Martin Klein meets Daniel Boulud

Sumac from Central Park

It’s early in the morning when chef Daniel Boulud welcomes me at his DANIEL restaurant near the southern end of Manhattan’s Central Park. The restaurant doesn’t open until the early evening, but things are already in full swing in the prep kitchen below the restaurant’s main kitchen. Monsieur Boulud spreads some butter onto a baguette for us, grates some mature Comté over it and adds several layers of wafer-thin ham. The result? A jambon-beurre, the most simple of French sandwiches. The baguette is from Daniel’s own bakery, and the ham has been smoked in-house. The loving attention with which the starred chef prepares our breakfast makes eating this ham baguette a real experience. Perhaps this is one of the secrets behind Daniel’s success: it’s important to him that the basics are right. His ingredients are carefully selected, and the most important steps in the preparation are performed by the chef himself and his 1,400 staff around the world. A croissant at Café Boulud is, of course, also home-made. All of the cold cuts in his deli – the Épiceries Boulud – are cured, matured and smoked in-house. The venison served up in his two-star restaurant is caught by his hunter friends in the countryside surrounding New York. Daniel grew up on a farm near Lyon. Everything he ate there as a child was produced by his family. Only olive oil was occasionally traded for ham with relatives from the south. If his parents sold chickens on the farm on a Thursday, they would make an omelet with the chicken blood the next day – the high iron content made it very healthy, Daniel assures me. A noble neighbour eventually arranged for Daniel to start an apprenticeship in a gourmet restaurant in Lyon, where he learned about haute cuisine. Shortly after, the young chef became familiar with nouvelle cuisine at the famous French three-star restaurants of the ‘70s. When Daniel arrived in New York in 1982 as a 27-year-old, the city’s fine dining scene was dominated by French restaurants, but their style was more traditional than progressive.

The young chef soon began to taste success with his fresh reinterpretation of his family’s rural cuisine and his mentor’s bourgeois culinary art. And Daniel is still fascinated by some of the historic dishes from Lyon. For example, for his guest chef menu at Restaurant Ikarus, we’ll be serving up a rabbit porchetta. Though related to Monsieur Paul’s rabbit galantine “Lievre à la royale”, it’s quite different. The filling for the saddle of rabbit is still classic, but its centre is colourful and aromatic, filled with green asparagus, strips of preserved tomato, and broad beans. There’s also some foie gras in-between, of course, which shouldn’t be missing from any French galantine. Daniel will serve his porchetta as a starter with baby lettuce, chorizo oil, tarragon emulsion and turnips – this gives the dish a light, modern feel while preserving the great artisan tradition.

I also love Daniel’s Ōra King salmon, baked in fig leaves and clay. The traditional French element here is the red wine sauce, which Daniel refines with some caramelised figs. The salmon fillet itself is an excellent, idiosyncratic invention. Daniel briefly freezes the fig leaves to make them flexible. He then seasons the salmon with fennel pollen, Espelette pepper and sumac. The purple-red spice, which tastes fruity yet quite bitter, is very important in Arabian-Mediterranean cuisine. It’s exactly what this marbled salmon fillet needs. Daniel’s chefs pick the berries – a North American species of sumac – from bushes that grow right around the corner from Central Park. But you shouldn’t try picking any yourself, as some of the members of the sumac family are poisonous. At the kitchen table, a beaming Daniel presents the salmon to me in its clay jacket. He’s a superstar in America, with his own gastro empire that includes restaurants from Singapore to Toronto. Whenever we’re out together during my visit, people approach him for autographs or selfies. But Daniel has remained young at heart, very down-to-earth and funny, and he’s still always open to new ideas. He smashes the clay shell and carefully unwraps the salmon fillet from the fig leaves. It’s a great spectacle, but it’s only one part of the idea. The real showstopper is the fantastic scent of fresh figs that drifts through the whole room.

The ability to select good partners is a key element of Monsieur Boulud’s art – the most important staff have been with the team for decades. Head pâtissière Ghaya Oliveira recently won the James Beard Award, the country’s top culinary accolade. She also came up with the idea for our dessert made from Peruvian Illanka chocolate. Looks harmless, like a chocolate cake without the fancy frills. But its appearance is deceptive, as this dessert is anything but minimalistic: at the very bottom of the plate lies a moelleux de chocolat, a super-juicy chocolate cake made without flour. On top of it is a sablé made from chocolate shortbread and a thin layer of chocolate under a crispy wafer with cocoa nibs. The individual layers are separated by a ganache curd with a hint of chilli. And in the centre, cleverly hidden in a small hollow, blackberry espuma and marinated blackberries set a nice contrast. Next to this lies a second mini-cake, which turns out to be a blackberry sorbet with orange blossoms. A long way from Lyon, Daniel Boulud has found a way to both preserve and enhance the strengths of French cuisine.

Recorded by Hans Gerlach

DANIEL

60 East 65th Street
New York, NY 10065
USA

Tel.: +001 2122 880033

Web: www.danielboulud.com

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