Daniel's Homing Instincts
It is close to 4,000 miles from the French village of St-Pierre de Chandieu to Manhattan's Upper East Side. Geese and chickens run across the streets of St-Pierre, a sight you will rarely see on the limo-lined thoroughfares of New York. In fact, the only similarity in this tale of two cities is that in either place you may catch sight of a fast-moving, bespectacled personage barking orders in French or street-hip English. I'm speaking, of course, of Daniel Boulud, who at the relatively young age of 43 is New York City's longest-reigning four-star chef. With the October launch of Café Boulud, named after his family's small restaurant outside Lyons, and with his haute Restaurant Daniel relocating next month (to the site of the old Le Cirque, where Boulud first earned his fourth star in 1987), he is again proving himself to be one of the city's most ambitious culinary talents.
If his track record means anything, he will handle the warp-speed pace with style. I have seen Boulud in starched white tunic and apron turning out dinners for presidents and potentates (he fed the A-list grandees assembled at Time magazine's 75th anniversary bash, a group that included Mikhail Gorbachev, Joe DiMaggio, Steven Spielberg and Lauren Bacall). And I have seen him in jeans and Top-Siders, brandishing the leg of a roast goose at his nephews and nieces at the family's farm-cum-retreat in St-Pierre.
Boulud is a product of six generations of farmers and café keepers. In small holdings spread outside Lyons, they have raised goats, cows, pigs, chickens, wheat, corn and every fruit and vegetable that grows in this agriculturally blessed region. Their roadside café served city people out for a jaunt in the country and country folk in from long hours in the fields.
"City kids grow up street smart, so I guess you could say I grew up farm smart," Boulud noted as we drove the winding back roads from Burgundy to Lyons. "I think that knowledge was bred in me and helped me understand food when I decided to become a chef."
It is Boulud's nature to cook with the freshest local ingredients. In the hardscrabble postwar years, there was no other choice. Not that you or I would think that the family suffered. Boulud's mother, Marie, and her mother, Francine, presided over the preparation of meals that included homemade charcuterie and such one-pot dishes as duck in red wine and lentils and knockwurst, a local version of franks and beans. During hunting season, Boulud, his brothers and their father, Julien, would take to the fields for wild geese, woodcock, pheasant, rabbit and deer, all of which found their way into the iron pots and copper kettles of the old Café Boulud.
At 14, Boulud left home to apprentice at a bistro. He went on to train with three legends: Georges Blanc, Roger Vergé and Michel Guérard. When he came to America in the early Eighties, he created his own version of classic French cuisine. He soon earned accolades for such original dishes as his potato-encrusted black bass paupiette in a reduction of Barolo wine and his scallops "in black tie," layered with slices of truffle.
Boulud's success has enabled his parents to close down their café, scale back their farming efforts and enjoy their retirement. When Boulud, his wife, Micky, and their daughter, Alix, visit at Christmastime, the whole family pitches in to create multicourse mega-dinners. In the winter, appetites are hearty, especially those of the Boulud men, who rise early to hunt in the snow-dusted fields behind the old farmstead.
After dinner, there is always a well-fed and well-lubricated contingent who adjourn to the numerous couches and easy chairs for a nap. They soon sound like a choir of bullfrogs, and they cannot be stirred from slumber by a caterwauling infant or the most teasing teenager. The rest of the group gathers for a few hands of cards. Neighbors and relatives drop by throughout the evening, sometimes bearing a batch of homemade plum or pear liqueur.
Several of the family's farmhouse recipes (10 of which follow) will be standards at the new Café Boulud. And at the more refined Restaurant Daniel, Boulud's dishes will carry on the folk impulse born in St-Pierre that informs this French country chef--even in the Big Apple.
The text is by Peter Kaminsky, New York magazine's Underground Gourmet, who is at work on a cookbook with chef Gray Kunz, to be published by Viking. The wine suggestions were provided by Daniel Boulud's sommelier, Jean Luc Le Dû.