Talking to Daniel Boulud - New York's greatest chef comes to London

Daniel Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental

Across the Pond, Daniel Boulud is a Manhattan institution. Born in Lyon, and trained in France under everyone from Georges Blanc to Paul Bocuse, he has spent the last 30 years building up a formidable reputation in America, winning three Michelin stars for his eponymous New York restaurant Daniel. He now owns five Manhattan restaurants and has opened others in Beijing and Vancover. He has now opened his first London restaurant, Bar Boulud London, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightbridge alongside Heston Blumenthal. Hot Dinners met with him in the run up to the opening to find out what drives him and why he's chosen now to make his mark on the UK.

Hot Dinners: You've had a busy time in London this visit - we keep hearing of restaurants and bars you've been spotted in.

Daniel Boulud: Yes, but that was the purpose of it – to have instructive, artistic, co-operative meetings and to meet the media and chefs.

We heard you went to Hereford Road.

That was a good one – that was last night. I really like the chef. He’s really cooking some interesting food. The energy was good, the food was great, the service, the people – it was a nice moment.

You're obviously very well known in America, but not necessarily to British diners.  How would you introduce yourself?

I was born in Lyons, studied in France in the 70s with some of the greatest three-star chefs, Michel Guérard, Roger Verge, Paul Bocuse, Georges Blanc, and then wanted to travel. I didn't get a chance to come to England so I settled for America! It was in the early 80s and it was fascinating for a young chef to see the transformation of America.

At the same time there was also a transformation in England - there was a new generation of chefs starting to open their own restaurants. My father-in-law’s been living in London for 20 years so he always took me around and kept me posted - so I knew Gordon in his cradle, basically. I also remember Marco – as I went to Harveys, his original restaurant.

I’ve always been acquainted with London and the dining scene - when Pont de la Tour opened, I was there right after - so I could see the evolution of talent and how inspired young chefs were. We were living the same thing in America as well.

So I am a French chef - not quite Michel Roux – I’m a little younger than that! But I’m definitely one of those French chefs who landed in New York and made his life there but still remains French.

Mandarin OrientalWhy have you chosen now to open in London?

Eight... ten years ago I was invited to open at The Boxwood Cafe. After Jean-Georges [whose restaurant, Vong, occupied the site] they approached me to see if i wanted to open there. I don’t remember whether it was a question of the partners that were involved, or that my restaurant company was (not) organised at a corporate level to take on more than I was doing - but we decided we were fine in New York and passed. So, I wasn't thinking "I need to open in London" or  "I need to find an opportunity". It was more that I was waiting for an opportunity to arise.

David Nicholls [head of Food Beverage for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group] having also been the chef here, has a little bit of affection for this place. David’s a friend and his dream is to build a group of chefs around him who can represent themselves in his different hotels - and he offered me London. He said that they had been planning to do an Asian restaurant but he felt personally that maybe doing a model of Bar Boulud could be more interesting for London.

He wanted to make sure that it wasn't a hotel restaurant but more an independent restaurant – a destination that will also please the locals and please his customers when they want to go casual. A lot of big hotels are also looking at being able to offer that to their customers.  It shows the commitment of the hotel to go a bit more casual with the proposition but to pair it with a chef who has a reputation and who cares about his reputation.

So it'll be a more casual kind of bistro then?

It’s modelled on a wine bar/Lyon bistro but with a strong programme of Burgundy and Rhone in the wine. There will be wine from all over the world as well, in the style of Burgundy or Rhone, and we’re also going to add an international beer programme to that.

There will be lots of charcuterie from a traditional charcutier - a young man from Paris -  and beside that a brasserie/bistro menu focused on artisanal charcuterie. I know what 50% of the menu will be, and the other 50% we’re going to work locally with the English ingredients we find – so it’s going to be more seasonal. We know what works well in New York, and we have to learn what could work well here in London.

The last thing I’m worried about is supply – there’s an amazing array of supply [in London] and I’m interested in taste and things that I don’t always practice in New York because it might not be so interesting. For example, people here like smoked fish, smoked haddock or herring, for example. So it’s nice to have one dish of smoked fish – the taste of it is well acquainted here, so we’ll play with that. Of course there’ll be a raw bar with seafood and shellfish and there’ll be rustic dishes – I always love to do braising.

There’ll also be a hamburger. It’s not French but, being from New York, I’ve done well in the repertoire of burgers because I believe the beautifully-made burger is very good. But at least I have the excuse to make burger because I live in America – for an English chef to make burger, it’s more difficult, it’s more challenging.

