It's obvious from the very first caipirinha, mixed by Daniel Boulud with Leblon cachaça, sugar and fresh lime, that the French star of the New York food scene is a raging Brazilophile.
The setting for this Brazil-themed party is the Brooklyn studio and home of acclaimed artist Vik Muniz: a light-flooded converted warehouse with glass cases of vintage cameras, mod furniture and a verdant, semitropical garden. To go with the cocktails, Boulud and his team are passing bolinhos de bacalhau, deep-fried croquettes of salt cod and potato, a Brazilian bar snack. One might expect Boulud, one of the world's most respected classical French chefs, to turn up his nose at such a humble dish, but no, he is doing full justice to this good, honest food.
Muniz was raised in São Paolo, so it's not so surprising that he is enthusiastic about the bolinhos. But he is less fond of the elegant stemware Boulud has brought for serving the caipirinhas. "Expensive bars use these fancy glasses," he says. "But normally, at Brazilian bars, you get a caipirinha in a wide glass called a copo Americano. It's one of my favorite things about Brazil and design." In fact, Muniz recently convinced the design store at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art to stock the glasses. The museum itself has been collecting Muniz's artwork since the late 1990s.
Courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio
Muniz uses unconventional materials to create temporary artworks, which he then photographs for posterity. His favorite medium? Food. Particularly well known are his version of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper, executed in Bosco chocolate syrup, and his takes on the Mona Lisaone painted with peanut butter, the other with jelly (left). Muniz is also an epicure with a wine cellar that's deep and interesting enough to match Boulud's famous and grand one. Another reason the artist and chef could be soul brothers: Both love a party, especially one with great food and wine.
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Next to the bolinhos is a bag containing napkins marked "Wine Stains." Muniz has produced it to illustrate his first collaboration with Boulud, a series of wine splatters transmogrified into artworks adorning the walls of Manhattan wine bar Bar Boulud, one of the newest of the chef's 10 restaurants. Who conceived this project? "It's all her fault!" Muniz exclaims, pointing to his friend Lisa Mamounas, founder of Culinary Insiders, which organizes tours and private dinners at some of Manhattan's top kitchens.
© Cedric Angeles
Mamounas also stages events that unite the art and food worlds, though none, perhaps, quite so directly as the Bar Boulud collaboration. "Vik is one of my favorite artists of all time," she explains. "When I met him, I thought of Daniel, who was then working on Bar Bouludand I thought, Why not have real art there?"
She introduced them, parties were thrown, and wine was spilledon purpose, onto the napkins in the sack, each of which has a Rorschach-like blotch labeled with words like "Pétrus '53," "Cheval Blanc '47" and "Latour '61." The framed photos in Bar Boulud of these costly spills are a comment on "excessive connoisseurship," as Muniz puts it, as if anyone could identify great vintages from the stains they leave. Adds Boulud, "Every time you have a big party, all that remains are the wine stains. And sometimes it's beautiful."
Today's party is still far from the stain stage. "We don't want to wash too many glasses," declares Muniz, waving a chrome ice bucket, "so when you're ready to change your wine, toss it here." These wines include several bottles brought by Boulud (five French, one Basque) and two from Muniz (both French: a 1998 Guigal Côte Rôtie La Turque and a 1995 Domaine du Pégaü).
The party's first wine is a fizzy Cremant de Bourgogne. The contrast with the decidedly proletarian bolinhos is almost comical, and it prompts Muniz to wax lyrical about his favorite food back home. "Brazilian food is so rich, but Rio isn't a gastronomic city. São Paolo is a great place to eat, but Rio? Rio is a great place to drink. And they have so many, many tasty things in the bars." He describes caldinho, a "little soup" of black beans and onion with cilantro and crumbled bacon, served late at night in shot glasses.
Muniz and Boulud have long been discussing a joint venture, either a bar in Brazil or a Brazilian bar in Manhattan. Bars are in Muniz's blood: His father, known as Careca ("baldy"), was maître d' of a famous watering hole in São Paolo. "It was where everyone took their mistresses," Muniz laughs. "So then my father goes to my openings in São Paolo, and who does he see? All his clients. With their wives. His clients say, 'Careca, what are you doing here?' "
Hinting at what a Muniz-Boulud bar could offer, the hit of the lunch is Boulud's modern moqueca, the iconic Brazilian seafood stew, served over cashew-flecked rice. Brazil has two kinds of moqueca: capixaba, from the southeastern coastal state of Espíritu Santo, cooked in its namesake black clay pot with olive oil and achiote paste; and baiana, from the northeastern state of Bahia. With the longest coastline in the country, Bahia has some of Brazil's best seafood. Its proximity to West Africa explains the coconut milk and dendê oil added to the tomato, cilantro and hearts of palm in the stew. The dendê oil lends a distinctive saffron-like scent, though fortunately not as overwhelming as it might be in Bahia where, as one Brazilian at the party says, cooks add a whole bottle of the stuff to the pot.
"So that I don't get too many compliments," announces Boulud, amid much slurping, "the moqueca recipe comes from Claude Troisgros." He is referring to the French chef, a son of one of the founders of Roanne's revered Maison Troisgros, who has three restaurants in Rio. "We called Claude, he sent it and Vik translated it. Everything Claude does he tweaks a little bit. This is my interpretation." The Brazilians at the table who know the real moqueca baiana marvel at the lightness of Boulud's version. "Yes, it's flirting with bouillabaisse," Boulud laughs.
© Cedric Angeles
The main course also bridges Brazil and France. Boulud has roasted lamb in a crust of basil and pine nuts that evokes Provence, but he accompanies it with okra sautéed with a favorite Brazilian nutnot Brazil, but cashew. Boulud even produces loaves of Brazilian-style bread, wickedly baked with a stick of butter apiece. ("If you can find this in Brazil, I'll buy the bakery," Muniz says.) Inspired by this abundance, Muniz recalls more Brazilian favorites, like his grandmother's tutu, a stew of black beans, cassava flour, beef and collard greens. He encourages Boulud to check out the kilos (buffets that charge by weight) on his next trip to Brazil; one called Celeiro often falls under the gringo radar, he says, "but it's one of the hottest tables in Rio, complete with soap stars and paparazzi."
After a sundae of tropical fruit and ginger mousse, the friends continue to plot a Bar Boulud Brazilnot entirely jokingly. It's clear that the chef draws real inspiration from Muniz's bolinhos and tutu, kilos and caipirinhas. Boulud salutes the host: "My love of Brazil started a long time ago, but since I met you, it has grown."
New York Citybased writer Kate Sekules recently launched the curated clothing-swap website refashioner.com.