The invitation from Spago Chef Wolfgang Puck was succinct but impressive: "Please join me and Chef Daniel Boulud for a dinner at my restaurant at the Bel-Air Hotel to celebrate the publication of his new cookbook." Wolf knows that I am a cookbook junkie. I like nothing better than getting into bed at night with a pile of new cookbooks (and a bottle of brandy and a joint) and spending the evening reading the recipes and anecdotes about the people who create them. So I gratefully accepted the invitation to the dinner where these two master chefs would cook together one-on-one for the first time. In the meantime, I arranged to get a copy of DANIEL: MY FRENCH CUISINE (Grand Central Life & Style, 2013) so I could prepare for the dinner discussion. And I spent several nights before the meal immersed in the 400-page book, which turned out to be one of the finest, most interesting cookbooks I have read in years -- a masterpiece of the cooking art with a few surprises along the way.
Daniel in the kitchen / photo from Daniel
Wolfgang Puck greeting guests at my table / photo by Jay
I didn't realize until the dinner that it also marked the 20th anniversary of his flagship restaurant, Daniel. As I told him that night, we first met when he began cooking at Sirio Maccione's original Le Cirque on Park Avenue in the '80s, and then again when I had a few meals during his first decade at Daniel. This night was a five-course dinner featuring farmers market ingredients selected by the chefs that morning, paired with wines from the acclaimed Ca' del Boco Winery in Lombardy, a leading brand of sparkling wines with ultra-fine perlage bearing the name of the zone where they are made: Franciacorta.
Daniel gives me a thumbs-up after the dinner / photo by Jay
I have written extensively here on HuffPost about Wolfgang's elegant new garden eatery at the Bel-Air. While I hear occasionally from old-fashioned stalwarts that they don't like the changes wrought to the hostelry, I love this new venue and its sophisticated, romantic setting -- and the cutting-edge California cuisine it features. In my conversation with Daniel, I learned that he now has 14 restaurants in New York, Palm Beach, Miami, London, Toronto, Montreal, Beijing and Singapore! But he laughingly told me, "I still live just above the store in New York. My apartment is actually over the restaurant, and I can look down from it into the kitchen. Every Sunday I invite friends there for dinner and we cook in my upstairs kitchen."
I must say, he is still the warm humble and charming man I met at Le Cirque many, many years ago. I told him that I attempted to cook a few recipes from his new book ('Langoustine and Uni Chaid-Froid'), but without much success. They looked (and tasted, I am sure) nothing like the stunning ones in his monumental tome. There are baroque old French dishes to be cooked Escoffier-style, and one truffle-stuffed chicken dish cooked in an inflated pig's bladder (which I have once enjoyed in France), as well as easier dishes like tarte flambee.
The langoustine dish from the book... mine did not look like this! / photo by Daniel
And another thing I loved about the new book was that the last part of it was written in collaboration with Bill Buford, whom I admire deeply. He is the New Yorker staff writer who, some years ago, left to write an article and then a book about apprenticing with the world's most famous butcher in Tuscany. The resultant book, Heat: An Amateur's Adventure as a Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, was a best-selling wonder. Here, in the new book, he joins with Daniel to cook a raft of classic dishes from Lyon (where Bill lived for four years) and write about the process. I loved reading about how Daniel began in his early teens as a dishwasher in a local village restaurant and happened to meet master chef Paul Bocusse, and how a few years later he was able to work the line at some of France's most prestigious gastronomic temples of the time. ...ones helmed by Roger Verge, Michael Guerard, and Georges Blanc -- before coming to the U.S. and working first in Westbury.
Boulud and Buford prepare a roast, from the book /photo by Daniel
This book is his his fourth, but it is the work of a lifetime. DANIEL: My French Cuisine, was written in collaboration with Sylvie Bigar, with the Bill Buford essays, and photographs by Thomas Schauer. (There are 125, and they are spectacular!) It costs $60 but it is worth every penny -- and then some. It is part memoir, along with interesting chapters by the chef on wine, bread, cheese, truffles and such, part instruction manual, and is too good to languish on any coffee table. It features 75 signature recipes plus an additional 12 which he prepares at home. For example, the first recipe is for a crab salad, but he explained to me that while he has been preparing this salad for 25 years, it is always changing... although the prime ingredients of crab, granny smith apples, celery and walnuts always stays the same, "Every year we change the approach to it, and this crab salad roll was one of the latest approaches, which is far away from the first salad."
The Duo of Beef, which is from the book but served this evening / photo by Jay
He does give detailed instructions on how to prepare the three-star Michelin food (lots of luck) but it is fun reading and trying. Buford narrates on the origin and preparation of 10 classic French dishes, from pot-au-feu to canard a la presse -- that had me smiling and salivating at the same time. Anyone who is serious about food, cooking (and life) must read it. As Thomas Keller said about it, "French cuisine is in Daniel's blood, but this book is the most personal he has ever written --it is a intimate look at him as a chef and as a person, highlighting the art and science in his iconic and regional cooking, and the humility that guides everything he does."
The Turbot dish served was a recipe modified from the book / photo by Jay
Tai Snapper with caviar was directly from the cookbook / photo by Jay
Dessert was a classic Puck dish: Scotch Whisky Chocolate Cake / photo by Jay
Oh, yes, that Boulud-Puck dinner last week. The opening course featured smoked chicken liver pastrami and white truffle "toad in a hole." It was followed by caraway-cured Tai snapper in a cucumber dill broth, with Osetra caviar and sea urchin (from Daniels's book). Santa Barbara spot prawns with nam prik noom (fish sauce), holy basil, and coriander followed. A first entrée was slow-baked turbot a la Polonaise, with cauliflower gratin, Romanesco sauce, and Marcona almonds. One delicious favorite was the next: the Wolf Ranch quail stuffed with sweetbreads, with Italian white truffles, Jerusalem artichokes and Brussels sprouts (I think it is on the regular Puck menu here). The final entree was Duo of Beef (from the cookbook), braised Black Angus short ribs (yes, I have never met a short rib I didn't love), seared Wagyu tenderloin, served with Charmoula-spiced carrot puree and porcini duxelle. The spectacular dinner concluded with a Scotch whisky chocolate cake with Urfa Biber and popcorn sherbert. All of the Ca' del Bosco sparking wines were superbly matched to the dishes. I went home and fell asleep with Daniel's massive cookbook lying on my chest. I had such sweet, savory dreams.
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