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Mentoring with Daniel Boulud

by Matt DeLucia

What is a mentor? It is “A trusted counselor or guide”, expounds Webster. The Oxford English dictionary defines a mentor as “an experienced and trusted advisor.” In the Greek adventure tale of “The Odyssey”, Homer’s Mentor was a wise and trusted figure who helped to nurture, teach, and protect Odysseus’s son Telemachus. Many scholars claim this to be the first written example of the modern usage of the word “mentor”. However, a book entitled “Les Adventures de Telemaque” written in 1799 by French author Francois de Salignac de La Mothe-Fenelon is widely recognized to be the first instance in which the term “mentoring” was bestowed with its modern educational meaning. The support, nurturing and guidance of Fenelon’s “Mentor”, which in many ways was a continuation of the Odyssey, has been given credit for the word “mentor” being officially added to the English language back in 1750.

The mini-revelation that the word “mentor” had its origins in France would certainly not surprise a Frenchman such as Daniel Boulud. Most world-renowned French chefs, who have spent many years on both sides of the mentoring spectrum both as an apprentice and as a nurturer of young talent, have always felt that their system of mentoring is their own, brought here from their homeland and molded to fit the American work ethic.

Stories of famous French chefs and their mentors date back to the Age of Enlightenment, when the rules that governed a culinary apprenticeship were based on 18th-century French militaristic disciplines, and rigorous on-the-job training was the only method of learning this highly regarded trade from respected, knowledgeable craftsmen. Sylvain Bailly, an early French mentor in the late 1700’s, apprenticed a young talented chef named Antonin Carême who would go on to become the first “celebrity chef” of modern times. Georges Auguste Escoffier, whose brilliant advances in kitchen workflow and methodology in the 1900’s are still being practiced and refined today, mentored many chefs who went on to other parts of France, Europe and America.

Mentoring with Daniel Boulud

When you think of the most prodigious talents in the culinary world who have consistently mentored some of the finest new chefs of the last ten or so years, there are certain names that automatically come to mind; Jean Georges Vongerichten, Alfred Portale, Alaine Ducasse, and of course Daniel Boulud. If you asked students fresh out of culinary school where they hope to go to begin their career, many would undoubtedly acknowledge their aspiration to work in the kitchen of a chef of this caliber; not only for the obvious resume enhancement it would bring, but also for the knowledge and skills that could never be learned at any school. The opportunity to demonstrate their raw talent and their willingness to do demanding work and work long hours at one of these fantasy jobs would no doubt result in immeasurable professional rewards. Arguably, the greatest of these rewards would be having a master chef take you under their wing, and provide you with the guidance and nurturing that blossoming artists need to grow and prosper.

Jean Francois Bruel - Daniel Restaurant

Jean Francois joined Daniel back in 1996, and in 1998 he began a three year stint as Sous Chef at Cafe Boulud. Mr. Bruel then became chef at the newly opened DB Bistro in 2001, and is now at the helm of the kitchen at Daniel restaurant.

NYRI: What makes working for Daniel different?
JFB: What I like about Daniel is that he doesn’t just put his name on a restaurant, he wants to know what is going on, and he spends a lot of time in the kitchen even though he has five restaurants now. I think that’s what makes the difference. He spends time in Daniel Restaurant because it’s like his little baby. When I was at DB Bistro he would come and get involved in the menu, seeing what we can do with new dishes. When these dishes come out very well we all agree we put it in the menu.

NYRI:Besides Daniel, who were some of your mentors?
JFB: Alex Lee was a very good teacher. And I really learned a lot from Andrew Carmellini.

NYRI: What would you advise a young chef regarding where they should start their career?
JFB: Sometimes an environment like Daniel is not the best place to start. It might be better to start at a 2 star restaurant (NY Times 2 star) - still a good food restaurant, but you can get very involved in good things and you still learn a lot because you are cutting all day. At Daniel if you start there first, it’s a lot of pressure, especially if you make a lot of mistakes!

