Photo: Chef Daniel Boulud
Ever wonder how a multi-Michelin-starred chef cooks at home? Is his pantry stocked with culinary rarities? Are there oysters and caviar in the fridge at all times? Non, says chef Daniel Boulud, who helms one of the finest French restaurant empires around and has trained many of the best young chefs out there. The man likes tuna from a can. And he’s just as happy (thrilled, in fact) to be invited to dinner cooked by mom or grandma.
Yahoo Food caught up Boulud earlier this year at the Cayman Cookout — the annual food and wine festival on Grand Cayman in the Caribbean hosted by another famous French chef, Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. Boulud was more than happy to answer a few questions for us about the ins and outs of his kitchen. Make that all of his kitchens.
Yahoo Food: What do you always have on hand?
Daniel Boulud: Sea salt. Different oils — olive, walnut, hazelnut, grape seed. There are always vinegars. Different kinds of mustards. Spice from La Boîte à Epice. I always have saucisson, charcuterie — dry ham, salami, things like that, which I bring back from France. And then canned fish in my refrigerator—sardine, anchovy, tuna, octopus, mackerel. I love canned fish.
YF: How do you prepare, say, canned tuna?
DB: Take a beautiful thick slice of sourdough, brush it with olive oil, rub it with garlic. Put some sliced tomato and avocado. Put some tuna, anchovy, sardine, whatever, and use the oil from the can. And then some crispy celery and a little hot pepper, olive oil, and lemon juice. Maybe shave a little bottarga on the top. I always have a little bottarga in my fridge.
YF: Sounds like a good lunch.
DB: This is my midnight snack!
YF: What’s your favorite pot or pan to cook in?
DB: The cast-iron braise pan or pot, like a Dutch oven. It’s seven quarts, wide, not too high. You can roast, braise, oven roast. It’s good for an everyday cook. It’s good for a one-pot meal.
YF: Is that how you cook at home? At the real chez Daniel.
DB: It’s a different way. In the country in France, I cook on a wood fire — a wood grill or on a wood oven. It’s simple, not too many ingredients. The thing is, in New York, I live right above Daniel, so I have 5,000 square feet of kitchen below me. So in case I need to sear or do something a little more bulky, I run downstairs. But at home, I cook for my wife, my family, my friends. It’s often brunch on Sunday. But I’ve sold dinners in my home for charities. I’m on the board of Citymeals-on-Wheels. I didn’t know what to do to raise money so I thought maybe I’d invite people over to dinner.
Citymeals Board Co-President Chef Daniel Boulud spearheads a new initiative “Chefs Deliver” which brings together top chefs to cook gourmet meals for their homebound elderly neighbors each month. Photo: Citymeals-on-Wheels/Facebook
YF: What was it like when you were growing up?
DB: I grew up on a farm. My mother and grandmother were great cooks. We were making our own jams and preserves, our own cheeses. We never knew how bad winter would be so we would preserve the vegetables and fruits — green beans and tomatoes. We cared about eating our own food. Even if it tasted like canned food, it was our canned food. We had the fresh vegetables in between all the time. And we raised our own animals — pigs and chickens, cows, goats. It was just incredible.
YF: It was a real farm.
DB: It was an entire farm. I would help after school.
YF: What did you love to eat?
DB: The first harvest of anything. Every week you’d go to pick something new. We never bought anything in the market. We waited until the harvest gave it — then it was the right time to eat it. In the spring, the goats start to eat into the prairie so the fromage blanc is really good, and the first spring potatoes come up, and then the lettuces start to come out beautiful and crisp, and we pick dandelions up in the field [and make] a salad with the walnut oil we made that winter. All this together — it was like a feast of simplicity.
YF: You made your own oils, too?
DB: Yes, walnut oil, peanut oil. You can make all of it at home.
YF: Did you always want to cook?
DB: I didn’t know what it meant to be a chef because I’d never been in a great restaurant. But I was lucky that a wealthy lady lived next door to the farm who bought everything from us, and was a good family friend. She was a Renaissance lady — beautiful, in her 60s or 70s, driving a convertible Mustang with a little poodle, drinking whiskey all day. She had horses at the racetrack; she went to the casino. She had a big fortune and she lived the life. She loved me, and when my parents told her that I wanted to be a cook, she said, “I’ll take care of it. I’ll find him the best place in Lyon.” So I left home at 14 and became a chef.
YF: Fourteen seems so young to leave home.
DB: It was half culinary, half working in a restaurant. I went home every weekend on Saturday. All my friends were off on Sundays, partied, and played soccer. But the restaurant was open on Sunday, so no more soccer. That was over for me. But that was OK.
YF: Your childhood was full of these great food memories. How did you cook for your daughter Alix when she was young?
DB: She hated mushrooms. She would eat a lot of food that we would make downstairs at the restaurant and then I’d come up and we’d eat together at dinnertime. And she’d say, “Daddy, I don’t like mushrooms. You use too many mushrooms in your cooking!”
YF: Did she get over that?
