Whoever said French cuisine is out of fashion probably never spoke to a French chef. Namely, Daniel Boulud, who has found fame and fortune cooking nothing less than quintessential Gallic cuisine in the tough dining town of New York City.
It's a little ironic, but "when I left France 40 years ago, maybe they (other chefs) thought I was not good enough to stay in France, that's why I went to America," says the indefatigable chef-restaurateur whose Restaurant Daniel has always been among the best restaurants in New York and has a string of bistros and casual offshoots all over the world. "At the time, French chefs would travel around the world but they would come back (but I didn't). But today, looking at all the French chefs who have established themselves (outside France), the cuisine is totally on par with France."
In town last week for a whirlwind visit to DB Bistro Moderne in Marina Bay Sands where he even cooked personally for guests, chef Boulud dismisses any notion that France has lost out to the likes of Spain, London or Norway in the creative stakes.
"We talk about French cuisine trying to reclaim its status but you have to realise we did a damn good job training the world to become better chefs!" He huffs, good-naturedly. "You can't assume that any good chef in Asia, America or South America didn't learn from the French. Somewhere along the line they would have gone to school and to work in the best restaurant which would always be a French restaurant."
By the same token, he feels that, even as the world seems to gravitate away from the pomp and grandeur of high-end restaurants, "fine dining is in very good health".
Just look at the luxury hotels around the world, he says. "Like the Mandarins or the Ritz Carltons - they are not going casual. Yes, they may create something a little bit casual but it would be next to the luxury restaurant. In Paris, to sleep in a palace hotel or a five-star hotel it's going to cost US$2,000 a night so they are not going to lower the price because they think the customer wants to spend less and be more casual. The market for fine dining is the same, and all the fine dining restaurants are doing very well."
If anything, fine dining remains the same but what changes is the creativity and approach to fine dining. "Now you have very elaborate fine dining restaurants with no tablecloths even." He's well aware "of young chefs trained in fine dining restaurants who open bistros offering fine dining at affordable prices, but usually these chefs 'grow up' and don't last a lifetime the way that a fine dining restaurant will. Restaurant Daniel is 22 years old and it's there to stay."
The secret to fine dining, chef Boulud explains, lies in a combination of evolution and tradition. "If a restaurant can last 15 years it's there to stay - it's all about re-inventing yourself without trying to follow trends. It's more about being current."
In the case of the now-defunct Guy Savoy restaurant in MBS, "maybe it was the wrong location for him or maybe it wasn't what the people expected of fine dining here, but it's okay because Guy Savoy is still one of the best chefs in the world and his fine dining restaurant in Paris is always packed. And it takes nothing away from who Guy Savoy is."
Besides, "I made the mistake myself of going to places where it wasn't the right location or the right time, but it's okay, life goes on - it's just a business."
In contrast, he's happy with how his bistro is doing in Singapore, and it's largely because of his partnership with MBS and its high-end "village" environment because of its self-contained nature. "People come because they can do so many things. I don't know if I could be as successful or as well supported if I were a small independent restaurant in Orchard Road. For us, the association with the hotel is more favourable, and as a French bistro, it's a good fit."
Although he spends most of his time running his empire of restaurants, chef Boulud has lately fallen into the role of mentor and coach, especially with the recent success of the US team at the culinary Olympics, Bocuse D'or, in Lyon.
After languishing "at 6th, 7th, 10th or 11th place" in previous competitions, chef Boulud took over the team and guided them to a historic second place finish in last month's event. Norway took first place. It's an accomplishment he's extremely proud of, and a role he took on with fellow chef Thomas Keller when they started the foundation ment'or specifically to coach the competing chefs. "We have 45 of the best chefs in the US on our culinary council," he adds.
"With our foundation we raise money to give grants to chefs in America so that they can train, travel for inspiration or do a stage (an internship) - this money helps them to pay for their rent and expenses so that they come back inspired and not broke!"
Singapore, which also sent a team to Lyon and took 17th place, doesn't enjoy the same kind of resources. Norway, for example, won because "they spend a lot of money, time and resources on training and they have committed chefs to help - they've basically made it their expertise," says chef Boulud. "We raise money with sponsors and private donors - we need a certain amount of money over the two-year period to find and train the right candidate."
Whether he's training chefs, travelling around the world, writing cookbooks (he has just released his latest) or managing his own restaurants, there is a common thread that runs through them all - that you can take the French chef out of France, but you can never take French food out of him.
This article was first published on Feb 14, 2015.
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