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.
From the Hardcover edition.