It’s been a wild weekend at the opening of the JW Marriott Marquis Hotel in Miami, featuring a procession of celebrities that range from LeBron James to Brooke Shields to A-Rod. The “game room” consists of a 10,000-square-foot NBA-approved basketball court, a digitally simulated bowling alley and the mandatory state-of-the-art gym. But the New York-based, Lyon, France-born Chef Daniel Boulud isn’t interested in all this at the moment. Not because he’s hovering over his staff in the kitchen downstairs off the lobby at his new db Bistro Moderne, but because he’s swinging for the green in the lavishly appointed Jim McLean Indoor Golf School, pulling back his 9-iron and knocking a ball into a screen projecting a fairway. Unfortunately, Chef’s ball slices right, and he lets out a demure, “Oh damn” in his charming French accent before picking up his drink and heading back out to the opening-weekend festivities. The next day, Chef Boulud sits with us in the Yabu Pushelberg-designed lounge of db Bistro Moderne Miami, downing coffee after coffee and telling multiple callers on his BlackBerry that he’ll have to get back to them. Whoever said chefs were the new rock stars was slightly off when it comes to Boulud, who’s opening multiple restaurants in far-reaching locations (in 2011, we’re talking London, NYC, Miami and Singapore). Nope, the way he handles his business, our man Daniel is more like a rap star.
Life + Times: You and some other French chefs keep opening more and more brand extensions. You’ve got db Bistro Moderne, Bar Boulud, Daniel, DBGB and others; Jean-Georges Vongerichten has Jean Georges, Market, ABC Kitchen and more; Alain Ducasse has Benoit, Adour and miX among others. Are you in some kind of race?
Daniel Boulud: I don’t worry about the other guys and what brand extensions they have.
L+T: Your latest is Boulud Sud in Manhattan, opening early 2011. What’s that one?
DB: It’s a grill but it’s more of a Mediterranean restaurant. I’m joking, saying “no pork, no cream, no butter,” because I have done the bistro extended concept, like Bar Boulud is not a bar, Café Boulud is not a café, much more than that. And db Bistro is not just a basic bistro, it’s more than that. And so with that concept of a grill it’s going to be more than that. It’ll be a grill application in the preparation. Like Café de Paris in Monte Carlo, where they have the grill room. I mean the grill room in the old days was sort of the international brasserie feel. I like that.
L+T: You like to change things up. What was the story behind DBGB, your sausage and beer joint on the Bowery in downtown Manhattan, right near the old punk club CBGB?
DB: I always dream of making a diner, a French-American diner, and I was going to call it Paris Texas. Because there’s that little city in Texas called Paris, and in France if you think of America you think of Texas—they all wear cowboy boots and a hat, ha ha. And to have an American menu and a French menu side by side of really simple diner things. In France you eat mashed potatoes—pommes mousseline—and in America you have baked potato. And all the garnish—soupe a l’onion versus clam chowder. But that idea never really materialized. It might still be on the backburner. But going downtown, all my restaurants are very serious, I mean we try to be very professional in what we do at every level. We try to be very honest with what we do in terms of how much we charge for what we give and the quality and the creativity and the consistency. And the staff we invest into. I could run a restaurant with certainly five percent less payroll in it, but I think it wouldn’t be the same. So at DBGB we had to find a formula. I love sausage, and everywhere in the world I travel I always eat them: Dried, cooked, hot, cold, I try sausage. And so I wanted to come with this idea. I know how to master charcuterie, Bar Boulud and the different charcuterie we have, and so I asked my partner in Paris; I said we have to go out of France and go to Austria and Italy to Tunisia and Spain and Thailand—and we just made a Korean sausage. We have fun doing it.
L+T: Who came up with the Vermont dog?
DB: With the cheese inside! We were doing an Austrian sausage with smoked Emmantaler inside—we smoke the cheese and then after, we put it in the sausage. In Austria you eat those in the street with a beer. And so we thought cheddar—something a little sweeter, lighter, a little more American. That’s how we created the Vermont cheddar. But that was trying to make myself super-affordable. How can Daniel be Daniel and yet be affordable? So the sausage program really helped me with that.
L+T: What about the name? Are you a music fan?
DB: Of course! I arrived in NY in the early ’80s, so I would I would go to the Lower East Side and when we talk about ghetto, the LES was really ghetto. There were rows of houses totally disaffected—I don’t know how we did it, we didn’t have any cell phones— and we’d go to these house parties where they’d do it for the night and run away. And CBGB—
L+T: When was the last time you took a vacation?
DB:I was in Europe this summer. I took three weeks. I did Turkey and Greece a little bit. I was in England but that was not vacation, and I went to France to my parents and my brothers, sisters. I go and spend 10 days with them.
L+T: Do you cook for them?
DB: At least once or twice. I go to the marché in Lyon, and you know my parents are very simple family, and I always like to make them happy with things I know they would never buy for themselves, so I buy like the best cote de boeuf, or a ribeye, or sometimes I bring it from America—the whole ribeye of beef. I used to bring live softshell crabs. I would leave let’s say on Friday night so I’ll pack up the softshell in lightly wet newspaper, the live softshell inside the bag with a couple of icepacks, and I arrive in France, open the bag of softshells—
L+T: Whoa. Was this pre-9/11?
DB: Yes, pre-9/11! But if you put it in the suitcase they won’t even see it.
L+T: In Turkey and more exotic places do you turn off or can you not stop working and seeing what they do in restaurants there?
DB: No, I enjoy wandering and finding things. I look at who the players are there but I’m not obsessed. I would have friends who would go to France—and lunch and dinner bangbangbang. It’s too much.
L+T: What about your other interests? Art?
DB: Yes, I like art a lot.
L+T: Which artists?
DB: I have a Chuck Close at home, I have a Vic Muniz. We have, this year, I’m involved with the [international culinary competition] Bocuse D’Or, the team went to Lyon, so we have the Swedish painter who is very famous, he’s doing a poster for the book—James Rosenquist—for the Bocuse D’Or. He’s a great friend and a great artist. I can’t afford his art but I can afford to be his friend. Ha ha ha. But Chuck Close I invite him in January and a couple of friends and artists, and I do a black and white brunch where I serve black and white truffles. That’s my way of treating the artists.
L+T: Can we score an invite?
Richard Martin is the editorial director of FoodRepublic.com, the new men’s food site co-founded by Chef Marcus Samuelsson.