DB: No. But as long as I kept things simple and healthy, she tried different things. But certain things — truffles, mushrooms — no. She doesn’t like white truffles. One time when she was eight years old, we went to Italy for vacation and I had a lot of white truffle in the car. And for months, the car stank. She was so mad. It turned her off. But she loves caviar. I knew she was going to be an expensive date.
Chef with his daughter Alix Boulud at the Oscars. Photo: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images
YF: And your wife Katherine is a great cook.
DB: Yes, she was a chef. She has her own web site Miel et Lavande. She’s doing a degree in nutrition so she wants to get out of my field and get into understanding nutrition. Maybe we’ll do a diet book together for children: How to Cook for Children.
YF: Do you take turns cooking at home?
DB: Yes, but she’s in charge.
YF: Do you own many cookbooks?
DB: Are you kidding? I have thousands. I continue to buy them at auction as well. Old French cookbooks. I think they are part of what I am.
YF: What’s the first one you bought?
DB: La Repertoire de la Cuisine by Saulnier. It’s not a cookbook, but it’s a repertoire. No recipes, but they tell you the ingredients as a reminder of the codes of French cuisine. I bought it when I was 14 and I still carry it with me.
YF: Do you try recipes from other cookbooks?
DB: No, unless I’m cooking Indian. When I wanted to do an Indian green curry, I took all the classic cookbooks from Madhur Jaffrey and others, made five recipes, tasted them to see the thread of composition, and then composed my own — to understand from five different people what this curry is. I mean, who can claim that theirs is the best?
YF: Is there a style of food you’d love to master?
DB: Indian. I love the complexity and the history. I love that the French were there in the south. I have to go one day and see what the French did there in terms of flavor.
YF: When are you happiest with a dish?
DB: When you can make delicious food with humble, simple ingredients and create an emotional moment with it. In my restaurants, we can create a complex dish that is interesting but it isn’t a spontaneous, emotional dish. It’s a composition. And sometimes the dishes that make me the happiest are the ones that are the most spontaneous.
Chef Boulud in the kitchen at Grand Cayman. Photo: The Ritz-Carlton
YF: What do you say to chefs starting at your restaurant?
DB: To read my book called Letters to a Young Chef, and it’s basically me sitting down with that young chef for a day or two and telling them about life in the kitchen, and what it takes to become a great chef, or a great cook. Not everyone wants to be a chef. I’m more impressed by a great cook than a great chef.
DB: Because sometimes a great chef has a lot to do with the team who made him a great chef. No one can deny that to be a great chef, you have to have a great team. But to become a great cook, it’s just yourself. I’m very impressed by a home cook. I have friends from Asia and South America and when they invite me over and cook a traditional family dinner for me, that’s when I’m impressed.
YF: You’re here in Grand Cayman thanks to Chef Ripert. Why do you like him? Is it because of his food, his humor, his hair?
DB: I love Eric. We’ve known each other for maybe 25 years. Eric is a role model to chefs. Eric is unique. He’s French, but he almost fell off the truck in Andorra and ended up Spanish. He has this pedigree that makes him unique. In America, to have the French plus the je ne sais quoi, it goes a long way. And of course, he’s good looking. He’s cool. He’s relaxed. I trust him. I appreciate his friendship and support.
The two chefs together in the Grand Cayman. Photo: The Ritz-Carlton
YF: You’d think being two of the top French chefs in New York, you’d be…
DB: We are very close because we share the same customer, we often share the same ambition, the same staff, the same mantra in our kitchen. But Eric stays reasonable. He has a little restaurant in Grand Cayman because he likes the Caymans. He’s not going to open a restaurant because he wants another restaurant. He’s going to open a restaurant because he wants to go there. He has one of the finest restaurants in the world and that says a lot about who he is. What I love about Eric is that I cannot be what he is and he cannot be what I am.
YF: What do you mean?
DB: He’s about purity and simplicity, which was the mantra of Le Bernardin. But he gave a whole new dimension by going away from the original French inspiration and going to a more global inspiration. We see that at the delicate approach with spice and seasoning. I’m much more French, inspired by tradition.
YF: Is there something happening in the food world right now that’s exciting you?
DB: What I love… I can see the evolution of Mexican cuisine. It’s going into a renaissance. There’s a young generation of chefs, like Cosme’s Enrique Olvera, coming out who are learning in Spain and America, who are transforming Mexican cuisine.
YF: Like the Beatles and the Beach Boys who talked about loving each other’s music, is there a dish by another chef that’s so good you wish you had made it?
DB: Good question. Let’s talk about Eric again and his carpaccio of tuna with foie gras. Kind of his version of surf and turf. I would have never come up with that one or mixed those two. And it’s so perfect. I wish I would have made it.
Tuna foie gras served at Le Bernardin. Photo: Two Fat Bellies
YF: We’re drinking a lot of rum here on the island. Beer, wine, Champagne, or liquor?
DB: If it’s liquor, I actually created a whiskey. If I get a compliment from an expert on my whiskey, I’m like, “Whoa, I nailed it.” If it’s Champagne, it’s Dom Perignon. It might not be the most original, but I love it. Wine, white Burgundy for white. If it’s red, a Bordeaux. I’m not a cheap date either.
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