There may be a special relationship between Britain and the US but few chefs have successfully made the transition from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Forced to sell his flagship restaurant in New York at the end of last year Gordon Ramsay has been the latest high profile casualty while one the few successful New York imports Jean-Georges Vongerichten relinquished his London outpost Vong some years ago.
But his fellow Frenchman Daniel Boulud - a stateside culinary phenomenon whose restaurant empire rivals Ramsays - has just embarked on exactly that challenge by opening at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park where fellow superstar Heston Blumenthal will join him later this year.
To find out why I met him in his sumptuously luxurious Upper East Side restaurant Daniel which recently acquired its third Michelin star. His office (above) is perched like a treehouse above the kitchen so he can watch what is going on at the pass. Pictures with assorted celebrities including Andy Warhol, Woody Allen and Dustin Hoffman adorn the walls. A baseball sits on a spare surface lending credence to Boulud’s claim that he is ‘more French than any other American chef, more American than any French one”, a neat line that you feel he’s trotted out a few times before.
He certainly has an illustrious pedigree. He moved to the states in 1981 after working his way through such classic kitchens as Roger Verg, Georges Blanc and Michel Gurard and now has a 10 strong restaurant empire: seven in the states, two in Vancouver and one in Beijing. So why London? Apparently because the right man asked - David Nicholls, formerly of the Ritz now a roving ambassador for the Mandarin hotel group. “He’s a friend and his dream is to build a group of chefs around him who can represent themselves in his different hotels - and he offered me London. I could see it was a good combination with Heston and to have a casual restaurant. I’m known as a fancy chef but I’ve never lost my passion for traditional French food.
The outcome will be a Bar Boulud, the upmarket wine bar he likens to a Lyonnais ‘bouchon’ - or at least a sophisticated Manhattan take on it. It’s a well thought out concept serving neat twists on French bistro classics like boudin, a superb range of home-made charcuterie, devised by Parisien charcutier Gilles Verot (below) and an impressive bells and whistles wine programme.
Diplomatically he claims to be nervous about the move. “Yes, I’m a bit scared to go to London. We’re obviously going to have to work hard. But my father in law has lived here for 20 years and I have two sisters in law who are British and a lot of friends. It’s not like I’ve never been to London. We’re not there to provoke anyone” he smiles disarmingly.
So why no-one made the transition successfully before? “It’s true, few American chefs have come to London. Not many Londoners have come to New York either! But you may start to see that change. The level of gastronomy and restaurant service in the US has evolved incredibly over the last two decades, so much so that US chefs are being invited to open restaurants around the world. Also, I am not really an American chef, although I am a New York chef-restaurateur. I will always be French in my culture and heritage, but I have created my restaurants from the perspective of a New Yorker. My French restaurants in New York are entirely different from what I might have done had I stayed in France. There’s an energy and an accessibility, even on the high end, that you tend not to find in Paris.”.
The restaurant he stresses will not simply be a clone of the New York one. The ingredients are different for a start. “For example, people in Britain like smoked fish such as smoked haddock or herring so it would be nice to have one dish based on that. We might do Welsh rarebit or toad in the hole. I take pleasure in making casual food with good ingredients - normally something people would cook at home not go to a restaurant to eat.”
What seems certain is that there will be some witty inventive twist. Boulud after all is the man who gave New York the foie gras burger and recently put on a sausage menu at his most recent opening DBGB. He has, it turns out, an almost Brtish enthusiasm for the banger. “Having grown up in Lyon, sausage is a passion. There was always a good sausage.”
He clearly doesn’t see the divide between casual eating and fine wine so marked in the UK. At DBGB bottles of Cte Rtie and Corton Charlemagne rub shoulders with pils from Pennsylvania. You can order a bottle of Lafite Rothschild with your ‘Piggie burger’ (beef topped with pulled pork and jalapeno mayonnaise) and no-one will bat an eyelid.
Bar Boulud will mainly feature wines from Burgundy and the Rhone, the wine regions that sandwich his home town of Lyon but unlike many French restaurants there will be wine from all over the world that use the same grapes - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. “In England we’ll have to see what the patterns are. Londoners love their claret so maybe we’ll have some of that too.”
“It will be an exciting wine programme with very good service - by the glass, tasting flights and large format bottles. Here [at Bar Boulud, NY] we open a large format bottle every day - not always the cheapest but we try to sell it at a very good price.
“We are very value conscious in the way we price our New York menus, and that’s something we will continue to practice in London. I think we’ll really need to prove that we are affordable and accessible.” So maybe that’s the key to why British chefs haven’t made it in New York? Why didn’t it work for Gordon, for instance? Bould diplomatically refuses to be drawn. “You’ll have to ask him that!
“I think our way of communicating with guests in New York may be less formal and more familiar than what would feel comfortable to our London guests. We’ll adjust. New Yorkers dine out very frequently, many times a week. As a result, we have a lot of regulars. We’re going to need to work hard to gain people’s confidence to earn trust like that in London, so we start to see them feeling comfortable coming on a regular basis.”
So will we see Boulud packing up his bags in a couple of years time and heading back stateside? I wouldn’t put money on it. My hunch is his particular brand of hip haute cuisine is exactly what London is looking for. Maybe he’ll even take it back home to Lyons.
Bar Boulud is at the Mandarin Hotel, Hyde Park just opposite Harvey Nichols. Tel: +44 (0)20 7201 3899. Reserve on the website here
Daniel Boulud’s London
Like most chefs Boulud likes to eat casual when he’s off duty. “If you want to make a chef happy do not give him caviar give him pig’s head” so sightings on his most recent visit to London included The Hereford and Le Caf Anglais while perennial favourites are Le Caprice, The Wolseley and Scotts. “If I want a superstar meal I go to Marcus Wareing - he did a stage at Daniel - and you have the most talented, knowledgeable, refined French chef in the world in Michel Roux [Sr]. I don’t know where we’ll fit in in the middle of all this. I don’t want to be a trendy restaurant. I want to be an established restaurant with consistent food, a loyal clientele and a commitment to quality.”
This article first appeared in the June 2010 of Decanter magazine