|Mythic Kitchens: Le Cirque, Chef Daniel Boulud, 1986-1992
Our Mythic Kitchens series will explore historic eras in the country’s most famous kitchens, when the stars aligned to create food—and future chefs—that helped build the definition of American cuisine. First up: Le Cirque under Chef Daniel Boulud.
Le Cirque, 1989
It’s 8:30pm, and kitchen of Le Cirque is working at a frenetic, feverish pace. The pre-theater crush has passed, the tourists are midway through their meals, and the crème de la New York crème have just settled into their coveted 8pm seats. Owner Sirio Maccioni strides into the kitchen: “Chef! I forgot to tell you that Paul Bocuse and Roger Verge are here, and the King of Spain is going to be 12 people, not eight.” Daniel Boulud nods tersely. As soon as Maccioni disappears back onto the dining room floor, the chef begins tearing through boxes of produce picked up at the market that morning. Truffles, foie gras, and Tuscan lardo di Colonnata, smuggled into the country after Maccioni’s last trip to Italy, are gathered and lie ready to be spun into special courses for the VIPs. As the kitchen buzzes around him, cooking for the nearly 100 other guests, Boulud puts down his head and begins to create. It’s 1989, and it’s just another night at Le Cirque.
“Sirio was such an unpredictable madman,” says Boulud, “and the greatest restaurateur in New York City.” Le Cirque always was—and remains—Maccioni’s creation. It was 12 years old in 1986 when Boulud took over for Alain Sailhac, and critic Bryan Miller had praised it in a recent three-star New York Times review: “Nowhere in the United States, nor anywhere else as far as I have seen, is there a dining room that crackles with the high-voltage energy of Le Cirque.” The restaurant was utterly vogue; the food, under Sailhac, was mid-century French with a touch of Italian, by request of the Tuscany-born Maccioni.
Boulud Takes the Helm
In the two years prior to Le Cirque, Boulud ran the kitchen of Le Regence at the Hotel Plaza Athénée, New York. The country’s food scene was evolving, with new markets, new suppliers, and new options across the board, and Boulud was a man of the times. His nouvelle French cuisine at Le Regence wasn’t revolutionary, but it won him two stars from the New York Times and a reputation for being inventive and modern. When Maccioni came calling, the 31-year-old Boulud knew it was his big chance. He rounded up his two sous chefs, Mark Poidevin and Sottha Khunn, took a three-month break to get married and honeymoon in France, and returned in late October 1986 to take the helm of what The New York Times dubbed “the most glamorous and electrifying setting in New York.”
1980s New York was home to approximately 9,000 restaurants, generating nearly $6 billion in income, employing 180,000 people; yet only a very few of those rose from the clamoring, turn-and-burn masses to earn the blessing of the critics and the adoration of the well-heeled. In 1986, the popularity and clientele of Le Cirque were beyond reproach. Maccioni was the New York restaurant world’s most dynamic ringleader. But the kitchen, thought Boulud, would have to change.
Laying the Foundation for Modern French-American Cuisine
Le Cirque was part of a group of French establishments that included the likes of La Caravelle, Lutèce and La Côte Basque: elegant, sophisticated, and rooted in French cuisine of the 1960s. “For me, they were 20 years behind in terms of cooking and food,” says Boulud. “They were trying to do a few contemporary things, but there was a lot of similarity. They were all doing Dover sole and the same kind of food.” To bring Le Cirque up to the level of France’s three-star restaurants, he would have to innovate—to use his youth and his creativity to breathe new life into the restaurant’s food.
“Sirio would tell me ‘oh, I love bollito misto and pot au feu,’ and rather than making a basic one, I would push the preparation to something majestic and grand. Sirio had never seen that before, and neither had the other restaurants in New York.”
With his particular fusion of classic and nouvelle French, highbrow and low, American and international ingredients (notably Asian, brought into the fold by Cambodian sous chef Sottha Khunn), Boulud was laying the foundation for modern French-American cuisine. And his audience responded: In October 1987, one year after he took the reins, Le Cirque earned its first four-star review from The New York Times.
Energy, Discipline, Creativity
By all accounts, the food was some of the city’s most exciting and the kitchen, quite possibly, the city’s most grueling. Four-star food, with all its intricacies and precision, was being sent out to anywhere from 250 to 400 diners a day. And beyond the set menu was a bevy of daily specials—sometimes eight, 10, even 20.
