Ahead of a sold-out truffle dinner and the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival’s legendary Daniel & Friends brunch, chef Daniel Boulud took a moment from the madness to sit down with PBI at his eponymous Palm Beach restaurant, Café Boulud. Here, the French restauranteur’s shares everything from his late-night dinner tradition at La Sirena to his fondness of food start-ups and his new Manhattan restaurant.
PBI: Welcome back! We’re always thrilled to have you here for the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival.
Daniel Boulud: I love to visit here, and we’re never too far away from Palm Beach. We come down often to see the team here and they come up to New York often to see us. I almost bought a house here, and someday I would love to. But, for the time being, being at Café Boulud is always exciting.
What do you look forward to about the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival each year?
First, to be together with my team. Then of course to see friends, customers, and colleagues of the industry as well. It’s a big gathering of chefs, and the festival brings a crowd in Palm Beach that is more adventurous. The Sunday brunch is always a moving feast: There’s always good music, good buzz, good energy, lots of food, and lots of booze. And, caviar on the fist!
What are a few things you always make sure you do while you’re in Palm Beach?
I always go see Marcello [Fiorentino] at La Sirena in West Palm Beach on South Dixie Highway. It’s my refuge. We gather friends there and eat together after work. That’s been a tradition for a long time—when Jean-Pierre [Leverrier] was here, too.
Sometimes I take cars on the track at the Palm Beach International Raceway, and we try to go to Swank Farm and meet with suppliers, which is important here. Clients will also take me out on their boat for a little fishing trip. There’s always a lot of activity.
Otherwise, I’m working on a project in New York, a new restaurant at One Vanderbilt.
What details can you share about it?
One Vanderbilt is a commercial tower right in the heart of Manhattan, between Madison Avenue and Grand Central Station on 42nd Street. Having a million passersby each day, it’s a very crowded intersection. The building is taller than the Empire State Building, but it will have 20 fewer floors. So, each floor will have floor-to-ceiling windows, and it’s just stunning. Basically, people working up there will have to wear their sunglasses all day. And there will be only one restaurant in the building.
What are you most excited for people to experience at the restaurant? Can you share the name yet?
The menu. [This project] is a unique opportunity to create a restaurant that will be very different from all the others that I have in New York. Of course, all of my cuisine has been strongly focused on seasonality, locality, and ingredient-driven technique.
I don’t want to label it as a French restaurant. It’s a real New York restaurant by a French chef. Yet, it refers to the history of French restaurants in New York. The space is iconic, and I think [this restaurant] will certainly have a footprint for a long time.
The menu will be strongly driven by the New England Coast, seafood, and vegetables. We have thousands of miles of ocean from Maryland to Canada and even further, and in the five states surrounding us there are so many farms.
Rather than fine dining or casual, [the restaurant] will define casual fine dining today. [There will be] breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That’s set to open next year [in 2020] in the fall, and the name of the restaurant will be out soon, by March 1.
Are there any other projects in the pipeline for you?
I’d like to open a small, old fashioned, classic French bistro. DB Bistro, which is almost 20 years old, has always been a French bistro, but it’s an urban, city bistro.
Have you learned anything about food or wine recently that surprised you?
Small wine growers in Champagne are really making a mark. In the old days, the small producers used to sell grapes or wine to the bigger houses. There were 10 big houses, and the rest was farmers, just producing the grapes. Now, the producers’ children who have been learning about the method of making Champagne really want their brand to be represented. So, that’s very cool. Today, everybody knows the big brands, but there’s a lot to discover now, and people should be paying attention. Sometimes [these wines] are hard to get because they are not always distributed everywhere. But, with the possibility of buying it online, ça va! There is no excuse.
In the food world, the evolution of fish farming has taken two roads. One, which is not always the type of fish I like to see, but there is also really responsible fish farming. Especially in Europe, they’ve advanced a lot to where the quality is equal to something that has lived in the sea because they have [created] an ecosystem that respects the environment that the fish was born in.
And the evolution of cheese [in America]. We have amazing cheesemakers now from California to Vermont and Virginia.
Are you inspired by any young chefs?
Yes, Thomas Keller and I have a mentorship foundation [Ment’or] to help young chefs with their upbringing in the industry. We raise money and give grants to young chefs [to travel] that we feel is really going to impact their career. In a couple of years, we have distributed more than 150 grants and more than $1.5 million. Besides that, we also support the American team for the Bocuse d’Or World Competition, which gathers young chefs from 24 countries every two years in Lyon. And through that, I have met and supported some amazing young chefs. For example, a chef who used to work for me and went to Minneapolis, Gavin Kaysen of Spoon and Stable. James Kent, who just opened Crown Shy in New York, and who was the candidate in 2011 for the Bocuse d’Or. Or you have Timothy Hollingsworth at Otium in L.A. He’s is also a fantastic young chef. There are chefs all over the country who have participated and are becoming the next big chefs in America. We want to create a real legacy with this foundation.
Your food honors both traditional techniques and ingenuity. Why is getting involved in start-ups so attractive to you?
You cannot reverse time. I love start-ups, and I love any start-up connected to food. When Sweetgreen [the fast casual restaurant chain serving salads] started, my daughter and I knew the founders, and we wanted to invest with them. And when the founders of Spyce [a robotic, fast-casual kitchen] approached me, they didn’t know anything about food. But, they knew about engineering, and they were 21 years old—about to graduate from MIT. I was so excited by what they created already with no money that right away I wanted to invest with them as and stay as their culinary ambassador. From there, they opened their first location. Now they are working on evolving their concept, and it has been doing very well. We’re getting demand from all over, from Asia, and Europe. They all want to get on the bandwagon. It’s very cool because basically, the investment is in the cooks who are prepping all of the food and the service, because the machine does the rest. It’s crazy.
Is there anything lacking in the restaurant world today?
I don’t feel that we are missing anything. I just feel that sometimes too many people are jumping on whatever becomes a trend for the wrong purpose. Not to elevate it, but to suck from it. To capitalize on it.
I think it’s important that we keep progressing in a creative and healthy way. I don’t think every restaurant should become vegan tomorrow. At the same the time, the responsibility toward meat and ingredients—where they are from and how they are raised—that is a big subject. There are going to be more fast casual [restaurants] developed with responsibility and by people who are in authority to support something ethical and also healthy.
For me, I believe fine dining will never die. But, millennials get bored with too much of the same. With luxury houses—whether it’s Vuitton, Chanel, Dior, or Louboutin—when you buy a product of quality, you know the difference. And, you know that it’s a good investment. Fine dining is still an experience, and I think that’s what motivates me the most. I’d love to have more casual restaurants and more affordable restaurants. But, I think that with the push that we do every day in fine dining, people go home with something special—even if it’s just memories.
*This interview has been edited and condensed