Q&A: Daniel Boulud on His Boston Opening

By Scott Kearnan  |  July 29, 2014

This month we got an early glimpse at what Bar Boulud will look like when it opens at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in September. Though construction on the space is still underway, one thing that's firmly established is the reputation of its namesake: Daniel Boulud. The internationally acclaimed chef and star restaurateur is, without a doubt, one of the biggest names to enter the Boston dining scene. 

Still, last year's closure of Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Market at the W Hotel proved that a marquee name doesn't ensure a hit in the Hub. So we chatted with the toque himself about bringing Bar Boulud to Boston. His goal: Upscale but accessible (and affordable) dining that has meaning to the city, not just the hotel. 

ZAGAT: First New York, then London. Of all other cities, why Boston for the third Bar Boulud?

Five years ago, when the Mandarin wanted to do a restaurant in London, they approached me and said, “We really love Bar Boulud. Would you ever consider taking it to London?” There are a lot of French bistros in London, but they all come directly from France. Bar Boulud is a French bistro that comes from America, so it has a different DNA. Our relationship [with the Mandarin] has been wonderful; we really like working with them and really trust them. In Boston, they felt that their restaurant lacked identity, and they felt it would be wonderful for Bar Boulud to be there rather than Asana. I thought, "Well, let's see if that can work!" There was a conversation for a while, and I'm glad they went with it, because it’s a wonderful location and the perfect home for the brand. 

Why do you think the Mandarin partnership feels so successful to you? 

I think a lot of it has to do with their philosophy. I've known the Mandarin brand since it was created, basically, and from very early on, the Mandarin wanted to have a chef who was in charge of making decisions about the restaurants and about the chefs that would join them in their group. I think that totally changes a relationship with a hotel group, because in most hotel groups the decisions are made by management rather than a chef in charge. David Nicholls [Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group's director of food and beverage] has been with the Mandarin for about twenty years, and he was an early chef at the London location. Now he not only works on development, but also reassesses places like the Boston restaurant and what they should do with it. That's right in sync with us getting into a relationship with a hotel, because it's a relationship where there’s someone within the organization who can communicate with us as a chef. There's someone who understands chefs and what they need to succeed.

Is there something that you think Bar Boulud can bring to Boston's dining scene that we don't have right now?

I think Boston has everything in place! I’ve been going to Boston for a long time — from my early days, when I used to go and cook with Julia [Child]. We’d always end up in the local bistros; I remember having dinner at Hamersley’s with Julia. And on many occasions I've come for charity events; I did Spinazzola a few times with all the Boston chefs. Boston has always been very vibrant with food. I’ve always sort of envied Boston because — being in New York, we think, “Oh, we're in the big city!” But I think to be in a smaller city and to literally be part of the pulse of the city is very exciting. I see that with many chefs in Boston; they’re really the pulse of the city. So I don’t know if Boston needs Daniel Boulud, but I feel very good that I’m replacing a restaurant that was a little more dormant: something that was filling a purpose for the hotel, but not so much filling a purpose for the city. 

It sounds like Bar Boulud is positioning itself to feel more accessible to the city. On that note, do you think the average American diner has become a more sophisticated one in recent years? 

Absolutely. I’ve been cooking for three decades now in New York, and in America I've seen the level of chefs keep rising and rising and rising. What’s interesting — and very, very good — is that as it rises it widens itself to include more quality-casual: from food trucks to street vendors to a casual bistro. And you have these really established chefs training hordes of young chefs. All this contributes to the benefit of consumer, who is finding great talent and great, sometimes affordable food everywhere. That said, great food is not always cheap. It’s expensive today to cook. It's expensive for people to cook at home with great ingredients, and it’s expensive for a restaurant. I think it's important for us to always remain attractive with our prices. We're realists as well. 

It's interesting that though the profile of chefs continues to rise in America, Boston hasn't recently hosted a long-running restaurant from an internationally famous chef.

Yeah I know, but even in New York some famous chefs have to close down restaurants. I know that Jean-Georges had an experience there, but I think he was in the midst of changes in his company and Boston was part of a scale back. That takes nothing away from Jean-Georges. And that’s why I’m happy to be with the Mandarin. I feel that they are committed with me to make something for the community — something good for Boston. In the end, it’s their restaurant and they also have to worry about it! And the Mandarin group is a small company in comparison to another, larger group. It’s a different label of luxury, we can say. I hope to be there for quite a while. I feel that Jean-Georges would have loved to stay, but at the same time, was it the right fit for him? Sometimes it’s better to make a decision that it's not the right decision. 

Boston can be a bit provincial, in the sense that if something is here, we like to know it really has its heart here. What steps are you taking with your team to make sure that the caliber of experience for which you're known is always happening in Boston, even when you can't physically be here yourself?

First and foremost, the restaurant is really driven by the chef de cuisine Aaron Chambers. We've worked together for almost six years; he's been executive sous chef at Cafe Boulud and executive chef at Boulud Sud. He's very well versed in what we do, and Bar Boulud in Boston will very much be his restaurant. That said, I'm not a guest chef; I'm very involved, but I feel very comfortable with the team. And you know, I come from Lyon. When you look at Paris and Lyon, like when you look at New York [and Boston] — they're two different cities. Lyon is much more provincial; there’s a certain fraternity among the chefs. There’s definitely a smaller community who maybe live tighter together. I'd say Boston is the Lyon of America. It’s a little smaller with a great community of chefs and great fraternity. I've always found that in Boston. 

What are some of Aaron's qualities that you think lend so well to Bar Boulud? 

I really feel that he understands the great sense of seasonality and of localness in the cuisine. We work with our supplier closely. We get inspired by ingredients, and we get spontaneous with ingredients. We think French but we act American. And I think Aaron has that kind of ability: to think French but act American, meaning that there’s great creativity. You don’t have to be purely French, as long as we have the right ingredients and the right understanding of combinations. Because the liberty in cooking, and the creativity — for me, that comes from cooking in America.