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Daniel Boulud On His Passion For Italian Food And Cooking For Clinton

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This week chef Daniel Boulud celebrated the reopening of his namesake restaurant, Daniel, which had undergone renovations in honor of its tenth anniversary at its current Upper East Side location. Just back from China where Daniel opened Maison Boulud in Tiananmen Square, this illustrious chef took the time to answer a few of my questions.

LM: What do you want people to think or how do you want them to feel after eating at the new Daniel?

DB: The same thing and the same feeling they had before. We keep evolving all the time here at Daniel, but the place is ten years old. If I were paying the rent here, it'd be different, but I own the restaurant, so I can decide what I want to do with it. I felt it's a great opportunity for me to do the renovation now at this tenth anniversary. I would like to wait for the twentieth anniversary to do it, but then the restaurant would be way too passé and old -- not too old, but in the sense of getting old.

For me, ten years in New York is a stretch. I think what makes a great place is we work very hard on the service and the food, and we keep evolving with the food, but at the same time we want to keep the excitement going. For me, for my staff, and I hope for my customers, they'll be very excited about the change because it's like saying thank you. I've been successful and instead of taking the money home and building myself a castle, I'd rather put the money back into the restaurant.

LM: You recently opened Maison Boulud in Tiananmen Square. How much do you adapt your menu, your ingredients, your style to different restaurants depending on their location?

DB: We went to China without a menu because we had to figure it out there what we were going to do. At the same time, am I trying to cook Chinese for the Chinese? No. I think they wanted a French restaurant first and foremost, or they wanted a French-American restaurant for that matter. The cooking is reflected in the feel of the restaurants I have. I took a little bit from Bar Boulud and I took a little bit from Daniel, and I took more from Cafe Boulud and from DB Bistro. I just kind of combined already all of my experience at different levels, because the restaurant there is a little more causal than Daniel.

At the same time, we adapt to our ingredients, because for me, first and foremost, is the ingredients. In order to do good cooking, I start with good ingredients. In China, because of the limitation of many ingredients you can find -- it's not New York City for instance -- the menu starts with the ingredients and then we go around that. Usually any restaurateur I know, including Jean Georges or anyone who's opened many restaurants, basically they come with a concept of food. I don't think anyone goes to a place and starts to figure out what they're going to do there. We had some big conceptual ideas and then we decided after we got there what was going to work and what wasn't working with the consistency of supply and also the price point of things, how something is expensive, and is it possible to get it on a daily basis.

LM: In this month's issue of Gourmet magazine, there was an article criticizing today's French chefs as lacking innovation and claiming that the culture of French cooking is stagnant at the moment. What is your opinion on the current state of cooking in France as opposed to in the US or elsewhere?

DB: In America, we have the most exciting culture of food, and sometimes the most depressing culture of food. France values tradition, and innovation is not for everyone either. Yet today in France you have a lot of good restaurants where chefs who are quite creative and there are a lot of good bistros where they do a very good job. Spain and France are not even comparable because the day France starts to cook like Spain, then it's not France anymore.

It's like Italy, how much do you wish the Italians to become creative? So no. How much do we wish the French to be creative? Yes, the French will continue to progress. There's not a single top restaurant in America that isn't driven and influenced by the French, from Thomas Keller to Daniel Humm to Tom Coliccho. Of course there's always a twist, and there's always inspiration, but the fundamental thinking is often very French.

One thing also you have to realize in the evolution of cuisine, and I understand the French are criticized about not being so innovative, but the problem is in France we care about wine and food together. In the evolution of cuisine, often, very often, with molecular cuisine and with many other trends, the food is much more important. And I think, thank God, France has certainly the greatest wine in the world when it comes to Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rhone, and the greatest wine makers. We respect that and we have to take care about making food that don't contrast so much with the wine and their relationship together.

LM: In New York, a recent bill requires chains and fast food restaurants to post the calorie information, and Americans are increasingly concerned with their health and local ingredients. What are your thoughts on that?

In my restaurant, I think it's a question of trust. At many of those fast food places, there's a limitation of how much you can trust them and what they do. Even though there are all of those grocery stores that are so-called organic, what is the meaning of organic? It's the biggest trend in the world because there's so much abuse of it. They use the word natural. They use the word organic. They use the word local, but I think for a restaurant like me, or a chef like me, or maybe a colleague, it's an issue of trust. If you eat healthy, I mean if you eat good food, and if you trust the chef, I don't think you're going to be eating in danger to your health. But of course if you eat the whole basket of bread with a bucket of butter before lunch, then I don't want to be responsible because sometimes that's what happens.

LM: What are your favorite restaurants in New York?

DB: I like Italian. I go to places like Sfoglia and Spigolo on the Upper East Side. I really want to go downtown to Scarpetta Scarpetta because I think Scott [Conant] is a terrific chef, and I know his cooking already. I like to go to where my friends are also. I'm not a guy who needs to see every trend, but at the same time, Jean Georges just opened a new Japanese restaurant, Matsugen and I want to go and eat it because I like Jean Georges and I think it'd be great to go there. When you open a new restaurant, you can't imagine the hordes of people coming in the first week or two, I'm usually the last one to go.

LM: If you were going to prepare a meal for the presidential or vice-presidential nominees, what would you cook for them?

DB: They're not going to eat because they're always talking! I remember when I cooked for Clinton many times he was barely eating because he's always talking, so I don't know. I just want to make them happy because that's what I do. It doesn't matter if they're Democrat or Republican.