In the restaurant bearing his first name, when he is not busy training young chefs, Lyon native Daniel Boulud serves a simple cuisine year round, crafted with ingredients that change with the seasons.
Daniel Boulud sits on a grey velvet banquette in his custom office at New York City’s Restaurant Daniel. This glass-walled skybox overlooks the bustling, immaculate kitchen below. The legendary chef, who presides over ten restaurants worldwide, is taking an exceptional break before joining the staff downstairs.
The walls are lined with a number of portraits, from Andy Warhol to Lady Gaga (the famously gregarious chef was once elected by his fellow chefs “most likely to lead a conga line.”) Boulud’s many trophies and cookbooks stand on wooden shelves. The restaurant is an easy commute from his apartment upstairs. “As in the old French tradition,” he says, “I still live ‘above the store.’”
Tradition matters to him. Growing up on his family's farm in a small town near Lyon, France, he was already cooking according to the seasons before it became a thing. “To me, French cuisine has always been a cuisine du marché, and seasonality is important,” he says.
Unsurprisingly, Daniel’s supply-driven menu is closely correlated with the seasons, from spring lambs raised by a Pennsylvania farmer to late-August grouse after the hunting season opens in Scotland. “That’s how I grew up,” says Boulud. “September 10th was the opening of the season, so we offer grouse on the menu until early November.”
Arriving in New York City in his early twenties, he had plenty of ambition but little money. His memory of those lean years drives his commitment to educating young chefs, and especially by mentoring them. He participates in the Ment’or program, a nonprofit founded with fellow leading culinary lights Thomas Keller and Jerome Bocuse. The program is devoted to offering young chefs internships and other opportunities, like a chance to represent the Bocuse D’Or Team USA at the world’s top culinary competition.
Since the program was launched in 2008, beneficiaries have been offered apprenticeships in more than 75 fine restaurants worldwide. “We’ve been giving these young chefs grants so that they can take three-month sabbaticals anywhere in the world and be able to pay their rent and come home to their jobs,” he says. “We want to make sure a kid who works in the kitchen of a local country club has a chance to work at French Laundry, because it might change his life.”
He goes to his office window and gazes at the kitchen below, a marvelously tranquil, orderly sight. “What’s most important is that our chefs are disciplined, polite, and cheerful, of course: when the pressure is on they need to be able to deal with it,” he says. “We have to make sure that everybody keeps their chins up and has enough motivation to continue. No ego, no attitude: just do your job right, consistently and carefully. And then, little by little, we’ll give you more responsibility.”
Chef Bethania Pena, a Ment’Or beneficiary who worked for a year at Restaurant Daniel, grew up in a Dominican household “where food was, as in many cultures, the center of everything we do,” she says. “My mother, grandmother, and great grandmother were all amazing cooks, and I learned how to make dinner by the time I was eleven.”
When Pena heard about the Ment’Or program, she snapped up the opportunity. “This program brings young chefs like me to Michelin-starred kitchens where we can work side-by-side with culinary legends,” she says. One major takeaway was teamwork. “If you needed a hand to complete any sort of task, there was always someone there to help. Everyone there has something to teach you, and working at Restaurant Daniel boosts your confidence.”
And because the young chefs have various levels of training and cultural knowledge, the learning curve goes both ways. “We have chefs from all different backgrounds, from Latin American to African to Asian to all over America,” Boulud says. “We let them cook for the staff every day, and they take pride in making dishes that represent their country or their culture. Every staff meal is a trip around the world.”
Today, one of the chefs has made a lentil dish. “Was the chef who made the staff meal Colombian or Bolivian?” he wonders. “Let’s see who it was.” He picks up the phone to call the kitchen.
“’Allo?” he says. “Who cooked the staff meal today? Tom? And where is he from? Ah.” He grins and hangs up. “Long Island,” he says, laughing.