NYRI: Do you think Daniel saw a little bit of himself in you?
JFB: Maybe. Sometimes when I see a little bit of the same background in one of my cooks and myself, I kind of like it. Lets say if somebody sends me a resume and he worked in the exact same restaurant as me and I know what he went through, sometimes you know the restaurant but you never worked there, but just knowing that you have experience in the dining room is ok. Sometimes, they may have worked for Jean Georges or Ducasse, and I know it’s the same level restaurant so he can handle the pressure – it’s not just about cooking.

NYRI: If you were to start your own restaurant what kind of restaurant would it be and where?
JSB: I love France, but more in the countryside if I could. You know, my dream would be a little farm, where I could go to visit and use it for a restaurant. I like simple food, like I was doing at DB.

The mentor as friend

At the suggestion of Georgette Farkas, Daniel Restaurant’s Director of Public Relations, we arranged to have Mr. Boulud and five of his chefs gather at Café Boulud for a group photo. We were quite fortunate to have the opportunity for this unprecedented assembly of chefs, considering the schedules of all the people involved. During the group shot, all the chefs were extremely polite, smiling and joking and carrying on as if they were at a neighborhood gathering, preparing for an informal family portrait. It was difficult to not be impressed with the natural ease and camaraderie emanating from Mr. Boulud. He seemed to fit right into the crowd of 20 and 30-something chefs, acting less like a decorated commander-in-chief and more like a proud father figure. Reflecting now upon this experience, it is difficult to believe the war stories one hears of Mr. Boulud when he is in the kitchen; his renowned military-like work ethic replete with controlled yelling and not-so-gentle reprimands when mistakes are made. But here, outside the controlled chaos of the kitchen, in the fleeting window of time between the lunch and dinner rush, they behave like a gentle family. They joke and laugh equally – there are no captains outside the entrance of Café Boulud.

I also wonder if Mr. Boulud, posing with his five male French-born chefs (the one non-French chef we interviewed, Meagan Moloney from Australia, was unable to attend the group photo), had an inclination to hire chefs that reminded him of a younger version of himself - French-trained, aggressive, smart workaholic chefs with an extraordinary sense of taste, steady hands and the precise knife skills of a surgeon. When I later asked him what he looked for when he hired a new chef, he simply replied that he searches for the best talent he can find, which of course is what every restaurateur would claim – and they would all be telling the truth.

Eric Bertoia - Cafe Boulud

Eric Bertoïa, Café Boulud’s pastry chef, came from the Paris Ritz in 2001 where he was the Head Pastry Chef. His experience includes Michelin starred restaurants Taillevent and L’Oustau de Beaumanière in Les Beaux and La Pyramide in Vienne. Eric’s primary passion is for creating layered mousse cakes called entremets, and is particularly proud of the “La Banane et le Manjari”, a cake composed of banana-chocolate ganache, chocolate-coconut financier biscuit and rum and coke ice cream garnished with caramelized bananas and hazelnuts.

Although Eric sometimes strains to find the right words to express his thoughts in English, he is one of the few chefs we interviewed who had read Daniel’s books, especially his “Letters to a Young Chef”. He is very impressed with Daniel’s knowledge and his energy. When I asked Eric what one thing he would like to discover about Daniel Boulud more than anything, he proclaimed “I would like to know where he gets his energy from!”

Eric sees vast differences in the way that chefs are mentored in France and America. He feels that here in New York, a talented chef can move up through the kitchen ranks faster than in France, where chefs tend to stay at a restaurant longer before they are moved up or promoted. He also says that the chefs work much harder and longer here. “In Europe and France they work 35 hours a week, plus they have 7 weeks vacation. There is less salary also, so even though you have 7 weeks vacation, you can’t do anything, because if you don’t have any money you can’t go anywhere! So you stay home and do your garden, and cook!”

