A small white thread is sticking out in the middle of the tablecloth, a slight source of annoyance for Daniel Boulud. Sat at a table at Daniel, his renowned and recently renovated restaurant on the Upper East Side, the Michelin-star chef spotted the flaw at the start of our interview and his hawk-like eye is struggling to ignore it. After a few minutes, he uses it as an example to explain his profession. “I have always paid attention to detail – I can see that thread and I want to know if there is a problem with our new tablecloths,” he says with a smile. “Restaurateurs and great chefs are people obsessed with details. That must be why we are so successful, but it also explains why we give everything to our work; we are always aiming for excellence.”
At the age of 66, having spent almost 40 years in New York, the French chef is not as well known in France but enjoys celebrity status in America. He recently saw his quest for excellence rewarded once again, when the Les Grandes Tables du Monde association, comprising almost 180 Michelin-star restaurants, named Daniel Boulud the world’s best restaurateur in late November. “I was delighted, especially as I have worked my whole career alongside this association. The first restaurant I worked in, in Lyon, was a member!”
The award handed out by his peers is a recognition of Daniel Boulud’s talent as a chef, but also of his spectacular entrepreneurial achievements. As well as Daniel, his flagship eatery located on the first floor of a hotel on Park Avenue since 1998, the Boulud empire now has four other restaurants in New York and eight more in Washington D.C., Miami, Las Vegas, Dubai, Toronto, and the Bahamas, along with three gourmet markets in New York City and a catering service. By blazing his own trail, the former chef at Le Cirque has been able to explore all aspects of French gastronomy. “Whether at the markets, the catering business, or the bistros, I oversee everything. It’s a 24/7 kind of job. Yesterday, I took a plane to go see a client in Rhode Island on an estate hosting a huge event next year, and I spent a large part of the day there.”
A Constantly Growing Empire
All of Daniel Boulud’s “houses” belong to his company, Dinex Group, directed by Sébastien Silvestri since 2019. The only exception is his latest fine-dining restaurant in New York, Le Pavillon, located in the new One Vanderbilt skyscraper just next to Grand Central Terminal, which was created in collaboration with the tower’s developer, SL Green Realty Corp. “It’s the first time I have embarked on a joint venture with another group in New York. We agreed to do it because the restaurant space is an integral part of the tower. I would never have had the means to pursue such a project on my own.” Le Pavillon, whose menu favors vegetables and seafood, is on the second floor of the building, boasting breathtakingly high ceilings. Brazilian architect Isay Weinfeld used the space to install a relaxing yet spectacular indoor garden.
Since opening last May, Le Pavillon has almost become Daniel Boulud’s second office. Much like in the kitchen at Daniel, he has created a “skybox,” a small, elevated, glass-walled room overlooking the ovens. However, Daniel, with its 275-dollar, seven-course tasting menu and its two Michelin stars, is still the cornerstone. This is where the chef has spent the last twenty years. When the Mayfair Hotel was transformed into apartments, he bought the restaurant and its basement, which is now home to the kitchens and offices of the Dinex Group.
Daniel Boulud now splits most of his time between the two establishments. During the lunch service, when only Le Pavillon is open, the chef is on-site in the kitchen and the dining room, always ready to greet customers and take selfies – something that has become a rite of passage. “My other restaurants are more like satellites, but we are in constant contact: I was at Bar Boulud yesterday evening, in Florida last weekend, and in Washington D.C. the week before. It is important for me to support everything, but I also need everyone to support me.”
This idea of a “collective game” and the attention paid to the teams, regardless of where they work, has defined Daniel Boulud’s career and keeps cropping up in our conversation – as well as featuring heavily in his 2003 autobiography, Letters to a Young Chef. “You have to take care of your teams. Of course, the customer is always king and we are there to take care of them as best we can, but employees are also a priority.”
The Nightmare of the Pandemic
The Covid-19 crisis, which saw all restaurants close overnight, was an unprecedented shock for the teams in question. “We went from 8 00 employees to just eight. But then we slowly came back.” The group, which was “lucky enough to not be in debt,” rebuilt week after week, orcing Daniel Boulud to reinvent himself to find work for his troops as soon as possible. Initiatives included launching home deliveries and providing free meals for first responders and other New Yorkers in need. Even the prestigious Daniel, which was required to have a fully outdoor service in summer 2020, transformed in light of the circumstances. “As we had become a terrace restaurant, we made things more relaxed, more Provençal. My servers wore sneakers and striped T-shirts. We adapted, and it was great for the locals, some of whom were able to discover – or rediscover – Daniel. It enabled us to survive and bring back a lot of staff.”
Philanthropy was also a way to get his teams back to work and support them financially. For many years, the chef has supported Citymeals on Wheels, an organization providing meals to homebound senior citizens in New York, and launched a series of fundraising events to help food banks and contribute to certain staff members’ unemployment benefits.
Almost two years after the first lockdown, the Boulud empire has not fully returned to its former self, but the teams have been expanded to 560 people. “The pace is perhaps a little less regular, but we have our old clientele back. I find that many things have refocused on solid values; instead of eating an average meal at an average restaurant, with relatively high prices all the same, people prefer to go to a great restaurant and really indulge.” Even during a pandemic, the quest for excellence is still a recipe for success.