The Fourth Star: Dispatches from Inside Daniel Boulud's Celebrated New York Restaurant

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For foodies, restaurant fans and restaurant workers, chefs and chef-wannabes, and for everyone who devoured Kitchen Confidential, here is a revealing look at what goes on behind the scenes at the world-renowned Restaurant Daniel as chef/owner Daniel Boulud strives for perfection–and for the New York Times’ top four-star rating.

The hushed, elegant atmosphere of a fine restaurant often conceals an intensely stressful workplace where highly trained, underpaid staffers work ...

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For foodies, restaurant fans and restaurant workers, chefs and chef-wannabes, and for everyone who devoured Kitchen Confidential, here is a revealing look at what goes on behind the scenes at the world-renowned Restaurant Daniel as chef/owner Daniel Boulud strives for perfection–and for the New York Times’ top four-star rating.

The hushed, elegant atmosphere of a fine restaurant often conceals an intensely stressful workplace where highly trained, underpaid staffers work backbreaking hours against impossible dead-lines, often at the whim of a driven and demanding yet creatively gifted boss. New York’s Restaurant Daniel is one such place. With the complete cooperation of Chef Daniel Boulud, author Leslie Brenner spent a full year at the restaurant, getting to know the staff in the kitchen, the front of the house, and the manager’s office. And she reports on it all with a vivid immediacy: the maître d’ shuffling reservations when a VIP shows up unannounced, the young pastry chef who gets passed over for a promotion (and then gets the last laugh), even the financial arrangements that keep the restaurant’s doors open for business. And underlying all the daily drama is Chef Boulud’s obsession with getting a fourth star from the New York Times.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Any foodie worth his or her fleur de sel will happily devour Leslie Brenner's vivid account of a year inside high-powered chef Daniel Boulud's namesake restaurant in Manhattan. Rich with detail, it is a lively and savory tale of life in the upper-echelon restaurant business, the perfect chaser to books like The Soul of a Chef and Kitchen Confidential.

Both the book's title and background drama come from the moment in June 1999 when, to the surprise of the culinary world, Daniel was awarded only three stars by the then-new restaurant reviewer for The New York Times, William Grimes. Thus 2000 became the year that Boulud determined to earn the four-star rating he achieved at Le Cirque for his grand new restaurant.

Brenner, a contributing editor to Travel & Leisure, spent that year at the restaurant. Scribbling in shorthand, she wore whites while reporting in the kitchen and dressed as a hostess while observing the front desk. Consequently, all the dialogue and details of the backstage dramas and daily triumphs are here. So, too, are answers to inevitable consumer questions: Where does the restaurant buy its cheeses? (Murray's on Bleecker Street.) Who supplies the flowers? (Olivier.) How is it possible to call at 9 a.m., one month in advance as required, and still find the restaurant already sold out? ( A certain proportion of tables are reserved for regulars.) Is there a way to work around this policy? (Sort of; see book for a detailed explanation.)

The drive to excellence is chronicled throughout the book at every station. We meet wonderful real-life characters, from reservations manager Erica Cantley and executive chef Alex Lee to young line cooks like Julie, who ultimately move on. We experience the adrenaline that ripples from the sous-chefs to the runners while they create and serve up to 400 dinners a night (as well as 80 in the banquet room). Ultimately, we understand why four-star restaurants like Daniel charge what they do (in this case, $184 per person on average, excluding tax and gratuities) and gain a far better appreciation of their overall artistry. (Ginger Curwen)

From the Publisher
“A witty and sumptuous pantry-level look at the struggle to create an American cuisine. Brenner . . . is no mere foodie but a solid cultural historian. . . . Even dieters will be unable to resist this gourmet repast on American culture.” Kirkus Reviews

“Lively and informative and will certainly make you laugh. . . . Brenner sees our food tastes in terms of historical or sociological perspective . . . interweaving the personal and anecdotal in her text.” Ann Beattie, in Bon Appétit

“Delectably written.” Booklist

“At dinner parties, the role of the cookbook is more often to provide what’s on the plate than to inspire what is being discussed. American Appetite is likely to be an exception. . . . In it, Brenner . . . dissects American cuisine. . . . Breezy, opinionated, and . . . sure to spice up dinner table conversations.” Los Angeles Times

