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David Bouley - Focused on Cooking

David Bouley
Refocused on Cooking

by Matt DeLucia

David Bouley was describing his new test kitchen the only way he knew how; in intricate detail, as one might describe the individual elements of a complex painting that took a lifetime to complete.

As he danced around the open space that is beginning to take shape, he excitedly narrated the importance of each distinct area of the room and the specialized use of every square foot of space. A tasting library containing thousands of plastic containers and refrigerated items - ingredients from around the world - will soon line a glassed wall. Each item will be labeled and have information stored about it, such as where they bought it and in what season it is generally the best, along with other things that they have learned about it. On the opposite side of that part of the room, there will soon be a row of computers with access to various culinary databases, including Bouley’s own recipes that today exist in his mind and in cluttered stacks of large cardboard boxes. At the far end of the room is a growing library that will contain over five thousand culinary reference books, along with something that Bouley’s chefs will surely appreciate – chairs and sofas to sit and relax in while studying. Before long, it was evident that this enormous room will soon become a living library of his vast knowledge, a culinary playground where everything he has learned in over 30 years of cooking will be catalogued for the benefit of his staff and future generations of employees.

The dining room area was large enough be its own restaurant, but unfortunately they will not be taking reservations to fill its chairs – it’s intended for internal use only. “The space is only for us to train our staff, to do wine tastings, to have one-to-one training with the bus boys, the waiters and the captains, and to talk about presentation of the food,” Bouley explains. “Everything that you would do in a restaurant will be here, and that is the first choice of use for the space. It’s something I’ve been working on for 12-13 years ever since the old Bouley restaurant, where many people would come in and sit down and say ‘just cook for me’. You’d have customers who hadn’t seen your menu in 2-3 years and others who would come in 2-3 times a week. So, when you have 30-40 percent of that kind of business every night, it becomes a question of “how do you train your staff, how do you keep pulling things out of the air?” So I needed a test kitchen to do research because everything was in my head. We wanted to take all of our basic recipes and revisit them, and make sure they are being done right, because many of them have been tweaked over the years.”

In the center third of this long rectangular space will be the kitchen itself, with room enough off to the side to allow for seating of 50 or more people. Stainless steel Molteni stoves with custom marble tops, a Japanese grill and Mochi machine, and Rational ovens were just a few pieces of equipment already set up in this still-developing kitchen, which will be used for Bouley’s cooking demonstration classes as well as the research and development of new dishes and cuisines.

“This test kitchen is a way to bring the world to us. We’ll learn and we’ll add to our database and find new applications for it. It will be there to strengthen us, to support us and give us energy, but it’ll also be an incubator. There’ll be a full time chef, and a pastry chef, recipe tasters, people who will be only working here. They’ll spend 30% of their time in the kitchen, so that we’re not too academic. If you come up with an idea it has to work in the kitchen. The focus is to strengthen what we’re doing now, understand what our weaknesses are, and then turn those weaknesses into strengths.”

Bouley plans to use the test kitchen not only to make new culinary discoveries, but also to learn more about his most precious business commodity - his customers.

“Knowing about 90% of your customers every night is the dream of every restaurateur. If you know what they like, you can make them happy. It’s like strangers visiting in your house, you’re not sure what they like, or what they don’t like. But when you cook for people you know, you can keep building a higher level of pleasure, and that’s what we want to get back to.”

For various reasons, not the least of which was 9/11, Bouley’s dream to build his own private cooking school and culinary complex were put on hold for years. They were finally launched this year in a smaller, temporary format within the current Upstairs at Bouley Bakery, while the larger and more permanent space at 88 West Broadway was being built. In order to understand his reasons for building this complex, I asked him to delve into his past, and discuss how he originally got into cooking.

His hometown of Storrs, Connecticut where he grew up has very little in common with New York, and Woonsocket Rhode Island has little in common with France, yet both had an indelible effect on Bouley as he grew up in a large family that was deeply tied to their French heritage.

“My grandmother had an amazing farm in Rhode Island with 200-300 chickens. She raised rabbits all year round, she had goats and made her own goat cheese, and she had about 20 acres of fruit trees. They didn’t speak English there, only French, and they were eating like they were still living in France. That’s where I got into cooking.”

He went off to college in New Mexico and he soon began to realize that classes in Business Administration were not his true calling. In 1975 he landed a job as the manager of The Pink Adobe, a well-known restaurant in Santa Fe. He was already planning to move to France and enroll in art school, and he managed to use his restaurant expertise as a means to earn enough money to get there. Before he made it to France, he lived briefly in Aspen and then moved on to Chatham on the Cape where he was a waiter at Pates, an upscale restaurant and a popular watering hole for people like Tip O’Neill.

After making France his home, he studied art for a time, but before long his love for cooking eventually brought him to a job with Roger Verge in 1977, with whom he worked for four seasons. Verge then arranged for him to work with his friend Paul Bocuse, and over the next several years he worked with Bocuse, Joel Robuchon, and Fredy Girardet before coming back to Verge again. When he moved to New York to work at Le Cirque, an exhausting 2-year stay there under executive chef Alain Sailhac nearly caused him to leave the restaurant business. Unhappy with his work there, he was “saved” by an offer to go to San Francisco.