I’m in admiration of the landmark places that last, are very successful and are the pride of London... For me, that value and that consistency is the role model of my restaurant in New York.

What do you see as the differences between the London and Manhattan restaurant scenes?

I think in the cuisine, New York is represented by a larger community of pockets of people. The Italian community is huge and it goes from simple pizza to the latest new Italian restaurant. Here [in London], they’re represented on a smaller scale. The Indian community is much better represented here than New York, but the Chinese and Asian in New York is pretty big – with everything from Korean to Cambodian and Japanese. [Both cities] have this blend of cuisine. In the repertoire of French cooking,  I think what England is used to in the representation of a French restaurant and what we are in New York is almost equal in balance.

I’m in admiration of the landmark places that last, are very successful and are the pride of London.  By that I mean The Ivy, Le Caprice, The Wolseley and all that.  For me,  that value and that consistency is the role model of my restaurant in New York. I’m not coming here with bells and whistles and to show any pyrotechnics. The cooking is going to be comfort food – done my way.

Once again you've chosen Adam D. Tihany to design your restaurant.

I’ve known Adam for many years. When I was a young chef at Le Cirque, Adam was working on the restoration of it. [For Bar Boulud London] there's going to be rustic chic – with lots of oak as a reference to how important oak is in making wine. It’s a modern bistro – with a little bit of a twist. There’ll be different rooms with their own pockets of ambience.

Did you know Heston was going to be opening a restaurant here too when you signed up?

Absolutely – it was not announced publicly but I knew that Heston was also on board. I found that very exciting. To me, it was like ‘Thank God Heston will be with me –  I won’t be alone there!’ I’m so exciting that Heston’s coming to town and that he's doing something casual as well, but with his own approach. Certainly it’s a step above what I’m planning.

daniel2Have you been liaising with him over what you're both planning?

I’ve heard of what he’s doing, but I’m not asking too many questions. I have the privilege of opening first, so if I want to do tete de veau I think he’ll do pied veau. He’s referring more to British food, with a connection to Rotisserie food and more of a royal aspect  to his thinking of cooking but without the fanciness of it. You’ll have to ask him exactly what he’s cooking. Heston is so creative and intelligent and he has an heritage which he pulls from and for me it’s the same with my French food. We both believe in where we’re from and what makes us happy to cook.

We've heard rumours that you're going to be touring Manhattan with Alain Ducasse?

I have a friend who’s launching a new site – it’s going to be called Feast, I think. As part of it, they want to do a truck session where I’m going to be cooking in a truck next week in New York. Alain Ducasse thought it would be a good idea also to cook in the same truck, so he’s coming with me. Ducasse will be doing French Fries and I’ll be doing bangers and burgers!

You've probably heard of Alain's recent comments that 'London is the most important city in the world for restaurants'. Do you agree?

It didn’t bounce too well in New York, but I think that’s his opinion.

I’ve been living in America for 30 years and I’ve seen evolution constantly and I’ve seen also seen England in constant evolution. I think there’s amazing talent here in England of young chefs – there’s also been some capricious ones – but there’s always been amazing talent here. Britain is defining its cusines strongly by combining technique but also ingredients. I woudln’t say ingredients here are superior to America, because they are amazing there but the market that chefs work with here is more vast than in America. We don’t have easy access to Spain, France, Italy and all those countries, not to mention the fish you get from the Atlantic coast - the seafood here is amazing. Today there’s strong interest from the chefs here in very high quality ingredients – in America we have the same interest, we just deal with a different continent.

Alain is maybe a little closer to London and he knows the market here better than me – but with the little I discover here, I find a lot of great talent. I even like the pub food and the English cuisine where it’s rustic, straightforward and delicious. Would I say London is better than New York? I don’t know London well enough now to tell. I do know that in New York we’re not sleeping! And as long as American chefs come to London to be inspired and English chefs come to America to be inspired, we’re in great shape...against the French!

There's been a lot of discussion recently in London over the importance/relevance of Michelin stars. What did getting the third star for Daniel mean to you?

To me personally it was the greatest achievement one can wish. I earned all the best accolades you can earn in America and I earned an international reputation for what I’d achieved in New York. But we had to wait until Michelin came to tell the world we were that good – you know what I mean?  But Michelin has much less importance in America than it does to the rest of the world.

In France, three stars brings you 20% more business. In America it’s 20% less business because you have to be very self-conscious – you can’t do this, you can’t do that.

