The wildly successful chef Daniel Boulud’s hero is a humble pizza maker. Someone who spends “a life making pizza, making it perfect.”
Daniel has not spent his life making pizza. But since 1993, when he opened the eponymous Daniel, his single-minded focus is perfection. It’s “my religion, there is no other way,” he says. “I will not compromise and ask for the cheapest chicken…only the best.”
17 years later, with four New York Times stars and three Michelin stars, Daniel is still a vibrant fine dining mecca. There are some 40 cooks in the kitchen during service. They do a fantastic dance, creating plates with as many as 20 or 30 components with laser-like precision.
But the chef’s subsequent New York restaurants—Café Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, Bar Boulud, and his latest, DBGB Kitchen and Bar—have been progressively less fancy. The last sells hot dogs and iceberg wedges, albeit with “very expensive blue cheese.”
“Inside, I’ve always been a casual chef,” Daniel insists. Yet his starting point is always classic French cuisine. Daniel grew up in Lyon, tuned into a deep passion for food, and worked at some of the finest restaurants in Europe. In New York, his career blossomed. Daniel was Executive Chef at Le Cirque for six years before he left to open Daniel.
The chef’s food is always rooted in history and classic application. “For me, being French, this is my reference.” For Daniel, “French cuisine is about going back in time.” And yet, “it’s also expanding into what is current.” This is the heart of what Daniel does: new, exciting food born from classic technique.
Daniel did more than anyone to usher in the haute burger revolution. The DB burger, in 2001, was the first of its kind: no one had thought to take the prosaic burger and stuff it with red wine braised short ribs, foie gras, and black truffles. The French-inspired, unabashedly lavish take on an American favorite is classic Daniel.
When Daniel opens a new restaurant, he is “creating a home” for the food and ideas he likes. He’s always loved American diners, and dreamed of a French brasserie/American diner hybrid. And so DBGB was born. The whole was a “novelty, and yet very well received,” says Daniel. “America has such eclectic cuisine—we represent that through sausage.”
The sausage at DBGB is homemade, of course, and there are 14 varieties, including Tunisian, Polish, and the American hot dog. The links and wieners show off the “craftsmanship of our charcuterie…People have memories of the taste of kielbasa or chorizo—we bring that to them in a very careful way. We put a lot of love and care and creativity into sausage.”
Everything that Daniel does is rooted in love, care, and consistency. “It doesn’t matter if it’s fast food, casual food, or a fancy restaurant. People judge on consistency.”
Daniel wears his entrepreneur hat as much as his chef hat. In addition to his New York restaurants, Daniel has spots in Las Vegas, Vancouver, Palm Beach and Bejing. He has a catering company and a line of Caspian caviar and smoked Scottish salmon, and has published six cookbooks.
Daniel has transformed the business of serious food as much as he has transformed the burger. “In my generation, there was not a restaurant group led by chefs.” His restaurant group—The Dinex Group—not only does the “best cooking” but creates the “best environment for cooking.” The cooks and chefs who work for Daniel are buoyed by a team of PR, HR and recipe development teams. “We help them look good, feel good, do good.”
Daniel’s team is his most important asset. The executive chefs of his restaurants have been with him for many years. “As a young chef, my contribution was as important as the contribution as the owner of the place.” As an older chef, Daniel sees his role as that of a teacher as much as a boss. “I teach [my staff] to be better chefs not just for our company, but for themselves.”
He keeps creating restaurants where “they might not need me physically every day, but they need me as a strong identity.” They need his teaching, managing, coaching, and inspiration. “I can’t quantify how much I’ve contributed to the success of DB Bistro, but without me it wouldn’t be.”
Daniel’s working on a new concept, something different than anything he’s done before. As for the pizza? “Maybe that will be my retirement,” Chef says, “on a beach in Brazil. I’ll have a wood oven, you’ll come and have a nice pizza.”