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."
CLICK HERE for Boulud's recipes.
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."
Fine French Cuisine and Home Cooking
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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The root of Boulud's success can be traced back many years when Boulud scored an apprenticeship at one of the best restaurants in Lyon. He worked for nearly 12 hours a day, six days a week. Despite the grueling schedule, he enjoyed the cooking, and learning the restaurant trade from the ground up.
Boulud has maintained the same drive and passion for cooking all these years later. He says one of his biggest frustrations is not being able to spend enough time in the kitchen: He averages six hours instead of his ideal, 14.
Now that he's in a position to train the next generation of chefs, Boulud says those "who work as hard as I work" continue to inspire him with the same passion he felt back when he was an apprentice.
Over the course of his impressive career, Boulud has maintained a complicated relationship with food. He says it's what drives his creativity, but he says it can also "drive me crazy."
"It makes me very happy and sometimes very frustrated. Why? Because, you know, we are living the extreme with it. We are living the extreme of making perfection out of just ingredients and also living the extreme of having the consistency everyday with it. Day-in, day-out, we've got to be perfect at it … the seasoning and all that," he explained. "And also having the importance of finding the best ingredient to do that food, but at the same time it brings you the most joy to be able to create a new dish, to perfect that dish all the time, or just to make it perfect every time as well."