“I remember one night at Le Cirque we did 270 covers, and there were only 3 people on the line; it was a war zone. We used to wring our jackets and our pink pants out in the summer time; that was how hot we were. Sirio was always very good to me though, he gave me one of those spindles so we could hang our orders, and when I asked for them to put refrigeration on the line, they did it, because you couldn’t store anything before that. Sirio was trying, but I don’t think he had seen anyone who really wanted to use the knowledge that they had from France. After that, Daniel took him in an entirely new direction. It was a very difficult job because it was extremely high volume with only 3 or 4 guys in the kitchen, and of course the kitchen staffs are so much larger now. One day Sirio called me out into the dining room, and Paul Bocuse, Roger Verge, Craig Claiborne and a few others were sitting there. Sirio told me that I’m leaving – that Verge had hired me to go to San Francisco and open a restaurant with Hubert Keller.”

I asked him if Verge, who Bouley has described as “an uncle to me”, was there to ask for Sirio’s permission to hire him.

“Kind of, yeah, that’s the way it used to be. In the 80’s we used to just call each other and help each other find a cook, and no cook would be hired without somebody else’s knowledge, but all that stuff’s gone now. It’s a whole different world now. You don’t have this comradeship here. I was with Ferran (Adria) for three days and we were able to sit at night and talk and drink wine for hours, talking about this industry. That was one of the comments he had, that he’s surprised that the chefs here don’t spend more time together collaborating and spending time with each other. There are too many carrots to run after I suppose, too many business opportunities, too many distractions.”

San Francisco ended up being a disaster for the restaurant, but Bouley was able to spend more time with his mentor Verge, as well as the respected Hubert Keller. Because of the financial troubles of that particular restaurant, he learned lessons on how to stretch budgets, and ingredients, to their extreme limitations.

When he came back to New York for the opening of Montrachet, he made sure that he would have full control over the cooking before he agreed to work there, and Drew Nieporent, whom he had originally met in San Francisco, agreed. But within a few weeks, their agreement on creative control reached a critical crossroads.

“After the first couple of weeks, I remember Drew wanted me to put ‘duck cracklings’ in the salad, and I didn’t want to do that kind of stuff...fried duck skin in the fryolator that you put in the salad...its something that I never thought was very healthy. So we had a little chat about that and he basically told me ‘there’s the door, you know how to use it’, and I said ‘excuse me?’ It was out of the blue, because we never had any real disagreements before that. I think he wanted to get into the food and I said ‘Drew, this is not the agreement we made.’ I had a big investment in the kitchen and I had my team in there, so we had this little falling out. I said I’d be back tomorrow to pick up my equipment and I left. I was walking down the street and suddenly I heard someone running behind me, huffing and puffing, and I thought I was about to get mugged. It was Drew, and he was saying “we’re almost there, we’re almost there.” And I said ok, but I’m not changing my food.”

Three or four days after Drew and David worked out their differences, Montrachet got three stars from New York Times, and everyone, including Mr. Nieporent, forgot all about the duck cracklings. “They had all they could do just answering the phones,” explains Bouley. Many people didn’t even know where Tribeca was, and Montrachet was offering a wonderful tasting menu for only $16, which was completely new at the time.

“I didn’t create it, that’s what I learned in France. There wasn’t a restaurant that I knew about in New York in 1985 that had a prix-fixe tasting menu - we were the first.”

David opened his own restaurant, Bouley, in a location not far from Montrachet in 1987, which set a new standard for fine dining. His brother helped him build it as the general contractor, and many of his previous staff members were taught how to hang sheetrock after being let go from Montrachet.

“I never wanted it to be anything except for a good restaurant that I felt was compatible and could – at the risk of sounding presumptuous - come close to the experience of what you were eating in the French restaurants in France, and not what you were eating in French restaurants in New York.” Bouley was awarded 4 stars by the New York Times’ Bryan Miller, and from 1991 to 1996, Bouley Restaurant earned Zagat’s highest rating ever. “Tim (Zagat) told me that we needed the wind of a bird flying by to go to a 30,” Bouley says with a smile. But why did the restaurant close in 1996 at all?

“The original Bouley was developed in a warehouse and the owner decided that he wanted to develop his own restaurant, so he multiplied the rent by a factor of 5 or 6. My formula for running the restaurant would have been totally different, I would have gone from 110 employees in a 90-seat restaurant down to 30 employees, and I would have had to double the price - I’d basically be working for the rent. Then the Mohawk building became available.”

Mr. Bouley bought the Mohawk building before real estate in Tribeca began to soar, and his equity in that building provided him with enough financial leverage to make his first serious plans to build his cooking school complex. But those plans ran into difficulty when his financial partner, Credit Suisse, lost billions from investments in the Russian financial crisis of the late 90’s. So with only a smaller loan available to him, he used it instead to expand Bouley and build Danube around the corner. A second investment group was ready to move forward with his plans when 9/11 occurred.

