Frenchman Daniel Boulud, 60, is one of the world’s foremost chefs. Hailing from Lyon, he has been based in New York for more than three decades and has recently been voted the 2015 Diners Club® Lifetime Achievement Award winner by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants’ global jury.
How do you feel about this Lifetime Achievement Award, Daniel?
It’s an honour and it’s very touching as it is voted for by my peers and colleagues in the industry. These people know what’s going on in the business and what it takes to succeed. But at the same time, am I not too young?! I’m feeling ok still… Restaurant Daniel is 22 years old, but I’m looking forward to the next 20 years.
You’ve been in the US almost 35 years now. Do you still feel French?
In America it doesn’t matter where you come from, but you never lose your heritage. While I’m totally in sync with what’s happening in America, how to operate and how to be part of the food movement, I still have a French soul.
Does your background, growing up and training in Lyon, inform all your dishes?
Not everything, but I guess there is usually a traceability of something French. French cuisine is driven by seasons and the market and the local ingredients. I have applied that to New York in the same way. If I was in Lyon, the first thing I’d do is see what ingredients you can find at that time in that place. I always think of my hometown; not necessarily the food, but the culture. That keeps me grounded.
How did you arrive in the US?
I was in Denmark first as a chef de cuisine aged 23, but it was difficult being French there. The opportunity came to work in Washington; a lousy salary but good conditions, so I was happy to cook my head off! After a couple of years, I had to come to New York City, where there was potential for young chefs at a time when things were changing fast. I was with Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], Thomas Keller and others: we were in our twenties and we felt we could really transform the landscape and bring US fine dining up to the quality of France.
Who have been your biggest influences?
When I was 17, I did two years with Georges Blanc in Lyon, then Roger Verge – my first experience of a big brigade in Provence which exposed me to a vibrant, energetic international world. I worked with Michel Guerard – the poet – where I learned about the sensibility and detail of the food itself. In America, I learned a lot from observing restaurateurs more than chefs, people like Sirio Maccioni.
You have over 15 restaurants in total now. Any further expansion plans for the group?
Last year we opened three places – Las Vegas, Washington and Boston. This year we’re opening one Epicerie Boulud – and that’s something I’d like to develop further in New York neighbourhoods. But otherwise I don’t want to open too many more restaurants.
Would you ever open in France?
I’m helping a young chef open in Lyon. He’s very talented, but I am a silent partner offering advice and some financial backing. I have no intention otherwise to open in France. I’m concentrating on Restaurant Daniel itself. It’s still my kitchen and I get a buzz from being there. My goal is to continue to make it one of the finest restaurants in America.
Do you see The World’s 50 Best Restaurants as a force for good?
Not everyone agrees with the 50 Best ranking, but they approve. It’s a contemporary approach to defining excellent in dining – relevant and positive. My ambition is always to be part of this group!