Chef Daniel Boulud's list of accomplishments is longer than the wine list in many chefs' restaurants. Born on a farm near Lyons, France, Boulud, now 51, has been cooking since the age of 14, when he began an apprenticeship under Michelin two-starred chef Gérard Nandron. He developed his culinary skill and soul throughout the 1970s and '80s, working for the likes of Georges Blanc, Roger Vergé and Michel Guérard, spent some time as a private chef and arrived in the United States in 1981. After filling the executive chef role at Le Regence at the Plaza-Athenée Hotel and at Le Cirque, both in New York, Boulud opened his flagship restaurant, the Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning Daniel, in 1993, and has since added a catering company and four more restaurants: Café Boulud in New York and Palm Beach, db Bistro Moderne in New York, and Daniel Boulud Brasserie in Las Vegas. He has authored numerous cookbooks, racked up countless awards, and contributes time and money to nearly two dozen charity organizations. In mid-2007, Boulud will open a wine bar in New York with Daniel's wine director Daniel Johnnes, who was also his partner, along with Burgundy vintner Dominique Lafon, in the creation of Dtour Macon-Villages, a French white wine packaged in an airtight collapsible bag. Wine Spectator Online recently sat down with Boulud in his glass-walled office, overlooking the perpetually busy kitchen at Daniel.
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine, and what is your relationship to it now?
Daniel Boulud: I have had the privilege to work in some of the best restaurants in the world, carrying world-class wine cellars … so I always had this interest in wine. I communicate a lot with my sommeliers, and take wine trips with them when I can. For the opening of our wine bar, I'll go back to France and do a big tour … I think [chefs] share the same passion with the vigneron. We share the same understanding about balance. Of course, our food cannot be vintage, only the recipe can be vintage, but not the food itself (laughing). But a wine needs to "speak" two, five, 10, 15 years later, and it has to live through so much. I think of Burgundy or Rhône, where it's not easy to grow wine, and dealing with the probability of bad weather or bad crops, and getting the best out of it … I have an amazing admiration for these guys.
WS: Tell us about Daniel's wine program and how it relates to the food.
DB: At Daniel the wine program is strongly French, maybe 50 percent French and 35 percent American and 15 percent others … we have some of the very good Italian and Spanish wines ... I don't mind by the glass to have some eclectic and interesting wine. We just had a wonderful Hungarian Sauvignon … New Zealand and South Africa, wines that are maybe a little edgy in their sugar content or acidity or one that goes very well with one dish, but might not be a wine that we wish to sell by the bottle. Then of course, by the bottle, it's nice to have big names, but it's nice to have a good vintage in those names (laughing). We don't bother too much with the average vintage, and that's why our wine list can get expensive. I see a lot of wine lists with lousy vintages of big names, so it looks like, "Oh, this wine is affordable!" We're very strong in Burgundy, white and red, and strong in Rhône, expanding in Bordeaux. By passion, we like to collect Rhône and Burgundy more than Bordeaux, because Bordeaux is not the same kind of collectable item.
WS: How so?
DB: Bordeaux produces so much wine compared to the others that it doesn't have that same rarity. As long as you have money you can get it. Some other wines, it takes a lot of work to get, and they're not always available all over the place. I love Burgundy because often you have a chance to know the winemaker, and the winemaker is the business, is the person, is everything. In Bordeaux, the owner is not always the winemaker.
WS: Do you have a personal favorite style of wine or producer?
DB: I love Rhône wine very much, especially Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I like Chave Hermitage and Cornas … I prefer white in the Northern Rhône, and red in the mid and south.
Ws: Do you have a personal wine cellar, and what's in it?
DB: I have a cellar in the cellar [at Daniel] but I don't collect to speculate. If I buy, it's because I am going to drink it … I do have some vintage '55, because that was my birth year--La Mission and Jean Boillot. But I also have a mishmash, because people bring me wine, and I can't taste that in the middle of the afternoon, so I put it there … I also have a lot of Burgundy. Yesterday I pulled a La Tâche '88. The pleasure is in pulling bottles and saying, "I didn't know that was here!" But I'm not an avid collector of the biggest wine, because I can afford to buy it and sell it, but not to buy it and collect it (laughing). At home I have always a half-bottle of Château d'Yquem Sauternes in the refrigerator and of course, Champagne, always.
WS: Is there a "dream wine" that you would love to have for your list or personal collection?
DB: There is a group of 10 winemakers from the Rhône Valley, 10 of the best Châteauneuf-du-Pape winemakers, the new generation … at the harvest they each put in 50 to 100 bottles of their Vielles Vignes and they blend those together, and one of the winemakers does the élevage … But it's not for sale, it's just for their personal consumption, so I haven't got my hands on it yet (laughing).
WS: What are your thoughts about the current state of fine dining in New York?
DB: There is a trend of young cooks doing some interesting things … but we don't want the young chef to get tired of it, and that's the risk … Is it [just] about being trendy? Or is it the restaurant of its time? I don't always know, but one thing for sure is that those who are traditional in their thinking, who are maybe not so edgy and trendy, I think they have a tendency to last longer … My own food has evolved over the years and it will keep on evolving. With Michelin coming to New York, we see three-star restaurants which weren't maybe of that caliber before … To me, a three-star Michelin restaurant is a wonderful thing, but I don't know if I want to cook like that. Sometimes, the food can miss a lot of soul just for the sake of perfection. For me, I try to keep my food with soul, and lead with the passion of cooking.
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