The mentor as matchmaker

When hundreds of people work together for up to fourteen hours a day, six or seven days a week, including holidays, often sacrificing their social lives in the process, the creation of a family environment can be the one blessing that can make the difference between enjoying your work and going completely crazy. The restaurant becomes your home, the line cooks become your younger siblings, the Chef de Cuisine your big brother, and Chef Daniel fittingly becomes the father figure and the disciplinarian who expects perfection from all the inhabitants of his self-created mini-nation. This takes place usually with no greater reward than a nod or a smile, or the addition of one’s new dish to the day’s menu. I was not surprised to discover that once he is removed from this pressure-rich environment, he privately declares his greatest joys to be not the reviews or the stars or the awards, but rather the enriched lives and the new families that have formed around him on his watch.

“Twenty years ago when I was at Le Cirque there was a young kid from a family of 12 children named Bernard Bouissou who came from a region of Toulouse that was a very small village. He came to New York as a cook and flirted with the girl working next to him. He married that girl and had 4 beautiful children, and now owns a wonderful Inn in Connecticut, Bernard Inn in Ridgefield. A beautiful, beautiful story.”

Daniel goes on to proudly declare that there are six couples currently working together at his three New York restaurants, including Jean Francois Bruel, one of his most experienced chefs, whose wife also works within the organization. Those of us who make our living in a more traditional corporate environment know that bosses often frown upon this type of in-house matchmaking. But whether it’s DB Bistro or IBM, as long as it is handled properly, offering employees this type of freedom can often help to offset the disparities in these hard worker’s social calendars.

“It’s interesting, not only in mentoring but in nurturing, the amount of people who got married and had children under my roof – they met, got married and had children, and both still continued to work for me. Not every house will be able to handle that. It takes respect and diligence among everyone. But it’s a family, one big family, and I think that’s how we live. We work and we play, and we support each other a lot like that.”

Jean François Bonnet - Daniel Restaurant

Daniel Boulud had his eye on pastry chef Jean Francois Bonnet for some time, at first when he was discovered by Laurent Tourondel and brought to his Cello restaurant in New York, and then at the Ritz Carlton’s Atelier, where he remained through August 2003. After seeing the consistency, quality, and talent of Jean Francois, Boulud offered him a job at Daniel. “Jean François has a refined palate, the technique of an artisan and the creativity of an artist,” says Boulud.

Jean Francois enjoys using as many American ingredients as possible in his desserts, and applying his French-trained background which dates all the way back to his childhood when he started working at a neighborhood bakery. Although Jean Francois doesn’t see much of a difference in chef mentoring between France and the several restaurants he has worked at in New York, he joked about having been told that there would be “down times” during his work week - he says he has not seen one yet!

During the two years he has worked for Daniel his cooking has matured and he has learned many new skills, such as how to organize a pastry kitchen that produces desserts for several outlets (restaurant, banquet and catering), all of which require the same precision and quality. But he points out that knowledge and success come with time, and your own personal style comes with a combination of all the things that you learn over time. And learning is easier when you are surrounded by great talent.

“At Daniel, the cooks are filled with curiosity, motivated by the sharing of ideas and a cross-pollination of our diverse cultures. It’s like being in France, only with the energy and diversity unique to New York.”

The mentor as protector

Although Boulud does suffer through the experience of having a chef leave him from time to time, he is also adamant that each apprentice should put in their years and pay their dues, and that they trust him if he thinks they are not yet ready for a new opportunity. All too often he sees investors who dream of owning their own restaurant circling his lair in an attempt to “buy” a young chef, hoping to lure them into partnerships with tempting visions of money and stardom.

“There are a lot of people who dream of opening restaurants, dream of owning a chef – they don’t know what it is, they don’t know what it takes. I see so much failure in relationships because there’s not a true commitment to carry it to the end. It’s no fun being in this business unless you really know what you’re doing; unless you really care about it.”

Headhunters who call on his young chefs are also worrisome to Mr. Boulud, because he feels strongly that they interfere with the time-sensitive progression of nurturing and experience that his guidance provides. He also thinks that these headhunters do not have his chef’s best interests in mind when they present new opportunities to them.

