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Daniel Boulud

Pleasure for the pleasure

The top New York’ French chef says that good food is a sensorial – not intellectual - experience.

Tania Menai, in New York

It happened at a sit down dinner for 60 people in a banker’s house. Each guest had donated $40 thousand to spend the evening with President Clinton and to collaborate to the American Democrat Party. The meal was prepared under the rigorous eyes of a navy official - cooks walked between sniffing dogs. Security guards checked each saucepan. At the moment the President arrive, nobody could move. Not even in the kitchen. As Clinton entered the salon, he and Hillary simply ignored the guests and went directly to the kitchen, where they spent 15 minutes talking to the chef. The President is known for having this friendly behavior. But he wouldn’t be doing that if the oven’s pilot wasn’t the French Daniel Boulud, 44, owner of the three New York’s top restaurants – Daniel, Café Boulud and Payard – and the catering Feast & Fêtes. Prior to his solo flying, Daniel Boulud was a chef at the well-known restaurant Le Cirque. Born near Lyon, in France, and living in the USA for 20 years, he works six days a week and usually 17 hours a day. The new Restaurant Daniel, reopened over a little more than a year, absorbed $ 10 million in its renovation. In the 464 m2 kitchen the noise of the hurry of the 30 cooks doesn’t affect the calm and good humor of this chef. In his kitchen, Daniel Boulud gave Veja the following interview:

Veja – What is to eat well?

Boulud – It is to feel well, to eat something that you will remember. I am very attached to gastronomic memories. It is always an emotional moment. You appreciate the taste, the wine, the bread, the service – it is all the composition of the meal. There are people that spend more time analyzing the food instead of appreciating it. I am not a cerebral eater; I prefer the pleasure.

Veja – To be a good chef is…

Boulud – to know how to administrate your staff and your business. It is necessary to be good and humble at the same time. A good chef has to have consistency and dedication and know how to deal with thousands of things at the same time. A lot of chefs have problems with their ego. They think they are more important than their clients.

Veja – You define yourself as a French-American chef. Why?

Boulud – I have lived in the USA long enough to feel that I am not going back to France and had lived in France enough to feel that I will never become an American. As we have to make choices, and I am neither one, I chose to be French-American. But I love my heritage and believe in it. It was this heritage that made who I am in the USA.

Veja – In the American film “Big Night”, two Italian brothers argue on the kitchen of their restaurant in New Jersey. While one insists in preserving the authenticity of the Italian cuisine, the other tries to create the menu according to the clients’ tastes. Did you have to give up certain traditions to please the Americans?

Boulud - It is not a matter of taste, but attitude. I have the liberty of breaking the limits imposed by the French cuisine. The menu at the restaurant Daniel is French, but sometimes I am inspired by the Asian cuisine without making it a rule. It could be a sauce or other ingredient. At Café Boulud we create a menu with different nationalities – it is part of the American culture, a Tower of Babel. The Americans have been exposed to all cuisines of the world - much more than the French people or even me, during my youth. In Lyon we didn’t have Turkish, Indian or Chinese restaurants.

Veja – But do Americans know how to appreciate the culinary art?

Boulud - New York is not the United States. The energy of this city is completely different from any other city. Here, there are people from all over the world. At the same time, I believe that the American people know how to appreciate good cuisine. They are more open-minded than the French people. My parents didn’t know what a Bordeaux wine was until the day I got them a bottle. They were satisfied with the Bourgogne and, in their minds, thought they didn’t have to know any other. The Americans know the wines from Australia, Spain or Italy. In the USA, the culinary has much more exposure in the media and from the commercial point of view. With TV channels like Food Network, whoever lives in Oklahoma and has never been to New York knows who we are. Also, a lot of people in their fifties and professional from other areas come here as interns simply for the passion of cooking. The Americans don’t see any problem in going back to the university at this age to learn more. That doesn’t happen in the French culture or in other cultures. There are hundreds of culinary and wine classes in the whole country. Twenty years ago it wasn’t like that. The Americans are, gradually, changing their values, spending more money on a good meal than in buying superficial things.

Veja – What do you think about McDonald’s?

Boulud – I wish McDonald’s had been invented by the French. This kind of restaurant is a necessity. How could the world eat every day without places where you can have a $7 meal? The sad part is the fact that a lot of people depend on them. When you have 15 minutes to have lunch, you have no option. McDonald’s is the global scene but in all neighborhoods there are sandwich places, like turkey or ham and cheese. Fast food chains proliferate due the people’s lack of time and money. But the problem is that they seduce the kids in exchange of gifts. It takes advantage of Pokemon and Super Man to make them come back. That’s the bad news. It would be better if they gave them a strawberry instead of a plastic doll.

Veja – Do you know the Brazilian cuisine?

Boulud – A lot. I like feijoada and find bobó de camarão superbe, really great. It is not a very light dish, but the Brazilians don’t eat it every day. But the caipirinha helps to push it down.

Veja – Café Boulud’s name is the same as your family’s café back 100 years ago in Saint-Pierre de Chadieu. How did your family influence your cuisine?

