It's fitting that world-famous chef Daniel Boulud grew up in Lyon, a French city its inhabitants call the capital of gastronomy.
"I was meant to be a chef in Lyon. It was something quite special," Boulud said. "Quite unique, actually. Amazing concentration of great chefs, amazing concentration of ingredients, the four seasons, certainly, the north with Burgundy, the south with Rhone. ... It was really encased into a very geographic center for gastronomy, I would say."
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One of Boulud's most memorable experiences as a child was not in Lyon but on a trip to San Malo, a little port town in the Brittany region of France, where he first tasted a wide variety of seafood: huge crabs, lobster and shrimp.
"I think maybe I was 8 years old. ... Of course, I had wonderful memories of food before, but that one was like something striked me because all those flavors were not so familiar to me. I'd never had lobster at home. Oysters, we had that, but fancy seafood never! And so to have that for the first time, I think that was quite spectacular."
Another spectacular experience? The smooth, mellow flavor of an avocado. He was 14 when he first tried one, the same age at which he decided to be a chef.
"I'd never saw an avocado because we never had that at home. It was not something that was available. We couldn't grow it, so we didn't eat it. It's kind of thing at the farm: If you can't grow it, don't eat it. So the avocado, when I went to work at this fancy restaurant in Lyon at 14, for the first time I tasted an avocado and that was also … and since then I don't know, I love avocado. There's few things I love dearly and avocado is one of these."
It's been more than 25 years since Boulud, 53, arrived in New York where he settled on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
"If Lyon was the epicenter of gastronomy, this is the epicenter of wealth in America, so in a way, it was a good neighborhood for me," Boulud said. "It has been good to cook in this neighborhood and the neighborhood has been good to me as well."
In addition to the fine French fare New Yorkers savor at Boulud's flagship restaurant Daniel, his cafes pepper the Big Apple: Cafe Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne and Bar Boulud. He also has restaurants in Palm Beach, Fla., Las Vegas and Beijing.
But for all of the fancy fare and elaborate recipes, Boulud gets the most pleasure from home cooking, or what he calls the "one pot, one pan" meal.
"It connects me back," he said. "Rather than do a complex dish with 20 ingredients and five hours of prep and all that, I like the soul of home-cooking."
And whether at home or out on the town, Boulud makes sure of one thing: He's never tardy for a meal.
"All my life, I never missed a meal or missed the time of a meal. You cannot come 15 minutes or a half-hour later. You just have to be on time for the meal, because it's a ritual that's so important and sometimes it's a little forgotten here," he said.
Because Boulud lives right above his restaurant Daniel, he's able to sit down with his family for dinner every Sunday. By today's American standards, it's an almost old-fashioned sentiment but one that nearly everyone shares at Thanksgiving.
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