David Bouley was 5 years old when his mother saw him tugging hard at a fruit in their orchard. She moved him to a different branch, and as he reached up and touched it, a ripe peach fell into his hand. “That’s the one to eat,” she told him, a lesson he never forgot.
Bouley has been a star since 1987, when he opened his first eponymous place in Tribeca and diners quickly voted it the restaurant where they’d want to eat their last meal.
Now 57, he’s still searching out the world’s best flavors. To open the kaiseki restaurant Brushstroke, he collaborated with the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka, Japan, on complex yet basically seasonal dishes. And he often flies to Barcelona for culinary chats with molecular gastronomist Ferran Adria, of El Bulli fame.
We spoke in the Bouley Test Kitchen, where he develops recipes.
Lundborg: Where are you spending most of your time now?
Bouley: I realized one of the things I missed most from the original Bouley was that I knew so much about every single person who came in.
When the menu came, many diners said, “No, no, no, just tell him to cook.” I had to know that you like artichokes and your husband doesn’t, so if I’m going to cook for you and make additional artichokes, I need to make sure I ring his bell as well.
I have to be in the kitchen at Bouley for that, so that’s where I am now.
Lundborg: A lot of chefs are expanding their empires and spending less time in the kitchen.
Bouley: The fun of the business is seducing diners and cultivating intimacy. At the end of the day I was happiest having that relationship with my guests, and so I’m going back to that.
I’m in the process of changing Bouley even more: I took 28 seats out and I built my kitchen 40 percent larger.
We’re going to focus on videoing the food as we make it, so you’ll be able to see what’s happening.
And we have over 500,000 photographs taken of markets all over the world in the last 20 or 30 years. With the help of a friend who’s a film producer, we’re going to project those markets on a big wall in 3D.
Lundborg: How would you describe your cooking now?
Bouley: My own food is a lot of times just stuff that looks at me and tells me what to do with it. I never went to cooking school, so I didn’t really get professionally trained. And I just start remembering what my mother taught me about complementing the product.
Lundborg: What’s Ferran Adria’s biggest contribution to the food world?
Bouley: He’s an artist like Beethoven, who will stay in the chapters of gastronomy for creating jewels.
Ferran has given us an incredible amount of tools and techniques that you can use to express yourself in a totally pure way while maintaining your own integrity. It’s a unique accomplishment.
Usually, to make a dish you have to follow the elements as they are composed, and there’s not a lot of room for an individual contribution.
Lundborg: What are you testing now?
Bouley: Right now we’re working more on grains and rices. People don’t understand how much flax seed can do. It’s amazing! It’s a thickening agent, so you can make almost zero fat ice creams from flax seed.
And then there’s buckwheat, a non-gluten product that you can do anything with. Buckwheat is the future. It reduces blood pressure. It reduces cholesterol. It’s all about the health benefit of food.
Lundborg: Is America transforming the way it eats?
Bouley: I hope the current farm-to-table movement will spread everywhere, but I don’t see it.
Get in a car, drive out in the country a little bit and try to find something to eat. I have a house up toward the Berkshires, and there isn’t a single place that I’d want to stop all the way up there.
It’s just not the kind of food I want to eat.
(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)