Boulud – I was raised in the kitchen and food was the number one subject of my family. We used to spend hours at the table. My mother used to cook while my father and uncles worked in the fields. I preferred to stay at home, that’s why I have liked the kitchen since I was little. When I decided that I wanted to be a chef, my parents sent me to a school where I stayed for two moths. But there, they taught how to cook in a cafeteria; everything was very academic, with no expression or emotion. So when I turned 14, I started to work in a restaurant after school and it was then that I began to learn. At this age people really get to learn, as they have to do everything in the kitchen.

Veja – In the Mexican film Like water for Chocolate, the dishes cooked by the main character make people cry or even give them the desire of making love. Does the humor of the cook influence the final result of the dish?

Boulud – Of course, all the time. At home, we are able to transmit our feelings through the food. However, in a restaurant we cannot forget that each client comes in with a different expectation. Each dish is a piece of art. The more comfortable I am in the kitchen, the more expressive is the food I prepare. I’m here to please the clients, but I cannot forget that I have a business to run. Sometimes it is difficult to combine both. I don’t make people cry. I think that they end up falling in love.

Veja – Talent to cook is something that you can learn on your own taking lessons or you can learn taking cooking lessons?

Boulud – If you have passion, capability of learning fast and a great deal of persistence, you can cook successfully at home. But in order to cook commercially in a restaurant you have to be obsessed. When we are young, we all have equal chances. But only few of us will finish the race. Others will abandon the test unfinished. A lot of my colleagues have left the profession. Today they look at me and say that I am successful, this and that. But I have 30 years in the kitchen and never left. Never.

Veja – How do you create dishes?

Boulud – Not all dishes are created with the same purpose. And they have different stories. When I create a seasonal menu, I use ingredients of the season. The daily dishes I create at the day, choosing the ones that look good. Sometimes the ingredients inspire me. Others, we are challenged – for example, we are having a week only with truffles, so I bought it a great quantity of them and we’ll have to try new recipes.

Veja – You say that before becoming a good cook you have to be a good saucier. Why?

Boulud – The freshness, the balance and texture of the sauce are essential for the dish. It takes as much work and costs to prepare it as the dish itself. To prepare the sauce for the meat it takes the same amount of meat that we use for the dish. Otherwise, we don’t get the real taste of the food.

Veja – How many ingredients do you use in one dish?

Boulud – Between six and twenty, including spices. The secret is the balance of it all. Our ingredients come from all over the world and the fish from all seas.

Veja – You are author of two books. Do people get intimidated trying to follow your recipes?

Boulud – No. We’ve received good criticism and people from all over the country like them. Every recipe was tested many times by us.

Veja – In your kitchen there are people from all over the world, including Brazilians. How do you control this army?

Boulud – I go with the flow. Sometimes the clock is faster than me. My day is full of lectures, caterings etc. Today we are serving dinner for 700 guests of Louis Vuitton and I am cooking dinner for Hillary Clinton. There’s no need to stress out, I am each time more zen. If someone makes a mistake it’s ok. If I’d like to be the biggest perfectionist of the world I would never be happy. I would have to check the cooks every minute. That wouldn’t be healthy for me or for them, so I give them responsibilities and pay them very well. That’s the secret to keeping them happy.

Veja – What does the restaurant do with leftovers?

Boulud – We calculate enough so there’s no waste. We cook only what people order. We don’t leave the food pre-prepared. When we cook for catering we give the leftovers to charity. The bread, also prepared here, and the salads go to the staff.

Veja – Have you hurt yourself in the kitchen?

Boulud – Sometimes. When I was 15 years old, a knife fell straight on my foot. I cut my fingers, I get burnt, but that’s part of the job.

Veja – Do you go to other restaurants in New York?

Boulud –Not enough. Like all other chefs, we work during the hours of the meals. But sometimes I escape. I like food from all nationalities, as long it is well prepared. I like to go to a sushi place that is open until 4 am. I don’t know anyone there; there are only Japanese people.

Veja – In a famous picture you are holding a goose and a suitcase. What does it represent?

Boulud – The goose symbolizes the farm boy, the chef, and my relation with food. The suitcase represents the young immigrant arriving to America with a dream. There are a lot of symbolisms in that picture; that’s why it is so remarkable.

Veja – Do you cook at home?

Boulud – Yes, but not everyday. On Sunday nights I cook chicken with vegetables, or any other simple dish. I have dinner every night here in my office. I live in the building above the restaurant so my wife and daughter come here to have dinner with me. With a kitchen as big as this one, I don’t need to cook at home. But I love to cook for friends on special occasions.

Veja – Does your daughter (Alexis, 11) cook?

Boulud – She knows how to prepare eggs, which is a great start. It is not easy.

Veja - If you could choose the last meal of your life, what would it be?

Boulud – Something very simple, like loup-de-mère, a fish almost raw, cooked on wood, with olive oil and fresh salt. That’s the perfect dish. When I worked in Cannes, in Provence, the dishes were like this, sardine, rouge, and loup-de-mère. As long as the fish are still jumping, that would be my last meal.

(Published in VEJA Magazine on January,26 2000. Circulation 1,3 million/week.)

[ copyright © 2004 by Tania Menai ]