“The worst thing a chef can do to himself is to get a job from a headhunter. They are not committed to you; they are just trying to fill up their portfolio, trying any trick in the book to do it. I’ve seen too many chefs fail because of those guys. There are always the sharks around, the ones who wish they could steal a chef here, steal a chef there; they think it’s a good idea because it’s my chef. Would it work long term? I sometimes doubt it. A good chef should not be an opportunistic chef. There’s a trust between me and my chefs. Andrew Carmellini worked for me for 6 years. We had a gentlemen’s agreement of 5 years. I was taking care of him and he was taking care of me.”

Although he is the first to admit that he protects his chefs not only from imprudent investors but also from other restaurateurs, he feels that it’s his duty to never attempt to prevent his chefs from exposing their talent to the outside world.

“We are very, very proprietary about our chefs, but we are also very, very honest between each other,” he says.

Olivier Muller - DB Bistro

Olivier Muller’s first professional experience began at Le Cerf, a two star Michelin restaurant in Marlenheim. While he was there he established a rapport with Chefs Michel Husser and Philippe Jego, who would become his first mentors. After two years with them, Olivier followed Philippe Jego to become his Sous-Chef at La Clarière in La Petite Pierre in the Alsacian countryside.

Friends of Olivier provided him with an introduction to Daniel Boulud, who recognized the quality of Olivier’s training as well as his energy and ambition. He was offered a position at Café Boulud, and for the next eighteen months he worked under the direction of Café Boulud’s Executive Chef, Andrew Carmellini.

Today, Olivier is the chef at Db Bistro, where current mentor Daniel Boulud says “he combines traditional flavors with modern twists and occasionally lets the flavors of his native Alsace shine through.” A reserved and extremely personable man in person, one of Olivier’s many talents is rumored to be a booming voice in the kitchen that would rival that of an operatic tenor or a rock singer.

NYRI: Is the mentoring system different in France than it is here in New York?
OM: It depends on your ambitions. When I first saw these big chefs, I wanted to be one of them one day. But when you have a mentor, you look at a chef like a chef and not just like another guy in the kitchen.

NYRI: Do you yourself have anyone that you are mentoring?
OM: I have 25 cooks, but I cannot do anything by myself. You must have a few ambitious chefs beneath you that want to do what your doing. I have 3 that are all very, very, good, one of them worked three years with Daniel - after 3 years of Daniel its nice to move on and do something else.

NYRI: How does Daniel tell you that you’re doing a good job?
OM: Yikes, all you need is a little look and an understanding. Between chefs we don’t need to talk a lot I think. He just watches you and he knows things. Yes, I think you just know things after years and years of working together.

The mentor as talent locator

Mr. Boulud has 40 cooks and chefs at Daniel, 20 at Café Boulud and DB Bistro, another 30 in Palm Beach, and 40 in Vegas, a total staff of about 150 cooks and chefs. When a new chef is needed, Boulud brings in prospective employees on one and two-day trials before hiring them, as other restaurants do. But before a cook or chef is even considered, the first “Daniel test” requires that one have more than just a good resume; one must have others who recommend him or her for the job. Networking is important to him, as he feels that if no one can recommend the chef, it’s possible that the prospective employee has not paid his “dues” at his previous jobs. The second test is based more on Boulud’s intuition than how well you cook at the trial or interview, and as DB Bistro’s pastry chef and recent hire Meagan Moloney says, “He has an innate sense for what kind of person will work well within his organization, almost with one look at a candidate.”

Daniel has always been known for what he likes to call his “cross-pollination of talent”, where he strategically places cooks together from all parts of the world, and encourages them to bring ideas and flavors from their part of the world.

“I learned my craft in the 70’s in France and I brought it here in the 80’s and started to become a chef here,” Mr. Boulud says, “and it was a very exciting time because then I could cross-mentor American and French chefs at the same time, which was very interesting - it brings things here that are different than in Europe, and it brings a lot of satisfaction to both places. I have had wonderful results and trust and confidence with American chefs, and today they are some of the top chefs in this country - they are not mature yet but they are good chefs.”

