Interview with Chef Daniel Boulud of CAFÉ BOULUD – New York, NY

October 2004

A cooking job at Daniel Boulud's restaurant, Daniel, is one of the most coveted jobs for aspiring chefs both American and foreign. I wanted to see for myself: After tasting Daniel's food followed by a tour of his kitchens, I joined the ranks of Daniel groupies. High up in his 'skybox' overlooking the kitchen, I asked him what all cooks want to know: how to get hired, survive and eventually leave Daniel's domain…and much more.

Jocelyn Morse: At a restaurant like yours, do you have issues keeping and recruiting new cooks?
Daniel Boulud: I have issues, of course, because I think that the selection [process] of the employee is very important. If a cook never worked in a French restaurant or if the cook never really worked in a very intense restaurant of a higher rank, in my case I suggest sometimes to start at Café Boulud. It has a little bit less pressure and is a bit more oriented towards the casual, yet still very focused on food. Or, I make sure that the person knows where they are stepping in…I make sure that the person has downscaled himself in terms of ambition and how much they feel they know versus how much they will have to learn.

JM: How do you find prospective cooks?
DB: All of the cooks are mostly recommended by either the chef they worked for previously or by another cook and the other cooks talk highly about them. With the schools also, the teacher recommends the students that do really well, so that’s also very helpful. Sometimes I bring cooks from Europe on visa to keep the balance of a French/American crew. They also are recommended. Usually I expect them to stay about a year and a half minimum, so I tell them, ‘If you stay less than a year, don’t expect me to help you find a job because I will not feel that you’ve fulfilled any contract with me. I know that the name Daniel will be extremely strong for you, so it’s important that you stick to it for the value of your own career and for negotiations for your next job. The more you stick to a better chef, the more negotiable you are on the next job.’ I think it’s important that they understand that.

JM: How do you describe the situation where someone doesn’t fit?
DB: I think [it happens] because I give [someone] the chance, but they might not be ready to absorb the responsibility. They might not be consistent for what we are asking them to do. I do not downscale the cooks, they can move easily from station to station and some cooks succeed in some stations…Alors, the young cooks, they move from one station where they are very strong, and then we move them to another station and maybe they end up alone in the new station versus two or three people. For example, from garde-manger to hot appetizer, they may be out of control. The support of one or two next to them was good, the teamwork was great, and suddenly working on their own - it’s a little harder. They are not dealing with only the first course; they have the appetizer and main courses to do, so they are confused. It’s a little bit frustrating at the beginning.

JM: How long does it usually take someone to settle into a station?
DB: I would say two months for me to trust everything he’s doing…That does not mean that the person is so wrong, we just have to have very intense control over everything they do: taste, texture and consistency.

JM: When it’s time for a loyal cook to move on, how do you help him?
DB: I take time to try to guide them a little bit. I gage my advice on what they did before and what they should do now. I want them to succeed, but I think it’s important for them to understand that it’s very difficult to become the next Daniel Boulud or the next Jean-Georges just because you stick to the greatest chef. There are multi-levels of learning and multi-levels of cooking.

JM: How are your menus a reflection of your profitability?
DB: It gets reflected in the fact that it’s easy to lose money in the restaurant business, very easy. I am maybe the most generous person when buying, but I keep a certain volume going. Also, I try to keep the balance of cooks I need. Pay roll and food costs have to be in line. I think it’s just knowing how to manage well. That’s what it’s all about – and yet give the best quality. If you buy a rack of lamb and you just keep the little noisettes, that is not the best use of a product. It’s all about what you do with the rest, the transformation, the recycling of the food. I think when creating the menu, ‘Do we need to have that many dishes with truffles?’ If we’re going to sell truffles, we’re going to have to sell them at the price it has to be sold.

I am not the only one. I think there are a good many young chefs who manage very well. Thank God we also have the volume behind us. If we didn’t do the volume, we’d have to be twice more expensive. Ducasse, for example, he wants to do one seating, I think he wants to be very selective, but on the other hand it’s going to be $400 per person there.

