A Day With Daniel Boulud
by bill kearney
Noon—Bird Road Art District
Daniel Boulud, Juvia Executive Chef Laurent Cantineaux, and I pull into an alcove of dusty commercial garage spaces, replete with the clang of construction and hint of industrial fumes. It seems an odd destination for Boulud—one of the most famed chefs in the world, owner of 14 restaurants from New York to Singapore (his original, Daniel, received three Michelin stars), and winner of numerous James Beard awards, among others. But Boulud is also an art collector (he owns works by Chuck Close, Vik Muniz, and many more), and he’s brought along old pal Cantineaux, who was his sous chef nearly 20 years ago at Daniel, to hopscotch between galleries.
We step into the Warehouse Gallery & Alternative Art Space, where owner Robert Bilbao leads Boulud and Cantineaux through a bevy of mostly Cuban and Caribbean artists. “Wow, that’s intense,” Boulud says of a rustic cattle yoke wrapped in barbed wire and positioned under a bull head made of horn-like tree branches stemming off a rusty ax blade. Bilbao explains that it’s artist Florencio Gelabert’s take on a married couple.
At a studio a few doors down, Boulud is captivated by a drawn Dalí portrait and plays journalist for a moment, quizzing artist Dennis Escobar about his technique of using a needle to create the pores in Dalí’s face. “You didn’t forget that eyelash that overgrew—hah,” notes Boulud. We peek into Nickel Glass, a custom glass-blowing operation, and Boulud peppers owner and artist Matthew Miller with questions: How hot do the furnaces get? (Just under 3,000 degrees.) Do the fumes knock you out? (Not yet.) All the while, he’s picking up glass and tools, turning them, turning his mind. “While my job never really gave me much freedom, I still feel like a bit of an artist,” he says. “I’m interested by how people express their minds, their talents, and their freedoms. It’s something very admirable to be able to be free like they are.”
2 p.m.—Versailles Cuban Restaurant
The younger generation of the Versailles ownership, sisters Nicole and Desiree Valls, and cousin Jackie Tornes, are all about meeting Mr. Boulud, and we gather around at the takeout window.
“Oh, look at that!” exclaims Boulud as a rather massive Cuban sandwich is delivered to the window. He asks if they use belly meat for the pork. “No, shoulder,” informs Nicole. The Valls sisters tell him how Calle Ocho transforms into a near carnival whenever there are rumors of Fidel Castro’s death. After pondering the preservation of Cuba’s natural beauty, Boulud serves everyone bits of the sandwich and thimble cups of Cuban coffee.
“What’s the secret?” he asks about the coffee.
“Whisk your sugar with the first few drops of coffee, and that creates emulsification, and little by little you work it into that nice foam,” Nicole says. He looks at the 370 seats. “That’s a lot of people!” he says with a fraternal sympathy, knowing what it takes to put butts in the seats year after year. He invites the sisters to observe operations at his places in New York. “We came to the temple,” he says with a big grin on his face as we walk off.
6 p.m.—db Bistro Moderne white truffle dinner
Boulud walks fast, trailed by a parade of managers, sommeliers, and chefs through the restaurant’s hall. Tonight he’s putting on a six-course white truffle dinner for 78 guests, all celebrating db Bistro Moderne’s second anniversary in Miami. The kitchen, though bustling, is eerily quiet, save for terse words and movements of a dozen or so line cooks and chefs. Boulud banters in French, rattles through e-mails with his personal assistant in New York, then enters the ballet of the kitchen line. He weaves, hips swiveling, around moving chefs, squeezing the seared halibut filets, poking the sous-vide squab, cutting off a piece to sample. The whiff of white truffles wafts through the kitchen, and Boulud is suddenly crouched over a two-pound, $7,000 pile of them. He inhales the earth’s perfume. Then, in an instant, he yells out to the general manager, asking how many of the guests have shown up and how soon the food needs to hit the tables.
Before long, it’s time. A hush falls over the kitchen as an assembly line of quick-armed chefs plate the first dish: celery chestnut soup with roasted squab, with a sliver of toast balanced on the bowl, holding up a dollop of crème. At the end of the assembly line, Boulud adds the final touch, shaving fresh white truffle onto each dish.
Food runners, lined up like paratroopers ready to leap, carry the precious cargo out the kitchen door. As they go, Boulud barks out serving instructions so intensely his perfect hair becomes mussed—guests are to break the toast and stir in the crème! This is a man who first cooked with his grandmother, preparing food for 12 people a day on the family farm. By age 14, he was apprenticing in a restaurant, and he essentially grew up in a world where inefficiency is not only annoying—it is ruinous.
With the soup served, Boulud joins a table in the dining room, the guests leaning to his every word. Talk turns to how wine is pirated in China, how the counterfeiters will buy empty bottles of high-end vino and fill them with inferior swill. He sips the wine pairing. “It’s a little tight,” he says to a nearby manager. “This should have been opened earlier.” A second bottle is delivered and drinks better. Before long, he’s beckoned to the kitchen. “They’re in the weeds,” he remarks to the table, winking. “They need me.” He jogs out of the room, saying to himself, almost giddily, “Let’s rock and roll!”
photography by Melanie Dunea/CPi