“There were always a lot of specials, which was maddening but also a lot of fun,” says Alex Lee, the chef of Glen Oaks Club in upstate New York, who began as a chef de partie in 1987. “There was so much spontaneity in creating the dishes. And we never repeated a dish for our regulars, unless they asked for it, which is insane.” Creating a new dish in the middle of service, whether for a VIP or on a creative whim, was the modus operandi. “We would get fresh stuff from the market each day, and in the middle of service we would jump and start creating a new dish because we didn’t think of it a few minutes before,” says Boulud.
Boulud’s combination of energy, discipline, and bouts of inspired creativity made him, on one hand, a young cook’s dream to work with. Michael Leviton, chef of Lumiere and Persephone in Newton, Mass, joined the kitchen in 1991 as entremetier. “Watching Daniel cook for the VIPs, I had never seen anyone, and I still haven’t, with such flawless technique and such precision. He took great ingredients, made very simple dishes, but executed them with perfect French technique. That was worth the price of admission. Worth putting up with the other stuff for a year, just to watch him cook. I learned the most about cooking just by watching him.”
If inspiration was the reward, unflagging diligence and the stamina to withstand “the other stuff” was the price. Leviton remembers the kitchen as “a bit of a war zone,” with abundant yelling during the twice-daily onslaught of service. “The cooking was intense, the services were very intense, there was extreme pressure, and you always felt like you had to perform,” says Lee.
Alex Stratta, chef of Alex and Stratta restaurants in the Wynn in Las Vegas, started in 1988 as a saucier and spent two years working from 9am to1am. “I lived in New York for almost two years, and all I know of New York is between 58th street, where I lived, and 65th street, where the restaurant was. Daniel was building his reputation, so it was a very intense kitchen. I tell all my cooks it was like boot camp. They either broke you or broke you in. If you didn’t have internal drive, you wouldn’t make it.“ Boulud was known for treating people with respect, but being relentlessly tough and determined. The atmosphere, says Stratta, was organized chaos.
The Protégé Posse
Boulud presided over this chaos for six years, receiving a consecutive four-star review in March 1992. During those six years, a train of today’s top restaurant talent passed through his kitchen. At any given moment there were 30 cooks in the Le Cirque kitchen, and today at least 15 of his alumni can be found running their own show.
To add to the aforementioned, there is Marc Poidevin, one of the original sous chefs, now the chef of Switch at the new Wynn property in Las Vegas. Lee Hansen, fresh from culinary school during his time at Le Cirque, is co-chef of Balthazar in New York. Michael Lomonaco, chef of Porterhouse in New York, spent 10 months under Boulud as the daytime poissonier. James Boyce, who recently opened Cotton Row Restaurant in Alabama, was in the kitchen for nearly all of Boulud’s reign. Nick Morfogan (32 East and Sol Kitchen, Delray Beach), Bill Telepan (Telepan, New York), Allen Susser (Chef Allen’s, Miami), Geoffrey Zakarian (Town and Country restaurants in New York), and Adam Perry Lang (Daisy May’s BBQ and Robert’s Steakhouse, New York) all passed through. (Sottha Khunn, who stayed on at Le Cirque as chef de cuisine and then executive chef after Boulud left, is said to be working as a private chef.)
“There were a lot of great culinary minds in that kitchen,” says Lee, “Not just the head chefs, but also the team in there. There were some really good people with high culinary IQs. It was a maddening place to work, it was so hard, but you learned a lot about discipline and respect and creativity.”
On a young chef’s resume, time at Le Cirque under Boulud was a mark of quality and endurance. Stratta says his own story sums it up: “I went right from being a line cook to being an executive chef at The Phoenician [in Scottsdale, Arizona] at age 24 only because of working with Daniel at Le Cirque.”
1992 was a recession year, and 10% of the city’s restaurants had folded. But the best kitchens were going strong (Bouley was said to be booked four months out), and dinner for two at the top of the food chain would easily reach $300. The 80s initiated the concept of the celebrity chef, and Boulud left Le Cirque in mid-1992 as a star, with a broad audience eager to see what the chef would do with the freedom of his own restaurant.
Boulud’s career has spanned nearly four decades; his protégés are many, and are spread far and wide. “The amazing thing is that he’s now 55 and he hasn’t changed a bit,” says Stratta, “I’m 10 years younger and I’ve mellowed out, and he’s still as intense as he was 20 years ago.”
At Restaurant Daniel, which opened in 1993, he honed the culinary philosophy and style that has since expanded to four cities and three countries, making him one of the world’s best-known American-French chefs. The early years at Restaurant Daniel were mythic in their own right, but that is another story for another time.