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Kirkus Reviews
Fine dining, politics, and a host of strange characters meet in this engaging, behind-the-scenes look at one of New York’s hippest restaurants. Daniel is a place both to be seen and to eat well, at a fabulous cost: “The average dinner cover, meaning the cost of a meal for one person, including beverages, but not including taxes and gratuities, is $184.” The experience, suggests restaurant reviewer, food historian, and novelist Brenner (Greetings from the Golden State, 2001, etc.), is worth every bit of the cost; one of the many virtues of her insider’s look at the workings of a grand restaurant is its explanation of how costly it is to keep such a place running. (Just keeping a decent wine cellar on hand is an expensive proposition: Daniel’s holdings are valued at $800,000—money, Brenner points out, that is tied up in inventory and not earning interest.) Writing with a flair for on-the-street reportage, the author conveys such details as squabbles between chefs and sous-chefs, the curious ways of customers, many of whom the floor and kitchen staff rightly despise for their whiny demands, and the extraordinary problems attendant at every turn in bringing pleasure to people by way of the plate. Brenner is also superb at context; her disquisition on the general decline in American fine arts and the concomitant rise in the “living arts” is worth the price of admission. Non-foodies may not appreciate the drama around which she organizes her narrative: chef/owner Daniel Boulud’s quest to recapture a coveted four-star rating that had been stripped away for hotly contested reasons. But those who revere food will find Brenner’s approach as riveting as a good mystery, and just as much fun. A finetreat for food buffs, less snotty than Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential but just as revealing on how a fancy meal makes it way to the table.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780609608081
  • Publisher: Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony
  • Publication date: 6/11/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.39 (w) x 9.53 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

James Beard Award-winner LESLIE BRENNER is the author of four previous books on wine and food. She lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt


Daniel Boulud, This Is Your Day
Thursday, January 4, 2000

The fourth day of the new millennium. But to the chefs and captains at Daniel, the line cooks and dishwashers, the sommeliers and maitre d's and bakers and office assistants and reservationists and publicists and runners and busboys, it's business as usual. Behind them: the $650-a-head four-course New Year's Eve millennial gala dinner they turned out five nights earlier; before them, 354 covers: a busy Thursday night.

It's 5:20 p.m., and in the main kitchen on the ground floor, the cooks are going through their last-minute preparations: tucking square stainless-steel canisters of garnishes, cut earlier that morning, into refrigerated units at their knees, completing their mise en place. In a restaurant kitchen, cooks prepare everything they can hours before they have to actually begin a meal service. The mise en place is the organizational foundation of the professional kitchen; without it, the cook, and therefore the restaurant, would be lost. To accomplish it, cooks have been downstairs in the prep kitchen since five o'clock this morning, simmering stocks, making sauces, cutting garnishes, peeling, slicing, dicing vegetables, portioning out meats, poultry, and fish. Now they arrange all their prepared ingredients within arm's reach so no time will be wasted as they cook during the press of dinner service. The first seating will begin at 5:45, unfashionably early in New York, where everyone wants to dine at eight, but at a restaurant as hot as Daniel, one takes what one can get. For despite the fact that Daniel received only three stars from the New York Times seven months earlier, Boulud's tremendous talent is lost on no one.

Many culinary-world insiders feel that Grimes's three-star pronouncement was ill-deserved. Some think he reviewed Daniel too soon after opening, before the ambitious restaurant had a chance to find its rhythm, solve early staffing problems, and work out kinks. Others postulate that in his closely watched first reviews, Grimes didn't want to do the expected. There had been talk of star-inflation under Reichl's tenure; perhaps Grimes was eager not to fall victim to the same criticism. So where exactly did Grimes find fault with Daniel in the fateful review? "Mr. Boulud has painted himself into a corner, of course," he had written. He went on to explain that Boulud had already "earned an unassailable reputation as one of the city's most brilliant talents. By now," he continued, "diners expect nonstop fireworks when he gets within fifty feet of a stove, and he has encouraged those expectations, promising to outdo himself at the new Daniel." Grimes apparently did not get those nonstop fireworks. But are nonstop fireworks a prerequisite to a four-star review? In a system in which four stars is the maximum, should the attainment of four stars require not only perfection but ceaseless stupefaction and dazzlement, or should it be enough to be one of the three or four best restaurants in the city?

The Times review notwithstanding, in January 2000, Boulud is still widely considered to be one of New York City's best chefs--and in fact one of the best in the country. Not only has Daniel received four stars from the New York Observer and the Daily News, but it was also named best restaurant in New York City in a Gourmet magazine readers' poll and voted top restaurant in the country by Food & Wine's readers. In the Robb Report, influential critic John Mariani named Daniel Boulud best chef--not just in the country, but in the world; the International Herald Tribune has dubbed Daniel one of the ten best restaurants in the world as well. Tables, therefore, are not easy to come by.