In all my restaurants, the last thing I want is to be a global destination. All my faithful customers who had made my restaurant a success all those years would suddenly say; ‘Daniel’s on another planet, so let’s not go there now.’ So I am who I am and three stars has changed nothing. But I’m very conscious that it’s also a big change. In France, three stars brings you 20% more business. In America it’s 20% less business because you have to be very self-conscious – you can’t do this, you can’t do that.

Is it good news? Financially not. Do I want to raise my prices because I became Michelin three-star? No – I think I’m a very affordable three star when I compare myself to three star restaurants here. Hospital Road – costs around £300 to eat there – so that’s $500 dollar and in my restaurant it’s $210 on average for an experience which is on par. Maybe I should double my prices and serve half as many customers, but it’s not what I want to do with my restaurant. I’m happy the way my restaurant functions – we only open six days a week and only at dinner.

When you open a new restaurant, what's the most important factor to get right?

It’s the food, the service, the ambience – it’s not about the pure technique of the food, it’s about the full package. To convince a customer to come back – to have value for the customer. We’ll see if I can pull it together [for London]. It might not be for the first day, but we’ll work hard at it.

Can you tell us about your team for Bar Boulud, London?

The Chef de Cuisine has worked with England for a year – he knows London already. He’s worked with Gordon in New York – he’s Chef de Cuisine at Bar Boulud right now [Damian Sansonetti]. The executive sous chef is currently living outside London – he’s worked with me for three years. Staffing here has its own challenges. In New York, our staff earn more than here in England – the pay rates are different. It’s difficult to promote someone and say you’re going to earn 15% less in a better job.

daniel4Can you talk us through the timeline for opening Bar Boulud, London?

Between the day they give me the kitchen and we can start to train the staff, it’ll take a least a month. After that it’s friends and families. For that first month the restaurant will not be finished – maybe the chairs won’t be here. The second month, half of it is friends and family and then we'll be turning into public restaurant with a discount for maybe two weeks. It’s a bit of a puzzle, we just have to figure out how to put it together.

You have a television programme you present in America called After Hours, in which you get together with other chefs and talk shop. Have you thought about shooting an episode of it in London?

I want to. We’re looking at a new production company, working with a new channel. The show is basically a show without a script, so it’s me going to cook in someone else’s kitchen.  It would be me going to St John where we co-prepare a meal together – he does his course and I do mine. Then we drink the wine – we get a table of eight people, usually six chefs and a food writer or critic and a celebrity. It’s cool and the conversation flows – the drunker they get the better it is. Here I don’t think they keep their tongue in their pocket.

When we filmed in New Orleans – Lally Brennan [owner of top New Orleans restaurant Commander's Palace] asked me; ‘What do you do with the people who come to your restaurant and want to drink their own wine? I say it’s very simple. I put them in a corner of the dining room. I take away the table, the chairs, the silver, the napkins. I just put them on the floor and bring them a glass where they can drink their wine. They don’t want to pay for these expenses but the profit we make on wine is part of the revenue equation for the business. Otherwise we’d have to charge them double for the food. It’s a big problem in California, because people bring their wine to the restaurant – they think because they’re in a wine country they can do that. Some people there bring ordinary wine - they bring boxes of it, it’s ridiculous.

What are your favourite London restaurants?

[For this trip] The Ledbury and Galvin La Chapelle – it's an amazing room, superb. Last night I went to Le Gavroche – that was a lifetime dream since I was a young cook. I never had a chance to go, so it was a wonderful experience – very classic but it’s good that this still exists for younger generations to know what existed before. I’ve been, of course, to St John. I went to Marcus Wareing on my last trip – Marcus used to work for me in New York before he worked with Gordon. Stuart Gillies also used to work for me – he’s going to take the Savoy, I think. I’ve been to Le Cafe Anglais – very nice - [Rowley Leigh] is a wonderful chef, being genuinely sincere in welcoming me.

And is there anything you prefer to order off a London menu?

Often we chefs like to push the combinations of things and coming to London I’m more interested in English food – I don’t know if it’s done well or right, but I can tell if it’s good. So I like to order my fish and chips or the smoked herring. I went to Scott’s and had some cods' tongues. I’m interested when braised dishes are on the menus. I’m not interested in fancy langoustines in a fancy preparation – more the simple application of the product. There’s all this generation of chefs that like to play with innards.

With a lesser cut you have to know how to cook. Anyone can flip a steak and put a nice sauce around it.

Daniel's Bar Boulud London is now open at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Knightsbridge. Find out more about Bar Boulud London.