Chef Daniel Boulud takes a bite out of Boston
The last world-renowned Michelin-rated chef from New York couldn’t make it here. Maybe we weren’t ready. But now comes along Daniel Boulud who thinks he gets the New England palate, even daring to put on his menu versions of our classics — lobster, clam chowder, and Boston cream pie, as if to tell every other culinary star in town, game on.
Bostonians, we may never eat so well again.
“That Daniel is here raises the level for all of us,” said Lydia Shire, chef-owner of Scampo and other legendary Boston restaurants, as she cradled a martini at Boulud’s opening soiree Monday night. “We are going to be watching what he cooks.”
You see, Boulud is not just any celebrity chef — he is a super chef, and his arrival this week with the opening of Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental could send Boston into a different gastro-sphere.
But first he has to make sure he doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming a chef spread too thin. Jean-Georges Vongerichten tried to make a go of it with his Market restaurant at the W Hotel in the Theatre District, but shuttered it in December after only four years. This French chef couldn’t be bothered to explain why he fled Boston, but Boulud is aware that making it in New York doesn’t mean anything in Boston.
“I don’t think many star chefs are organized like me,” he said in his lilting French accent, sitting in the bar of his new restaurant as workers attended to the finishing touches on a recent afternoon. “Business is like marriage. Sometimes it is an amazing relationship. Sometimes it can go sour quickly.”
Over the years, Boulud has had overtures from developers to open a restaurant in Boston. But he decided to come to the Mandarin to take over the old Asana space because he’s worked with the hotel before, most recently in London. In Boston, the chef plans to win over customers the way he always has, meal by meal.
“I have no pretenses. . . . We are going to work very hard,” said Boulud. “I am not here to get accolades. I want do my job right. The 5 percent criticism matters more than the 95 percent praise.”
Boulud, 59, is no stranger to our little town north of Manhattan. When he was the chef at New York’s Le Cirque in the late ’80s, he used to come up here to cook with Julia Child, the matron of French cooking in America. In the late ’90s and into the ’00s, he was in town at the invitation of the Anthony Spinazzola Foundation for its annual gala to raise money to feed the hungry and to fund culinary scholarships.
More recently, the French chef has gotten to know the campus of Tufts University, from where his daughter graduated in 2011. (The move-in meal was at O ya, a Japanese place The New York Times declared the country’s best new restaurant, and the move-out meal was at Barbara Lynch’s Menton.)
By now, Boulud knows our top chefs by their first names — Lydia, Barbara, Gordon, Ming, Ken, Todd. They’ve cooked and broken bread together, and in some cases they’ve sent promising young talent to each other’s restaurants.
Even though Boulud has built a far-flung, multimillion-dollar empire with 16 restaurants, he still takes cooking seriously. He lives above his flagship restaurant, Daniel, on New York’s Upper East Side, and pops into the kitchen most evenings. He will also visit two or three of his other New York restaurants during dinner service. Every few months, he takes his discerning taste buds and fastidious attention to detail on the road to check on his restaurants in Canada and Florida. Expect him to be in Boston about every six weeks, especially around the time of seasonal menu changes.
But as much as the restaurants are about him — all bear his name: Cafe Boulud, db Bistro Moderne, Maison Boulud — he makes sure to train well. He has a team of corporate chefs who circle the empire to keep standards high.
He also takes pride in mentoring the chefs who run his establishments — a bunch of whom have won awards as rising stars in the culinary world.
The key players at Boston’s Bar Boulud have been with him in New York and want to be in Boston for family reasons. The kitchen is led by chef de cuisine Aaron Chambers, who worked for Boulud for six years, most recently as the head chef at Boulud Sud.
The maitre d’, Jan Sedlak, had similar roles at Daniel and Cafe Boulud. Meanwhile, sommelier Joe Camper worked his way up from being a “cellar rat” at Lynch’s Menton to become sommelier at db Bistro Moderne.
“We invest a lot in talent,” said Boulud. “The restaurants are better run by the team you put in place than by an aging chef.”
Bar Boulud, which opens Wednesday, will double as Mandarin’s only restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The French bistro, with a focus on good wine and house-made charcuterie, is not a special occasion place like L’Espalier upstairs, but one that makes for a nice night out, whether for coq au vin or a haute burger.
New York interior designer Adam Tihany — who did Shire’s Biba, Pignoli, and Excelsior restaurants — overhauled the old Asana and Mandarin bar by integrating them into one space. It feels cozier, with a mix of banquettes and tables, like you’re hanging out in a wine cellar.
For sure, we have a come long way from bland Yankee fare, and the region feels like it’s in the middle of a restaurant renaissance from the Seaport District to Somerville.
Our chefs and restaurants have gotten more than their helping of 15 minutes of fame on the Food Network. But still, there is something missing — the imprimatur of a culinary master from somewhere else, someone who deems New Englanders worthy of the finest food.
After Boulud, another New York celebrity chef, the burly and gregarious Mario Batali, is slated to open Babbo Pizzeria on Fan Pier. Let’s hope there are more famous gourmands on their way, but it’s not enough to just show up.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Gordon Hamersley, the owner of Hamersley’s Bistro, of catering to the finicky tastes of New Englanders. “You can’t assume you have a big name, and you will succeed.”