A native of Lyon, chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud has become renowned for the contemporary appeal he adds to soulful cooking rooted in French tradition. Raised on his family’s farm in the village of Saint-Pierre-de-Chandieu, Boulud has watched his global empire steadily grow with locations around the world, ranging from the elaborate menus at Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Daniel in New York City to the DBGB Kitchen and Bar in Washington D.C. Because of a grueling schedule pulling Boulud between his own restaurants and public appearances around the map, it’s nearly impossible to find him in one spot for very long. But somehow we were able to corner the chef recently in South Florida to discuss everything, from his background to his famed db Burger to being one of the most decorated chefs in culinary history.
What was it like going growing up on your family’s farm?
We always had a big table of food. Everything was homegrown and homemade and raised on the farm. I ate well, but I didn’t know what haute cuisine was.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
At 15, I served my first president of France. I felt like, “I’m in the right job.”
Your first job was as first cook at La Mere Blanc in Vonnas, France. What was the greatest lesson you learned?
From plucking a bird to making pastries to making a perfect soufflé, I learned the complexity of cooking. The first chef you work for has a huge influence. That’s where you learn fundamentals.
With the diversity in your restaurants, how do you maintain consistency?
The location has a lot to do with the direction of the clientele. One characteristic is impeccable ingredients. We try to have high consistency with not just our food but with our relationship to our suppliers and with our customers through our service. The ingredients themselves, the intensity of work in the preparation and the personalization of the food is important to us.
How do you continue to innovate in terms of menu selection?
We want to make sure that customers experience consistency so they can continue to be attracted by dishes that they want to come back to enjoy. For example, at DB Bistro, we like to do an orecchiette pasta paired with a changing meat, so sometimes rabbit, venison, beef, veal, lamb or sometimes baby goat. We work on having spontaneity within the preparation.
What makes a truly great chef?
It’s all about the food.
Congratulations on having more Forbes Travel Guide Star-Rated restaurants than any other chef. What are your thoughts on having such a legacy?
What makes me the most excited is to see the people who have worked with us over the years and how well they have done, and how much they continue to be motivated and inspired. The teams at all of my restaurants have a real fidelity and commitment; they care about me, about our business and about the staff that works for them — that is rewarding to me.
Miami’s DB Bistro is coming up on its five-year anniversary this November. How has the restaurant evolved?
I think we are steady and committed. I don’t think we are trendy at all and sometimes that keeps us lasting longer.
What’s one dish you think you could make better or wish you knew how to cook?
One thing I’ve never tried to make is tacos. I took four chefs from the Americas earlier this year to Lyon to cook for 160 of the most famous chefs in the world, who together made up 260 Michelin stars. Enrique Olvera from Cosme and Pujol was one of the ones I brought to make tacos. So, for once, I could really practice and witness making tacos.
I had the chance to taste your famed db Burger at DB Bistro Moderne a few years back and can still taste it. How did you first cook it up?
I wanted to do a kick-ass burger and Jonah Lehrer from The New York Times [Editor’s Note– Lehrer worked for The New Yorker] called me and was talking about burger trends. I told him I had this burger I wanted to make and I told him I wanted him to come try it [to show him what] a real chef burger is. When he came to dinner, I served it to 10 other tables that night as a little taste. I knew the minute I served that burger, that was it — nothing to change, nothing to do. An icon was born. That was 12 years ago.
What’s your biggest source of inspiration?
Traveling for sure. I love traveling. Every chef loves traveling and discovering local talent.
What advice do you have for today’s young chefs?
Find a good mentor. Find a very good mentor and don’t get too bugged by social media because there’s only going to be more competition. It’s important for young chefs to learn his craft patiently. The only way to become a great chef is to take the time to learn well. And hire people to dream with you. You want them to be crazy and ambitious as you, but also team players.