Although some of Boulud’s better-known apprentices in years past were not born in France (such as Mr. Carmellini who stayed with him for six years, and Alex Lee who was with him for ten), today’s lineup has a decidedly French leaning. Nevertheless, he claims that some of the newer, harder working cooks are typically coming from American schools, as well as other parts of the globe.

“When you come here fresh from France, you are far, far, far from perfect, even if you’re good. This whole adjustment to the way we do business, the way we talk to people, the way we work among each other, the way we communicate, the way you understand the language or the customers or the waiters, all of this needs to be understood. The most promising thing in a career is not doing the duty and just doing the job every day, it is the way you surprise the people you work for and yourself in what you do, it is how you can come from left field some time and put out something new and stun everyone with it.”

Meagan Moloney - DB Bistro

Meagan Moloney is the newest chef on Daniel’s team, joining DB Bistro as the pastry chef three months ago. Her culinary career began in Milan in the mid 90’s and since then has worked in restaurants such as Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago, and Jardiniere and Fifth Floor in San Francisco. Her mentors have included Mr. Trotter, Michelle Gayer, Traci DeJardin, and Laurent Gras.

NYRI: How do you think Daniel was able to judge that you were a good fit during your trial period?
MM: I think Daniel has an excellent flair for getting a good sense of people and what they’re like and what their attitudes toward work are. He knows if people are just cruising along for the ride and just trying to get names on their resume, as opposed to being really dedicated to their craft and their passion.

NYRI: What was it like initially to meet Daniel?
MM: I expected him to be a little less approachable – I was shocked to find how personable and friendly he is! Because of the level of chef that he is, I didn’t expect him to be able to have time to talk with me very much, so that was a pleasant surprise.

NYRI: Do you feel like Daniel promotes a family type environment at his restaurants?
MM: Yes, and he has a great deal of people who have lasting tenures with him. There are a lot of transient people moving about, going to restaurants and learning what they can before moving on to the next place. He tends to find people who stay with him for a while, which says a lot of positive things about him and about the company and about the work environment.”

NYRI: What were you doing just prior to coming to work in New York?
MM: “I was actually taking an extended vacation in Australia for several months, so when I returned to San Francisco I was trying to get re-acclimated to my work. When Daniel’s people contacted me in March, I was not actually working in a restaurant at that time. I feel very lucky – I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some amazing people!”

Daniel’s inspiration

In his 2003 book “Letters to a Young Chef”, an invaluable personal memoir and lesson book for aspiring chefs, Boulud describes how he began working in Lyon under Gerard Nandron. After three years (when it was his “time”), his first mentor was all too happy to make a phone call to Georges Blanc, for whom he would begin an apprenticeship at La Mere Blanc restaurant in Vonnas, France. A year later, Blanc found him a promising opportunity to work directly under Roger Verge, and another phone call from Blanc to Verde was all it took for Boulud to be hired there. Under Verge, he learned more than he ever dreamed possible, and many of the skills that he still uses today were refined and perfected there. After moving to New York, Sirio Maccione became a mentor to Boulud, introducing him to the front-of-the-house art of being a host and a restaurateur.

But when an artist reaches the pinnacle of their profession, when exceeding their own lofty expectations becomes increasingly difficult and there are fewer goals left to achieve, might their hunger for knowledge and success gradually drift into a sea of complacency? One likely rationale behind Daniel’s propensity to surround himself with the most energetic and talented chefs he can find might be to maintain his own level of energy, an intensity that his own chefs consider nothing short of amazing. The people who inspire Daniel today, besides the chefs who he will always see as his mentors, are the people with the business acumen to be successful in whatever it is they do.

