Chef Daniel Boulud Talks Travel Hacks, Tradition & The Legacy He Hopes To Leave Behind

And yes, the hacks involve food.

At this year’s James Beard Awards, Journy cofounder Leiti Hsu caught up with French chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud—best known for Daniel, his eponymous two-star Michelin restaurant in New York City—to chat, well, about a lot of things. Travel hacks, what it’s like to be a French chef in America, history of culinary awards (and what it all has to do with tires) and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.

Here are the top highlights:

Leiti Hsu and Daniel Boulud at the 2019 James Beard Awards 

Packing for travel, chef-style:

“I’m getting better at travel,” Boulud tells Hsu. Much of this pertains to packing prowess, and the chef skillset does lend itself nicely to such non-food questions of logistics, elegance and efficiency.

“When it comes to packing, we [chefs] are obsessed with a sense of order—like mise en place,” he says. Following a protracted era of trial-and-error, Boulud is now firm that the secret is in the bag—specifically, the zip-lock bag, with which he imposes a synthetic system of compartmentalization while staying strictly carry-on.

“I put everything into zip-lock—my T-shirts, my sweaters, my socks, underwear, everything—everything goes in different zip-locks,” he says. These then go into an admittedly-non-zip-lock-but-nevertheless-“amazing” other bag he has: rectangular, with just the cross-sectional dimensions of the zip-lock bag he favors. “I can put almost ten zip-locks inside and last a week with it.”

Maintaining the established mise en place (in the kitchen and while packing) is critical, he says, because so much depends on having what you need when you reach for it by instinct—a system informed by the need for control, efficiency, focus and precision.

“If a cook messes around with your mise en place and moves something, you get really upset,” he says.

As such, his other travel tip is to always carry almonds: en route to the James Beard Awards, his plane from New York didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Chicago and had to execute an unplanned landing in South Bend, Indiana. Passing on an opportunity to take a dig at the airline for its own inadequate mise en place, he instead shares an ad-hoc fable of almonds that, at the ready in their own zip-lock compartment, served as a much-needed snack.

French gastronomy in America, and being in great company:

Boulud, arguably the preeminent French chef in America today, is quick to deflect any suggestions of his quintessence or singularity; au contraire, he is proud to be considered among what to him is an ongoing line of greats.

“There are a few of us,” he says. “I'm proud of being French in America, because I'm proud of being French, yes, but I don't think the French think about me every day; America thinks a lot of me, and that matters.”

“I'm happy...that I have been able to train a lot of people today… The two kids from Frenchette—they're not kids anymore—the young chefs, Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, who won the James Beard today for best new restaurant… Twenty-five years ago, they were working with me at Daniel… Then Brian McNally took them to work in Balthazar, and they stayed there for 10 or 15 years, and now they have Frenchette, and I'm very happy for them; they deserve it.”

“James Beard was an American gastronome with a big understanding of French food. Julia Child and Jacques Pépin were communicating to the homes of America with French food, but the history of restaurants in America is huge as well, and I'm glad to be a link in that chain of French [cuisine] in America.”

The bedrock of traditionalism that underlies an ever-evolving art form:

“I'm cooking something so different than 20, 30 or 10 years ago, or five years ago,” he says. “But I never try to reinvent myself… What I live every day—about food, about ingredients, about how we think about food—I don't think has changed so much.”

“It's inspiring how the music, the art, the food, and the business itself keeps reinventing itself and yet keeps giving the same kind of pleasure… I think at the end it's about what we do with our passion.”

What's special about a James Beard Award, and Americana

“I always felt that a James Beard Award maybe had a different meaning, because this is not a gastronomic critic who gives you this award,” he says. “It's not an association of people who have nothing to do with our business. It's an award that's given by your peers.”

“I love when they congratulate the classic places that have been there for a hundred years, like these diners, or the spaghetti place… It shows the diversity of the James Beard Foundation and how far they go to congratulate people who have dedicated their lives to service and hospitality.”

“It’s about our business…but also the richness of all the culture in America around food.”

...the paradox of receiving one:

“I pinched myself so hard—if I could only tell what it took for me to get it. I think that's the story of everyone: they can't tell you how they did get it, but they know they didn't get it because it was just an occasion to be noticed.”

...and the challenge of not:

“People have to never be disappointed, never be discouraged, and continue to dream, and continue to take care of the customer the way they always did. We don't do this business just to collect awards.”

The illustrious Michelin Guide and its tire-company origins:

“Today you don't need your car to go to a three Michelin star restaurant in Shanghai, or in Singapore, or in New York, but Michelin still stands for that special experience, still signifies who is worth the detour, worth the journey.”

Burning the midnight oil:  

“In my restaurant, often I am the last one to leave. I go to my office at 10 o'clock at night and I work until midnight, but what am I doing to myself? It's because I care about my business, I care about the people who work for me, I care about the customer.”

Legacy, posterity and pride:

“To me, the legacy of a chef is the family they have grown around them in the kitchen, and how they keep growing themselves and creating, and training, and inspiring new young chefs. That's the beauty of our business: the sense of family, the sense of brotherhood and the sense of pride.”

For more inspiration from another acclaimed French chef, meet Yves Camdeborde.

Credit: danielboulud.com