By Barbara Perry Bind
Chef Daniel Boulud, who came from humble beginnings on a farm in Lyon, France, has become a culinary icon, mentor and author. His culinary creations please the palates of the most discerning of diners and his self-avowed commitment to philanthropy benefits countless members of the community.
As an acclaimed chef and restaurateur, he has been honored by both the James Beard Foundation and Bon Appétit as "Chef of the Year," and he has received Gourmet Magazine's "Top Table" award. Boulud has also earned a four-star rating from The New York Times and membership in the highly selective Relais & Châteaux.
On March 4, the man everyone calls simply "Daniel," will be honored at Great Chefs 2011, an annual fundraiser held by Greenwich Hospital to benefit its outreach department, Community Health.
Boulud was singularly impressed with the scope of the event. "Fifty-two chefs giving back and supporting the community -- I don't know if we could have gathered this many together for a single event in New York City. It's impressive," he says.
The Citizen spoke with Boulud about his career, what he loves most about cooking and what have been major factors contributing to his successes.
What made you decide to become a chef?
I learned that I loved cooking very early on. At home I could either work on the farm or help my grandmother in the kitchen. The choice was easy. I'm also fortunate that my first employer, Gerard Nandron, was a great role model. He was a leader in his community and also very nurturing to his staff, whom he treated like family, while still imposing strict standards. He showed great respect for the profession.
What role did growing up on a farm in Lyon play in your decision to become a chef?
My parents' farm was in St. Pierre de Chandieu, a small village outside Lyon. I still dream of having a farm of my own. The food we ate at home was simple but delicious. It was what we raised or grew. You looked forward to each ingredient that was harvested in its own time, and that still totally drives the way I cook today.
Who have been your major influences?
One piece of advice I offer young cooks is to choose their mentors wisely. It's probably because mine were so influential in my life. From the start, I worked for the best chefs who would hire me and then gave them my all. In each case, they repaid me by in turn introducing me to yet another great mentor. As a young chef, I had the privilege of working for the top talents of the day. Georges Blanc in Vonnas, Michel Guérard at Les Prés d'Eugènie and then Roger Vergé at the Moulin de Mougins in the south of France. They had incredible palates and technique. Their cooking reflected their regional roots, applied with respect for tradition but also with modernity. They were more than chefs; they were restaurateurs who attended to every detail of their guests' experience.
Describe or define your style of cooking.
Rooted in French tradition, driven by the best ingredients I can find and always inspired by the season.
What is your idea of a great meal or dining experience?
It's many things coming together: the company, the mood, the setting, the food and of course the wine, all in harmony.
What were some difficulties you faced on your road to success?
If you want to do this seriously it is 24/7. It can, and does, absorb every bit of your life. It takes a real effort to carve out a tiny corner of your life for yourself, and it's easy to forget to do that sometimes.
Early on, it's hard to learn to delegate, but as you assemble a great team around you, they give you the confidence and freedom to build. I am very lucky to have an incredible team.
Describe the challenges facing today's restaurateurs.
The greatest challenge lies in constantly reassessing and reasserting our standards of excellence so as to maintain consistent quality. How do we do this? Careful recruiting, followed by constant training and retraining to guide and motivate talented people who are dedicated to the craft of cooking and who love the art of serving. Our goal is for these restaurant professionals to build careers with us. These are the people who build lasting relationships with our guests and work daily to help make our restaurants what they are.
What advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?
Follow your heart. Master your technique and pay your dues, but then go on to cook what really makes you happy.
What would you say to someone who's totally intimidated in the kitchen?
Start with the best ingredients you can get a hold of, at the peak of their seasonality. Choose simple recipes; ideally, dishes you can make at least partly ahead of time. Slowly simmered braised dishes are great for this. They are almost impossible to overcook and always taste better the next day. Choose one for each season, keep it simple and make it your own.
Tell me about some of your worst disasters.
There was a Christmas goose and an outdoor barbecue grill. The rest was ugly -- and involved lots of flames!
What successes are you most proud of?
My daughter Alix, but Alix herself and her mother Micky deserve most of the credit
Is there a fine line between the camaraderie and competition among chefs?
Among those who love their work and respect our métier there is tremendous camaraderie. Of course, there is a healthy sense of competition, but the community of chefs is a pretty close and nurturing one.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
There is no limit to what you can create. Our craft is rooted in technique and tradition, but I am also continuously inspired by travel and by the creativity of the young chefs around me. And finally, all our effort goes to making people happy.
What is the best compliment someone could give to you?
That dish made me so happy. I'm coming back for it again tomorrow night.