In the garde-manger, a corner of the kitchen just large enough to allow three to stand comfortably, a cook pipes a little puree of white mushroom in a star shape onto tiny homemade potato chips, his head bent myopically close to his work. Another pulls only the tenderest pale yellow-green leaves off of celery hearts. It is in here that all the salads, cold appetizers ("cold apps"), and canapes are assembled. (In restaurant-speak, canapes refer to small amuse-gueules, the tantalizing little hors d'oeuvres that are placed in front of diners in advance of their first courses.)

Throughout the kitchen, cooks work quickly, meticulously. All wear white jackets topped with white aprons, checkered pants, bare heads. Unlike the line cooks, whose aprons cover their chests, the sous-chefs fold down the bib part to reveal their name stitched on their jacket; otherwise, only their shoes belie individuality. Some, mostly the French cooks, wear worn-looking clogs; the rest wear running shoes. A vague nervous energy underlies the quiet activity. A young cook at the soup station pours soups into cylindrical stainless-steel bain-marie inserts, then places them in hot water: Jerusalem artichoke veloute, curried cream of cauliflower and apple. He organizes his garnishes--cubes of foie gras and sage-garlic croutons for the veloute, shrimp and coriander for the cauliflower--and places them conveniently within reach in shoulder-height crannies.

Although the kitchen is large by New York City standards--a full 1,750 square feet, with soaring thirteen-foot ceilings in the pickup area--so is the dining room, which can deliver up to 140 "covers" or meals per seating, up to four hundred per service. The kitchen staff is also large, with fifteen or so cooking in the main kitchen at any one time, and a total of forty cooks on the payroll. It is said that in traditional French cooking nothing is ever wasted, a practice that even restaurants at this level abide by; here in Daniel Boulud's kitchen, space, too, is at a premium, and not a cubic inch goes unused.

To the cashmere-coated and fur-wrapped diners who slide from cab to curb as they arrive at the restaurant, Daniel sweeps into view from another angle. It's cold outside, and melancholy traces of the day's crystalline blue sky still streak the chilly evening air of January. At least the days have begun to lengthen. As one couple pushes through the heavy revolving doors of the former Mayfair Hotel, there's a little puff, a slight change of pressure; they leave winter behind and gently enter another world. On the left, a smiling face peeks out from the Dutch door of a discreetly tucked-away coat check; its occupant emerges, arm crooked to receive wraps. At Daniel, one is cared for, attended to. Or as the French say, soigne.

The lucky diners glide past the whimsical tables of the entryway lounge, passing the bar on the left, with tender strains of Ella Fitzgerald issuing forth. A tall, dark (of course), and imposing Frenchman nods gravely, smiling a little underneath it all, and ushers them to the front desk.

"Good evening," bids an elegant young Asian woman, her hair caught up in a chignon. She's dressed in black, a tailored jacket, bare at the neck save for a delicate gold necklace. She raises her chin expectantly. They give their name, she receives them politely, with reserve, yet somehow she seems honestly happy to see them this evening. She leads them to the entrance to the dining room, where they're met by a polished maitre d'.

Now they're poised to enter an idealized Venetian villa of a dining room, swathed in deep tomato-soup reds and saturated blues, pale roses, burnished golds, velvet and brocade, alabaster and terra-cotta, with soaring ceilings and graceful pillars--Shakespearean Italy as imagined, perhaps, by Franco Zefferelli. A look upward at the arch above the mahogany doors marking the entry reveals a gold-leafed inscription: daniel -- mcmxcviii.

This chef, one understands, wants to be remembered.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2012

    The regular table 2

    For 2

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 23, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Fourth star

    This book has great incite to one of the top restaurants in the world. Really lets you know how much work is put in to get to this level in this industry. The book was a very easy read for me as i am a chef and love books about food and restaurants.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2004

    Great restaurant - terrible book

    Though Brenner's descriptions of the dining experience at Daniel were nicely done, her personal interpretations of things that were happening in the kitchen were maddeningly inaccurate. She sometimes tried to explain cooks' actions or reactions to particular orders, and made it painfully clear that she had no experience on which to base her supposed observation. Too often she inserted peoples' mindsets into her writing, instead of sticking to the observational writing that made the good parts of the book enjoyable. As a cook, it was very frustrating to watch an outsider write as though she knew what other people were thinking.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2002

    A CLASS ACT IN DETAIL - The Other Kitchen Confidential

    DANIEL is a great restaurant. This book gives you an excellent account of what happens behind the scene. It shows you the amount of work, care, dedication and talent that goes into the food of every Four-star restaurant. If Anthony Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential' shows you what kinds of kitchen you do not want to work in, this book shows you the kind of kitchen you aspire to work in. At the end, it's the people that counts. The book gives long overdue credit to the nurturing and generous executive chef Alex Lee and affirms the culinary genius of Daniel Boulud.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2010

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    Posted October 20, 2011

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2009

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