Even a chef admired the world over can discover new talents. In the midst of a landmark year, Chef Daniel Boulud discusses the 20th anniversary of New York’s iconic restaurant Daniel, the renovation and reopening this month of Midtown’s elegant French-American bistro—db bistro moderne, next month’s release of his new cookbook—Daniel: My French Cuisine, and his unique partnership with The Dalmore Distillery, which resulted in the first bespoke Single Malt Scotch Whisky created in collaboration with a Michelin-starred chef. Creating a signature whisky was a new and exciting experience for Chef Boulud, and the whisky—aptly named The Dalmore selected by Daniel Boulud—perfectly complements his cuisine.
What inspired your decision to create an exclusive Dalmore whisky for your restaurants?
I had explored doing a vodka at one point, but with a vodka there is no combination of recipes, there is no creation of flavors. For me, it was about being part of creating a whisky that was tinted by different flavors based on the wood it had been saving in. This was unique because it was about personal taste—and this was also learning about something that I had never done. I felt very excited about creating the whisky, and Dalmore was fabulous because it is such a reputable house.
Dalmore has a reputation for a unique distillation process and maturation of whisky in bespoke oak casks. In select instances, as with your whisky, they also finesse the whisky in wood barrels from renowned wineries.
Yes, they get barrels from wineries all over the world and that’s very interesting. We started with maybe 30 different samples of whisky that were single cast, meaning some were [aged] with Muscatel, some with Madeira, with Port wines, some with Cabernet, with Chardonnay. The effect of the wood in the alcohol creates very unique smells, unique tastes, and unique colors—so I was really taken by that. First we tasted them all, and Richard Paterson, who is Dalmore’s master distiller—we tasted together and we pulled 12 to 14 samples and narrowed down to create the whisky at that point. We chose whisky aged in Muscatel barrels, Madeira, and Port wine—those three were the most refined, with great characteristics of a whisky that was not too smoky but has a sweet smell, and a little bit of an aged finish to it.
Is it unusual to think of pairing whiskies with food, as opposed to just serving it before and after the meal?
It is not unusual in Scotland—but in general, people drink whiskies before or after the meal. We have done events where the whisky was all around the meal, and mostly food is prepared with whisky. In Lyons [the French town where Boulud grew up], when I was a young chef, there was a chef who had a specialty where he used whisky. It always stayed in my mind that whisky was so great with all of the food flavorings. We use whisky to give flavor into a terrine, we flambé with whisky, we create dishes with whisky and cream sauces and it really keeps the flavor expanding. I think it is one of the finest, one of the most complex, alcohols as well.
How will you be serving The Dalmore?
We currently have The Dalmore available at all of our New York locations. We also have had promotional events (we kicked off the whisky with a one-night, all-restaurant pairing menu) and we make some dessert pairing suggestions on the regular menus. At restaurant Daniel, for example, we sometimes have dishes we are pairing with whisky, and we offer dessert and a shot. Whisky is like wine in a way—but the difference with wine is the varietals and terrior make the wine. What makes the whisky is the complex combination of wood barrels [wine casks] with the alcohol itself—so the alcohol is always [influenced] by the way it’s made. The barrels create the flavor, almost like balsamic vinegar—with balsamic vinegar, the uniqueness is the aging in barrels because at the beginning the vinegar is not all that great; it’s very basic to begin with.
Let’s talk about restaurant Daniel, how does one of New York’s most renowned restaurants continue to live up to its own reputation?
Of course it definitely takes more than just me to be able to do that, and I have been blessed by wonderful people working with me—chefs, managers, sommeliers—an amazing team over the 20 years. People have stayed, people have gone—but it’s been an amazing group. And for me, I just wanted to make sure that every day we were very consistent, very committed to quality, to excellence, to service, and that our standards were always about learning the business. So 20 years later, we feel like it was yesterday and yet so much happened in between.
How do you cultivate and build talent across all the different brands and new locations?
The preparation to be a chef takes about 10 years—even if you have the talent and motivation and you are made for this business, it takes about 10 years. Most young chefs are between the ages of 23 to 27, and I take pride in having been able to promote young chefs—[many] who started as a beginning cook and then became a chef de cuisine in our restaurant. I think that is a trademark of a place where there is a good environment to be working. No matter which restaurant I am in, it’s about quality, it’s about consistency, it’s about cooking, it’s about the craft—and young chefs want to make sure that they are in that [environment].
We’ve talked about the importance of chefs and food in your restaurants, but what service standards do you hold most sacred?
It is not like cooking. With cooking, the importance is to repeatedly reproduce a dish with the perfect seasoning and consistency, the perfect balance. But with service, every customer is a different customer in a way. [You have] to be able to maintain excellence and understand the customer and cater to them in a more personal, professional way. I am very fortunate to have a management company that is made of past managers of our restaurants who really understand, from the ground up, what service is about. We don’t take [service] for granted. It’s not about how many waiters you have, it’s about how well-trained, and honest, and genuine they are with the customer.
You are also celebrating the 12th anniversary of db bistro moderne, and are in the middle of a renovation that includes a new dining room, a cocktail bar, and a newly-crafted menu. Tell us about these changes please.
Every time we have a restaurant at the 10-year mark, we program a renovation and it usually takes about a year and a half of planning. At db bistro, the restaurant is well-maintained and beautiful—certainly we don’t need to give it a new soul—we just have to reassess a little bit. We never had a bar and thought it would be nice to create a small bar in the front, and db bistro will have a brand new look—it will be contemporary, but at the same time a little more of a classic bistro. With the [renovation], we felt it would be a great opportunity to bring new talent and so we introduced Jim Burke, a young chef who already has earned accolades, to be executive chef. He will be fantastic, and I think it’s always good to bring somebody who has other experience than just my restaurants as well.
Tell us about the new cookbook that is coming out next month.
Daniel: My French Cuisine (Grand Central Life & Style, 2013) is about the restaurant celebrating 20 years—with 75 signature recipes. I also created 10 essays on cooking, topics like bread, cheese, truffles, and I collaborated with writer Bill Buford on preparation of more iconic dishes that celebrate the past, sometimes something historical or something more attached to my background or related to French cuisine. The book ends with a dozen home recipes (my home is above restaurant Daniel), where I invited the writer into my home and created menus from four regions in France.
What in your career has been most significant to you?
Over the years, I’ve organized some of the most unique events around wine. We had so many tastings over the 20 years—and to me, creating beautiful food and having the best wine in the world to go with it is the best accomplishment one chef can have. We have horizontal tastings, which means the wine would be from different wine makers, but it’s all of the same year. And we have vertical tastings, which means it is from a single winemaker, but different years. So last October we had a charity event with the great wine critic Robert Parker that was a horizontal tasting for ’82—that year, ’82, being one of the top five vintages of the century. There were maybe 30 different château of ’82 from Parker’s pesonal cellar—1982 Mouton-Rothschild; 1982 Lafite Rothschild; 1982 Latour; and 1982 Chateau Margaux—to name a few. We were serving about 60 people at $12,000 a person. Robert chose for the event to benefit a cause close to his heart, the Navy Seal Foundation. The dinner was something fantastic because of course we created dishes especially for the wine—and that’s the most interesting thing as a chef, not just creating a dish, but thinking of creating a dish for the perfect pairing with great wine. You basically want to understand the vintage of the wine—even though it was all from ’82 and all from Bordeaux, every wine has a characteristic. And so we wanted to make sure we created dishes that were within those characteristics and would be the perfect pairing—that’s the excitement.
I think French food and French wine are maybe the reason why France has been doing this for such a long time. I don’t remember if the wine came first or the food, but the two together have a very long journey.