Meet the two chef Daniels; Boulud and Humm – dessert course
I’ve given you a peek into Cayman Cookout, shared local and global restaurant predictions from some big name chefs, and interviewed Anthony Bourdain. Now it’s time for the dessert course, so voilà, meet the two chef Daniels who have answered some of the questions you asked me to pose.
Both based in New York, but one a charming Frenchman – Daniel Boulud – with a 13-strong restaurant empire stretching across North America, Canada, Singapore and London – including his namesake which holds three Michelin stars, and sits at number 29 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking. Dubai’s on the cards at some point with his Mediterranean-cum-North African concept Boulud Sud, but not right now. And the second gent, an unassuming, endearing and very young Swiss native, Daniel Humm whose restaurant Eleven Madison Park is the biggest star of all, thanks to not just three Michelin stars, but a number five World’s 50 Best accolade.
- 20 years is quite an achievement for your flagship restaurant in New York, Daniel, given stiff competition. What are the biggest challenges you currently face? To keep training staff to the highest level and to maintain them. To really make them grow with us – it’s more a goal than a challenge. Traceability of our ingredients. There are so many paths for our cuisine – we control the farmers, growers, fishermen, but there is a little path that we don’t control. We don’t always have the full answers and that we worry about a lot. There’s more accountability for sure and we look at trusted suppliers. My challenge has been to stay as French as possible whilst being in America for thirty years. I am proud of my heritage and French cuisine will never go out of fashion, it will just evolve. Cooking has to make you feel comforted like Middle Eastern cuisine.
- If you could turn the clock back, what would you have become instead of a chef? If I had to restart, I will go a little longer to school as I quit at 14 to become an apprentice. I see my daughter who is 24 and so smart and so travelled. My parents were farmers so we had our limitations in terms of how much they could support me on everything I wanted to do. Education is a very important part because it can help you take many other directions. And for me because I had only one education, I became a chef. Thank god I am smart enough to be a good businessman too, but the options are less than if you have an MBA. My biggest frustration is to not be able to pair my career with my upbringing in Lyon, where with my father we did the farmers market every Saturday. We were making our own goat’s cheese, sausages, vegetables, jams. We had chicken, turkey, rabbit, squab, guinea ham, baby goat, baby pigs. If I could have that farm today, that would be my dream come true. I could do it outside New York but my father is too old, he’s 85. So voila, I miss my farm.
- What’s your most vivid food memory? I was asked to cater for the 75th anniversary of Time magazine at the Radio City Music Hall. 800 of the most powerful people in the world – politicians, showbiz, sportsmen, doctors. It started with a speech by Gorbachev, then Christopher Reeve and Bill Clinton. The crowd was the best of the best, youngest to oldest. I cooked lamb champvallon. I brought in 100 pans, one for each table of eight. Layers of onions sweated, layers of potatoes, roasted lamb chops, fresh thyme, cracked pepper, more layers of onions, potatoes and a light lamb stock with butter and bay leafs. Braised in the oven in parchment paper for two hours. Such a peasant dish for the most sophisticated and powerful people. Everyone ate with their fingers and loved it. I was taking the biggest risk but it was the most rewarding. That was comforting.
- What would you have for your last meal? In Versailles, sitting down with the greatest chefs of the century, past and present, all my mentors – Paul Bocuse, Auguste Escoffier, Marie Antoine Carême, Fernand Point, Michel Guérard. And to have Alain Ducasse cooking. One of the best meals in my life was when I came to America and he cooked for me. Wild squab from Provence. A very delicate anchovy butter. Ice cream just coming out of the machine, so light and freshly turned. Pure simplicity. Otherwise, with my grandmother and my family on the farm.
- Your restaurant Eleven Madison Park sits at number five in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking [jumping from number ten in 2012] and the only American restaurant to make the top ten. How important is number one for you? I was a professional cyclist before I did this so when you look at the ranking you want to be at the top. But you also have to keep it in perspective. How can you really say what is the best restaurant in the world? The list has a lot to do with momentum. It’s not necessarily about the execution – it’s about who changes the world the most at this time. It’s about innovation and breaking new ground. I am super happy of where we are.
- So what’s more powerful World’s 50 Best, or the three Michelin stars? The 50 best is crazy powerful. We have 200 people on the waiting list every single day because of that.
- If you weren’t a chef or had been a cyclist, what would you have become? This was always a dream. Since I was 14, I wanted to have three Michelin stars. Success comes with other things too. It’s not all great and glamorous. It’s very hard to find time for myself. You get pulled in so many different directions. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t choose a more simple life. I am 36 years old and I have so much more to do, and to reassess what are my goals.
- Talk me through a food memory. When I was eight, my mum always made me help with the cooking and I didn’t like it. I had to clean vegetables, crack open walnuts and hazelnuts. She believed everything had to be fresh. She only went to the farmers and the artisans. One day in the fall, she came home with a bag of mâche salad. It was raining outside and it was covered in dirt from the rain. She gave me the bag and asked me to wash the salad. I washed it once, twice, three times – the water was still black and sandy. I kept on washing it and I wasn’t happy at all – for two hours, I complained all the way. Why can’t we just go to the supermarket and buy them in a bag already washed like everyone else I said? She said taste these greens now, and I tasted, and it was sweet and succulent and you could taste the minerality of the soil. I remember it like yesterday. You see that’s why we wash the salad because it tastes so much better, she said. And since then, it opened my eyes, and every time I tasted salad afterwards I tasted it with this awareness. To the point that I didn’t even enjoy food anymore if it wasn’t fresh. That was one of the most important lessons.
- What would your last meal be? Something of my mum’s. She’s half French, half Italian and is an amazing cook. She makes a Maltese-style chicken with oranges and polenta cooked for eight hours until there’s a crust. Maybe that. Next week when I see her in Zurich that will be the first thing I will eat.
So there you have it, the finale of my Cayman Cookout learnings. What’s been your favourite post? Are you tempted to add it to your travel bucket list?