“I worked with another group for 18 months, one of our customers who develops lots of buildings here. We were ready to wire the funds the week of 9/11 - we were so close. The money was being wired to the new account and we were in business. Everything was ready to go. I had worked so hard on that. After 9/11, I picked up all my pieces, and everyone said I should go bankrupt. But I didn’t, I stayed here. I paid all my creditors - it took me a few years to do that - and now I’m rebuilding. Part of the rebuilding was to reopen the Bakery and open my store so I could continue to do business with the organic farmers and fisherman that I had relationships with.”

Now that the test kitchen is finally becoming a reality, the various reasons behind its existence are becoming clearer - not only to those around him, but to Mr. Bouley himself. He sees it not just as a place to train his staff, but a place where others can come and share ideas

“The principles of the cooking school and everything we do are these three things: one is the product, the intimate relationship that you need to have as a good cook with your product. Two is technique; you either learn it from your mother or your grandmother or you learn it professionally. And three, we’re going to keep track of everything that could go wrong in a restaurant, we are going to have a large database of that; it could be the wrong ingredient, the wrong time of the year, it could be that you put too much heat - we’re going to document all that. At the end of the day, all of this will strengthen our principle restaurant.”

His principal restaurant, Bouley, is in a space that Bouley himself says has been “tortured” to fit their needs. It will be moving into a different “shell” soon, which is a project he will be working hard on next year, when all this year’s projects are completed.

“When we did the Credit Suisse financing, we made Bouley bigger, but there are still a lot of handicaps. The bar’s too small, the bathrooms are small. So at some point we’d like to move into a more focused environment – better wine cellar, better kitchen, with a better lounge and better bathrooms. All of our focus next year will be on Bouley Restaurant; all my energy will go to that. I’m not building anything anymore.”

Eventually our discussion evolved into the difficult topic of the attacks on the World Trade Center, and its effect on Mr. Bouley, his restaurants, and his employees.

“For 3 years since I sold the property, I’ve been trying to get my life back together. Ground Zero really wiped us all out down here too. We did some work for Red Cross, but then my insurance company didn’t give us the claim because they said ‘well, you made some money there.’ I did the green tarp restaurant on my own before Red Cross came to me, and that cost me $1.4 million. On the second day alone we fed 20,000 people, and we did that with our own resources for the first 3 weeks. Then I did it for the Red Cross for about 4 weeks after that, for $3.50 a meal. We had some stupid press on that that said we shouldn’t have worked with volunteers, we shouldn’t have worked with contributed food; it was a business. Well, if you saw the food we were delivering for 3 dollars and fifty cents – we weren’t opening aluminum trays and heating them in the oven, we were doing it the same as we did at Bouley – we were cutting about 2000 pounds of salmon a day off the bone, for instance.”

The newspapers such as the Herald that ran the Red Cross stories, and later retracted them, made Mr. Bouley look less like a community leader dedicated to the people and businesses within his devastated neighborhood and more like a profiteering scoundrel. The bidding range that the Red Cross requested started at $3.50, and knowing this was an impossibility unless donated food and volunteers were used, the Red Cross gladly accepted, rather than use another vendor who would have served cases of packaged meals for the same price, or even higher. There was a critical need for someone with great skill at creating meals quickly, yet was also willing to work in the incredibly difficult and dangerous circumstances of Ground Zero. To the Red Cross, and the thousands of firemen and other volunteers, many of whom still thank Mr. Bouley for his great meals during a horrible and tragic time, his participation was a godsend. The interior of his restaurant was ruined because he had to use it as one large kitchen to allow the incredible number of meals to be made and delivered. In spite of all the negative aspects, he said he has no regrets and would do everything again exactly the same. He is now known within the Red Cross organization as somewhat of an expert in feeding people during disasters.

“It was strange to get a call from catering companies in New Orleans who were told to call me by the Red Cross, because they told them we did such a great job here.”

Near the end of our interview, he seemed relieved, as if something was lifted off his shoulders. Perhaps it was good for him to talk about everything at once; his past, his childhood, and his future. Or perhaps he was happy to be finally reaching the pinnacle of his dreams, which had seemed to slip away from him so many times in his past.

“Everything is in a good place today. What’s exciting is that, for the first time since I’ve closed the old restaurant, I can really see what I’m doing and where I’m going. It’s good to have those tough times; they’re like launching pads into another world.”

David Bouley is currently looking for spaces all over New York City for a Japanese restaurant he will be opening in 2006. His Miami restaurant, still under construction, is called “Evolution”, and was designed by Jacques Garcia, who designed the beautiful Danube restaurant. His test kitchen is nearly complete, and is eagerly anticipated by all.

After the interview was over and my tape recorder was safely stored way in its case, he sighed, and said, “I feel like I still have my best recipes ahead of me.”

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