“For me there is such a gap now between what I’ve done in the 70’s and what I am today. I’ve been inspired by many people along the way, not only as a chef but also as a restaurateur, by people who affect me by their knowledge, by their capability of making business - creating business and doing business. It can be from a whole different perspective than mine – it can be from the hotel business or it can be from the restaurateurs. I always pick up something that gives me a new drive - it can be on flowers, it can be on anything. The magic of our business is, its all about the food, but it’s all about the business too. I admire a restaurant for 30 years never changes and it still has the same success - they don’t need to change anything because that will kill the soul of it.”

Chef Bertrand Chemel - Café Boulud

NYRI: What have you learned from working with Daniel?
BC: The opportunity to be creative. I was actually asked what I wanted to cook the next day, unlike other 3 or 4 star restaurants that I worked at, in which everything is the same. There is always a chance to do something of your own while working with Daniel. Some days are good, and some days are bad, but at least I get to make up my own recipes once in a while.

NYRI: When you first started working for Daniel, did he tell you what to expect in the next couple of years?
BC: Yes, he did, when I came, he told me that if I worked hard as a chef, I would get bigger and bigger in the company. That’s why I’ve been working for Daniel for so long. Even when I went to other chefs, whatever I learned there I always brought back to Daniel. He always wants me to bring new things to the kitchen to give it a slight kick.

NYRI: What makes him different than other chefs you’ve worked under?
BC: He screams a lot, but you get used to it. When I work for Daniel, everything has to be perfect; there is no excuse if your food is anything but that. He’s really close to all of his chefs, and everyone at his restaurant likes him. He’s better than the other chefs I worked for. He’s really open and close to the cooks, which can be very rare at other places. He’s always there, and we all respect him. He’s frequently in the kitchen, and a chef that does that is better than a chef that’s more interested in business. Daniel cares a lot.

NYRI: Are you a mentor to others also?
BC: I’m training my cooks now, as a chef. I believe that they will respect me more if I teach them all that I know. I’m pretty good at mentoring people. I do try to mentor as much as I can, and it is very important to start the mentoring in the right way. You need to get the right chef, so you can learn as much as you can. You need to take time to learn during your mentoring, and a cook should have a mentor for at least a couple of years before they’re ready. I teach CIA cooks, and they’re all very young, and I care about teaching them a lot. I teach about 25 of them. It’s getting difficult to get cooks who want to learn from France, and we hardly get any people from France. They think they can work for a couple months and be ready, but that’s not true. You need a couple years of experience before you can really say that you’re ready.

M: Did you read Daniel’s book, Letters to a Young Chef?
B: Yes I did, it talks directly to the young cooks, and it gives them a lot of information. His book really helped me a lot. He seems to remember what he was like a long time ago, which is very great for me to relate to, because someday, I could be like him and have many restaurants.

When does the mentor retire?

Could Daniel Boulud be reaching a plateau? He currently owns three restaurants in New York, one more in Las Vegas, and another in Miami. He is mum on any plans for another Manhattan restaurant, but his words and the words of those who know him imply that he is not running out of ideas or energy, and if he were to do something bigger than he already has, now is the time. He seems to be more and more interested in the business aspects of being a restaurateur, but you wouldn’t know it from the amount of time he still spends in the kitchens of his five restaurants, a fact that is not lost on his chefs who greatly admire him for it.

“For me, its now or never to do things - I won’t want to be doing this in 10 years. I waited for 30 years of cooking to be able to get to where I am today. To achieve the opportunity to be able to build something that will leave a little line on the story of the world of cuisine in America, I think is fantastic. And financial security in the business is the most important thing, and expanding is part of this financial security.”

But certainly the legacy that Daniel Boulud leaves to the world and to his extended family of chefs and employees is not merely the cuisine with which he has astonished the world, because cuisines do change from year to year and from season to season. More than likely, it will be his growing group of restaurants that will endure through time, even in today’s competitive world where restaurants do not tend to last long. But certainly Daniel Boulud’s most lasting legacy will be the long list of tomorrow’s culinary leaders who, like Fenelon’s “Mentor” and France’s Escoffier before him, have been patiently and lovingly shaped by Daniel to be tomorrow’s mentors.

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