Chef Daniel Boulud: 'We have to find hope amid stress of the pandemic'

The celebrity chef was in the UAE for the launch of Brasserie Boulud, his first restaurant in the Middle East

Daniel Boulud, guest chef July 2017, portrait, Restaurant Ikarus, Hangar-7, Salzburg, Austria, 2017 07 01 / Daniel Boulud, Gastkoch Juli 2017, Portrait, Restaurant Ikarus, Hangar-7, Salzburg, Österreich, 2017 07 01
Powered by automated translation

French chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud is very clear about what his latest restaurant Brasserie Boulud is … and what it isn't.

"It was always meant to be a European-style brasserie, not a fine-dining concept or a cosy bistro," he tells me, gesturing in the direction of the vast space that takes its cues from the Art Deco style and features a mirrored ceiling and dramatic lighting. Brasserie Boulud opened on October 29 in the Egyptian-themed Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk in Dubai Healthcare City.

"I say this, in part, because of the space. A brasserie is a social place, where fine dining meets casual. You can entertain here and come often. There's always room for everyone in a brasserie," Boulud says of his first venture in the Middle East.

The art deco-inspired interiors of Brasserie Boulud feature a mirrored ceiling and chandeliers
The art deco-inspired interiors of Brasserie Boulud feature a mirrored ceiling and chandeliers

Journey to Dubai

The chef launched his first restaurant, Daniel, which has two Michelin stars, in New York 27 years ago. He has also opened restaurants in Washington, Miami and Palm Beach in the US, pluDb Bistro & Oyster Bar at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands, Bar Boulud London at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, Cafe Boulud at the Four Seasons Hotel Toronto and Maison Boulud at The Ritz-Carlton, Montreal. The launch of a Dubai restaurant, he says, was a natural next step.

“Dubai is one of those few cities that I see pulling talent from all over the world. It is exciting to be a part of that. I have always admired cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi for their progress. Their evolution is striking.”

Daniel Boulud is the founder of NYC restaurant Daniel, which has two Michelin stars. Photo courtesy: Brasserie Boulud
Daniel Boulud is the founder of NYC restaurant Daniel, which has two Michelin stars. Photo courtesy: Brasserie Boulud

Hard work and humility 

The chef is known for his modern interpretation of classic French dishes, as reflected by the menu at his Dubai outpost. On offer are crevettes au romarin (grilled Omani shrimps served with squash, tomatoes and paprika butter), Mediterranean Sea bass with saffron rice and spicy tuna crudo.

Born into a farming family in Lyon, Boulud understands the importance of using fresh and seasonal ingredients. It's just one of the many lessons he learnt growing up.

“It is on the farm that I learnt not to waste anything. Life there also taught me humility … and to take pride in my work. There is no one prouder than a farmer when he harvests his crops. I will always carry these lessons with me.”

Boulud is true to his word. Despite his success – which spans a restaurant empire and 10 books including Daniel: My French Cuisine and Letters to a Young Chef – he remains grounded in reality, with a strong desire to help others. He co-founded Ment'or BKB, a non-profit devoted to inspiring and helping young professionals in the culinary field in America, and also lends much of his spare time to the Daniel Boulud Scholarship Endowment Fund, to help American cooks pursue culinary studies in France.

Boulud has been the co-president of New York's Citymeals on Wheels since 2003. The non-profit provides about 20,000 meals a day to the elderly, a number that went up to 60,000 at the height of the pandemic, he says.

The chef is candid about the fact that his business was hit hard by the pandemic. “Since Covid-19, we have had to furlough some 800 people, and that was the hardest thing to go through. We were down to eight to 10 people at one point. We are now rebuilding, and are back to a workforce of 250.”

Despite the trying times, Boulud launched the Hand in Hand Foundation, which has raised $500,000 to support his employees and help them pay their bills. He also introduced a fine-dining delivery service in New York and connected some of his employees with clients looking for private chefs.

"It has been a real challenge. Saving one's business aside, the important thing is to be able to save dignity and support your employees," says Boulud.

Fine dining in the age of Covid-19

Despite the chef's desire for things to go back to the way they were, he admits that this, perhaps, is not an ideal time to reopen fine-dining restaurants. Which is why, in September, the chef transformed his New York restaurant Daniel into Boulud Sur Mer, a casual pop-up dining space. The name is a play on Beaulieu-Sur-Mer, the small coastal village between Monaco and Nice, with the idea that the pop-up transports guests to France.

"No one went on vacation this summer, so I decided to recreate the spirit of France in New York," says Boulud. "I didn't feel like reopening the restaurant as a fine-dining establishment was the right call.

"It is not necessary to focus on fine dining as much as it is to make people comfortable and happy right now. We have already mastered the art of fine service, but this way guests can enjoy a more casual ambience and a less expensive menu.”

Boulud Sur Mer features Hermes “feuillage” wallpaper, lush greenery and private cabanas, so New Yorkers can enjoy sitting outside in a safe set-up. “I don’t know if I would have done something like this if it hadn’t been for the pandemic; it has given us so much stress. But we have to find hope and an opportunity to bring back people safely, while also having fun. After all, that’s why I have been in this business for so many years – because I have fun doing it all.”