JM: And, in Ducasse’s case, he has the luxury of The Essex House behind him. He can buy whatever he wants.
DB: I don’t know. I think it’s a little bit different cooking in a hotel. It is not the same as being on your own. I buy the same things, except I’m not going to buy them and not sell them right. Everything is in consideration. Of course, if out of five fish, you run the most expensive fish, you become a very expensive restaurant. In the end, is that the challenge, or is it to balance between different things? I always have this balance of meat - for example, sometimes we have pork chop on the menu. I try to find the best, farm-raised pork chop I can find. It’s not about cost. It’s the challenge of making a great dish.

JM: What do you think about France-based chefs, like Ducasse, opening in New York?
DB: I think the top chefs in New York have been here for at least a decade, Eric Ripert has been here for 14 years, Jean-Georges maybe 17 years, myself also 18 years…I think we paved the way pretty well for some guys to come and feel like the city’s up to par. So, I think it’s fair and it’s normal. For me, it is about my life here in New York and I think if I decide to stay here I should be one of the best here. For Alain, it is different. It’s not the same purpose. His life is certainly more in Paris and Monte Carlo than it is in New York but at least he wants to give it a shot. For Jean-Georges, this is his home base. He’s not going to go [live] in London or Hong Kong or anywhere even if he opens a restaurant. For Alain, I think it’s an opportunity to expand. He always wanted to come to New York. He was here 25 years ago. He’s always been attached to New York.

JM: In addition to your restaurants, you also have your catering business, Feasts & Fêtes. What challenges do you encounter when catering?
DB: Well, it’s different in the sense that we have to travel with it - not everything will travel and not every guest wishes to have the expensive choices from the restaurant. As soon as you seat more than 12 people, you have to be a little bit more standard. It depends what kind of client it is, we carve out menus based on the clients wish. Most of the menus follow the seasons so the menu isn’t decided until two weeks before the party, unless the customer knows exactly what he wants. The presentation is very much the same. It’s really an extension of Daniel. It’s also based on what kind of situation we have to actually make this dinner. There are five people on the staff full-time. The cooking part is only 25% of it. We supply everything from tablecloths to flowers to china to tents, trucks… everything. So, the whole logistics part is a lot of work. We usually buy the food the day before. We cannot do much until the last minute.

JM: What are some ingredients/items you always need to have in your kitchen?
DB: Definitely chives. It is a simple thing, but it could be in an appetizer or it could be in a fish course. Caviar - always a lot of caviar in the house, always a very good olive oil, a good balsamic, tomato confit ready in barquettes so we can use it in specials and dishes on the menu, and a good tomato sauce - even for me when I want spaghetti. Of course we are stocked with great cheese and for the cheese we always keep some apricots in Marc de Bourgogne (a Burgundian grappa) and some dried figs soaked in a port wine-balsamic. And then copper pots, of course. Also the induction burners. I am ordering some cast iron pots and pans from Europe, they work very well on them. Here we have six, but the problem is that they often break down. The fuses blow easily and it’s very frustrating when we’re in the middle of service and the things will not crank up anymore.

JM: How do you keep everything timed well in the kitchen?
DB: We tried to use the Micros system at every station but it disturbed the cooks too much to have these tickets coming. It’s better to tell them when you want them to know what to fire. The expeditor usually handwrites what they have to do as a main course so we control the timing a little bit better. It depends what it is. If it’s meat, it needs to rest, we fire it when we get the order so they have time to cook it. Then, when we give them the ticket that means that they can fire for plating and pick up. The fish, we know, is up to a seven-minute cooking time, so the fish will be based on what the meat guy says. At the end, the saucier will say how many minutes away he is based on what he has to fire. They work a lot together because we have a central stove. But, it’s like every restaurant, when you get a rush, you get a rush…you get slammed…

JM: How do you guarantee consistency in your kitchen?
DB: I see the work coming out. There is a sous chef for each station and they watch the work of every individual and make sure that they keep them consistent. I think it’s a question of having all the sous chefs in tune with the mise en place. We know when we have a weak cook that we have to watch him twice more than the stronger. But we are here to train him also to be better. Sometimes the cooks struggle during the time they’re here to try to feel, ‘Yes, I’m almost there.’ And yet when they come out of here, they really feel strong about themselves. So they have a hard time getting confidence here, but then when they come out they really feel that they have gained so much.