Is sustainability important to you?
We are consciously trying but it's impossible to say you can be 100% sustainable because it depends on so many variables. But of course, we all have to be more conscious of our actions and how it impacts the community and the environment. Collectively, we have a long way to go but we are getting better with it. Right now, none of my restaurants use plastic straws, and we look at ways to reduce energy consumption. With my newer restaurants like Le Pavillon, sustainability has a strong focus where our ingredients are utilised to the fullest extent to ensure zero wastage. In New York, one of my suppliers D'Artagnan created a green circle for its chickens. All our waste, such as carrot peels, will be sent to them as chicken feed. Not every city is organised to do this, some are better than the others. But it’s a start in the right direction.
What are your thoughts on plant-based meat alternatives?
Plant-based is not a new concept. I grew up on a farm pulling vegetables from the ground and eating them every day. When I opened Café Boulud 25 years ago, I included a vegetarian menu for my customers. Eating more vegetables is good, but I think there must always be balance. I was reading that vegetarians are developing depression because they are lacking in some nutrients. I feel moderation is key. It makes no sense to be vegetarian and drink like a fish on martinis. I'd rather not be vegetarian and drink less martinis!
I cannot yet understand the necessity of having plant-based meats. While I think it's important to save the world, I’m not sure about eating food made from chemistry. You know what I mean? But with time and through innovation, I do hope we will get to eat something more natural in future.
From your perspective, how has the dining scene changed over the years?
For me the biggest change has been the diners. They are so well-travelled and affluent now. Everyone is a gourmand. They know everything about food and want to try everything. They want to pass through all the top restaurants to check that box, so there is no fidelity or loyalty to one restaurant. Personally, putting different kinds of gasoline in your car is not very good for longevity. But having said that, new things are always good. It makes the world evolve and puts food on my table!
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