As New York restaurant tables go, it’s difficult to think of one more exclusive than the Skybox.
This is the glass-walled space Daniel Boulud has installed in the mezzanine level of his kitchen at Daniel, the three-Michelin-star New York establishment the French-born chef calls home. (He lives above the premises on East 65th Street.)
We’re here to discuss his new book, “Daniel, My French Cuisine,” and he orders grilled black sea bass with green salad.
“You are eating my lunch,” he says with a smile as the food is delivered. “I try to be careful, so my lunch is always this, a soup or a salad. It’s a beautiful fish, it’s mild and yet it has a great texture. I’ve been cooking it for 30 years.”
Boulud, 58, this year married his girlfriend Katherine Gage, and his focus in food is now on healthy eating as well as the rich dishes of classic French gastronomy.
“She wants to do a master in nutrition because she believes it’s nice for me to be a chef but she really thinks nutrition is more important for the future,” he says. “So I am very concerned about nutrition and always try to be careful about what I eat.”
In the book, he recreates classic dishes such as pate en croute and hare royale. He includes recipes for the more modern cooking for which he is known at Daniel, where a meal might include snapper ceviche with satsuma mandarin, and spit-roasted “green circle” chicken with glazed parsnip and honey-glazed eggplant.
Would he be cooking this kind of food if he hadn’t moved to the U.S. from his native Lyon 30 years ago?
“If I’d stayed in France, I would have been a bit more open-minded,” he says. “I would have had experience outside of France and I would have kept traveling. The thing I knew best was France at that time, so I kind of stick to that while embracing other things. I would have kept trying to reinvent my French cuisine more than anything else. But I love tradition.
“A lot of young chefs today get carried away by trends, by influences, by movements. When France was the only reference for chefs to learn, you could go everywhere in the world and they would copy dishes directly because they didn’t have much expanded imagination or technique or knowledge. It’s still the same today. There are chefs who don’t have the foundation.”
Boulud lauds the Catalan chef Ferran Adria, who studied classical gastronomy before going on to the contemporary style he created at El Bulli. That establishment, near Barcelona, won the World’s Best Restaurant a record five times.
“Ferran wasn’t always a genius in chemistry with cooking. He was a classic trained cook, he knew how to cook classic food and his inspiration was Jacques Maximin, who was the hardest guy in the kitchen when it comes to classics.
“And yet he was also the most creative with taking the classic and giving it a spin or taking Provencale cuisine and making it beautiful and elegant. And Ferran was very driven by that at the beginning. But a lot of kids don’t diversify their training, they all end up making the same food.
“They assemble dishes and they demonstrate technique. But being a chef is all about cooking.”
I first met Boulud in 2010, when he was in London to open Bar Boulud. We boarded a taxi to go out for dinner when I realized I’d dropped my spectacles. He jumped out, dived under another taxi that had pulled up behind and retrieved them.
It’s no surprise chefs are nice to food writers: If they are our roasted guinea hen, we are their bread and butter. But Boulud’s energy and charm are exceptional. I ate in about 50 places during a visit to New York. The Skybox was the highlight.
“Daniel, My French Cuisine” is published by Grand Central ($60) and co-written with Sylvie Bigar. It includes essays by Bill Buford and photographs by Thomas Schauer.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)