Autor: Alison Beard
Born into a farming family in Lyon, France, Daniel Boulud knew at 14 that he wanted to be a chef. He trained as an apprentice, rose through the ranks of his home country’s best restaurants, did a stint in Copenhagen, and then emigrated to New York City, where he was hired at the famed Le Cirque. In 1993 he struck out on his own and opened Daniel, spawning a culinary empire that now includes 16 ventures.
With that restaurant and many other early ones, you had the benefit of a single financial backer. How did you develop that relationship, and how did it influence the way you ran your restaurants?
I had three friends, all Harvard graduates. One was in real estate, one was in business, and one was a lawyer. They were searching for a space and negotiating for me so that nobody would know I was looking. We found a space on 76th Street that we felt was right—I went by myself at night to peek through the window because I didn’t want anybody to see me visiting it—and then I needed financing. At first I was looking at 10 partners at $250,000 each. But then I met Joel Smilow, the uncle of one of the friends helping me. He was just retiring as CEO of Playtex, which owned a company in the food business at the time. He was not a customer of Le Cirque; he was more the 21 Club kind of man. But we had a long conversation, and he seemed to have an affinity for me and told me he’d like to be my only partner. This was a man who knew how to take risks and could help me grow. He understood that a business is made of creativity, personality, people, and a lot of hard work. He understood quickly the pros and cons of restaurants and was very present in financial and strategic meetings but also remote about the day-to-day operations. He let us run things. Now he’s emeritus, because he’d like to relax a little bit.
How do you balance being an artistic, innovative chef with being a businessman who needs to worry about profit margins and payrolls?
I have a good sense of the business, but I’m not alone in it. When I opened my first restaurant, my most important hire was a very good accountant, because I didn’t have time to check the bills and make sure we were out of the red. Marcel Doron became CFO of the company and was with me for more than 20 years. He just retired, and we have a new CFO for what is now a different-level organization. But as we grew together, Marcel was a person I could trust and really communicate with and learn from. When you start, you also need a very good restaurant manager; then, after you open two or three places, a director of operations. Eventually you create HR and PR and buying departments. I’ve seen so many talented chefs who couldn’t figure out how to be in the black and so were never able to succeed. Maybe they didn’t have the right people around them. We are chefs, artists, dreamers…but as you grow, you want to make sure you do it safely and maintain stability.
How do you find those right people? What do you look for in employees?
The number one quality is trust. I need to be sure that the person is fully committed to excellence and is respectful and has a certain discipline. Talent is also key, and in positions of responsibility we want somebody well trained. We’ll keep training them, for sure, but we want a good foundation. I also look for people with ambition, either with us or for themselves. And we want to make sure they are passionate.
You are an immigrant and a leader in an industry that relies on a lot of immigrant labor. What’s your view on the restrictions facing foreign workers in the United States and the UK?
I have a restaurant in England, and we benefit from the schools all over Europe, from Poland to Portugal and every country in between. This melting pot of young professionals—it’s a dynamic we sometimes miss here in America, because it’s harder to bring people in, and it’s becoming more difficult. American hospitality was always known for being a place where you could find people from many continents speaking many languages. We have to maintain that.
How do you know when someone who has come to train with you is ready for the next step?
We take a lot of pride in having people in our group go from prep cook to sous-chef or busboy to manager. But each individual has to see and seize the opportunity. They have to be consistent in their work, discipline, excellence, so that they’re in line with us and we can rely on them at every turn. Usually a cook starts in the least-stressful station and takes two years minimum to go all the way to the meat station. It’s a learning path. If they’re able to do that, they may end up as sous-chefs.
Can you identify true stars—the chefs who might start their own restaurants—early on?
When they’re cooks, of course, we know the good ones, but we still have to watch and teach them a lot. We also understand that they need to move on and work for other chefs as well—different styles, different organizations—or set out on their own. Chefs are very mobile. Take Gavin Kaysen. He had never worked in New York City, and I was going to bring him in as a sous-chef at Daniel, but then I learned that my head chef at Café Boulud was leaving. So I said, “Gavin, the plan has changed. I want you to be the chef. Are you up to the challenge?” He was fully motivated and did very well for six years. But then he wanted to go to Minneapolis and open his own restaurant. I became an investor, and we are good friends for life.
You now oversee 16 entities under the Boulud umbrella. How do you divide your time? Do you still cook?
I am at Daniel right now. My office overlooks the kitchen. I can see all the chefs chopping, peeling. My role is maybe to cook but also to make sure that the brigade and the chef de cuisine and each team can produce and perform. I am very connected with everything we do and close with everyone who works for me. We constantly test dishes together. We talk about recipes. But if after 20 years you haven’t given some power to others, there is something wrong. The executive chef at Daniel, Jean-François Bruel, has been with me 23 years; Eddy Leroux, the chef de cuisine, 16 years; Ghaya Oliveira, the pastry chef, 17 years. Those people are the decision makers on the menu. Of course, if I don’t like something, they’ll know. And if I have a new chef, I’ll spend a lot of time with him to make sure we can work together without having to talk to each other all the time.
With so many different outposts, how do you walk the line between giving people a classic Daniel Boulud experience and ensuring that each restaurant is unique and doing something new?
It’s much easier to do a cookie-cutter kind of business, where it’s the same name, same place, same food everywhere, than it is to really curate a menu for London or Singapore or Toronto or Palm Beach. We do need to make sure that we meet expectations and earn loyalty. But repeating what you do everywhere is never a winning formula. We have thrived in places by trying new things.
And some experiments haven’t worked?
Yes. There are some failures. Vancouver is an example. I was approached by a restaurant owner because his chef was leaving, and he wanted someone to take over. We were in the same Relais & Châteaux restaurant network, and I loved the city, so I did it for two and a half years or so. But it was not right. Maybe the other chef had been successful because he was local, or I needed a different neighborhood or partnership. So we left Vancouver. We also had to leave Beijing. First, the supply was so difficult versus even Shanghai. Second, our partners weren’t good. We managed for five years, but we didn’t want to continue. If we feel we are taking a risk with our reputation, we’re better cutting something off.
Tell me about your latest venture in Boston—Spyce—with MIT grads.
They had built this robotic kitchen out of plywood and Scotch tape and wires and electronics and all kinds of cooking tools. But it worked, and I was super-impressed. It could accomplish a dish in a consistent and fast way. We’ve already seen artificial intelligence help many chefs become more precise, more creative. There are sous vide and oven systems you can preprogram to change the temperature while cooking, and they’ll ring when it’s ready—zero mistakes. Spyce is a little like that, except instead of having eight chefs making stir-fry, you’ll have eight bowls doing it themselves. Of course, people are behind the machines in a prep kitchen, filling the different stations with vegetables and sauces, and people are serving.
You seem to be good friends with many of the chefs whose restaurants compete with yours. How does that work?
Well, I love Jean-Georges [Vongerichten]. I love Éric [Ripert] and Wolfgang [Puck]. I have a great admiration for my colleagues; I think we all play our own roles. And we’ve been doing it long enough; we really just want to make sure that the next generation can sustain the heat. We hope all the people we’ve trained have made the landscape of dining better. Thomas Keller, Jérôme Bocuse, and I created Ment’or BKB, a foundation to support young American chefs. We’ve been giving grants so that they can take three-month sabbaticals anywhere in the world. I’m French by art and by soul, but I’m totally American when it comes to supporting culinary talent here.