When he pulled out the blowtorch, they pulled out the camera phones, instantly reducing themselves to fan boys and girls as they scrambled for the best angles to capture the moment. The scene played out like a baby boomer fantasy come to life, as if Springsteen or Stevie Wonder had just pulled up a piano bench at a local club and started pounding out the hits.
The rock star in this instance was chef Daniel Boulud, the Frenchman responsible for some of New York’s finest of fine dining. And his rapt audience was a crash of chefs, the finest the District has to offer, who in late June were invited to La Piquette for an intimate dinner ahead of Boulud’s long-awaited Washington debut this September with DBGB Kitchen and Bar at CityCenter. The camera phones flashed in the dim light of the dining room when Boulud grabbed a butane torch and began browning the peaks of ivory meringue atop his signature baked Alaska. Others watched the spectacle without the need to preserve it in pixels.
These were men and women more accustomed to standing in the spotlight, not standing around its perimeter in awe. The official guest list numbered around 35, but more appeared at La Piquette on Macomb Street NW, as if the name Boulud had served as a magnet for every chef with a knife within a 10-mile radius. Some of these toques make their living on TV, some in restaurants; some even cook for the president.
To pull any four of them together for a dinner would be a minor logistical feat, but Boulud attracted dozens of D.C. chefs. (Granted, it was a Monday, when many restaurants are shut tight.) Attendees included Frank Ruta, Ris Lacoste, Carla Hall, Mike Isabella, Mark Furstenberg, Eric Ziebold, Johnny Spero, Mike Friedman, Haidar Karoum, Robert Wiedmaier, Scott Drewno, R.J. Cooper, Tiffany MacIsaac, Kyle Bailey, Michel Richard, Aggie Chin, Victor Albisu, Cathal Armstrong, Bill Yosses, Kaz Okochi, Frederik De Pue, Cristeta Comerford, Roberto Donna and Jeffrey Buben, among others.
The gathered chefs dined on not only baked Alaska but also blood sausages, boudin blanc, beets with yogurt, haricots verts with shallots, cumin carrots, roasted cod with tender curls of grilled octopus and an assortment of cured meats and pâtés, some of it prepared by DB Bistro executive sous-chef Ed Scarpone, who will lead the kitchen at the Washington outlet of DBGB. The assembled toques also witnessed a pair of reunions: Boulud with former Washington Post restaurant critic Phyllis Richman and Boulud with Francis Layrle, La Piquette’s chef, whom Boulud, 59, met more than 30 years ago when they both cooked on Embassy Row in Washington.
The recurring joke of the night was that Boulud could wipe out the D.C. chef community with one carefully placed plate of poisoned pâté and then claim the District as his own. “I kept thinking that he’d turn the gas on in the basement and just walk across the street and take everybody out,” deadpanned Peter Pastan, chef and owner of 2 Amys, located directly across Macomb.
Boulud, of course, had no such lethal intentions. In a sense, he was assuming a role once played by the late Jean-Louis Palladin, a fellow French chef who mentored a future generation of D.C. chefs (including Boulud) and carved out a culinary identity for Washington with Jean-Louis at the Watergate. Palladin was famous for assembling his peers for late-night gatherings, where the wine would flow well into the early-morning hours. Boulud hinted that more such gatherings would occur once he opens DBGB, around Labor Day.
But the motivations behind Boulud’s dinner probably were more complex than a desire to gather D.C. chefs, young and old, for a night of food and drink. Some speculated that Boulud had merely wanted to introduce Scarpone to the scene, so the newcomer would get to know his fellow chefs and maybe pick up tips on local suppliers and farmers. “It’s just a nice way of getting the chef to know everybody,” said Wiedmaier, chef and restaurateur behind Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck. “It’s smart.”
Bread Furst’s Furstenberg, who supplied the loaves for the dinner, had another perspective. The baker viewed the gathering as a sort of preemptive strike of hospitality. Boulud knows, Furstenberg said, that “some chefs may resent” a big celebrity chef encroaching on their turf.
“What better way to forestall that jealousy than to reach out and embrace the chefs of Washington, so we have to embrace back?” he asked.
The day after the meal, Boulud sat down at The Post and talked more about the gathering as well as his plans for Washington. No doubt looking more refreshed than many of the chefs who’d attended the dinner, Boulud sported an open-collared dress shirt with his initials monogrammed a few inches above the waist. His brown hair was neatly parted on the left, as always. He was quick to laugh — and just as quick to prove himself a loyal member of the local restaurant community.
“I have no pretension that I belong in D.C. I mean, I have to be cautious on how we do our restaurant,” Boulud said. “I think there are a lot of chefs in D.C. who have made D.C. what it is today. I am very respectful to them. I’m very admiring of what they’ve done.
“I understand that we have to be very careful at the beginning,” the chef added. “I’ve seen so many horror scenes of chefs coming in and raiding one place. You know what I mean? Because you pull the manager, and the manager takes a bundle [of employees] with him, and that’s not good. . . . We’re going to really be respectful to everyone in that case. I think it’s very important.”
His decision to open a DBGB in Washington is, in some ways, a bold one. Named for New York’s defunct live-music club CBGB, which nurtured the tortured souls who defined the early punk rock movement, DBGB is a sort of homage to the Bowery neighborhood and its history as a restaurant supply district. Boulud said DBGB’s casual touch should be perfect for the District’s increasingly informal dining scene. Plus, its menu is approachable, mixing French, American and other influences to the point where the lines begin to blur. You’ll find classic French charcuterie next to American-style burgers next to Thai-spiced sausages.
Boulud, the guy who practically invented the chef-driven hamburger with his DB Burger (stuffed with braised short ribs and foie gras), said he plans a special patty for the new place. “I want to create a burger for D.C.,” he said, “something with some DNA of D.C. So that’s coming up.”
Can he reveal any of his burger machinations? “Oh, something interesting,” Boulud teased.
Then he smiled. He wasn’t going tell us anything, was he?
“Not today,” the chef said, releasing a throaty laugh.
If not hamburgers, then what about sausages, an item DBGB holds dear? The Bowery restaurant caters to the sausage crowd with a line of links that include an all-beef weiner and a lamb-and-mint merguez. Perhaps Boulud could find room on his menu for Washington’s signature sausage, the half-smoke, that half-beef, half-pork, always spicy banger with the mysterious origins?
Boulud had never heard of it, but you could see the cogs and flywheels start to turn in his brain.
“Oh,” he said, “that’s an aspiration right there that we can work on.”
Was he serious? Could Washington look forward to a Daniel Boulud-branded half-smoke in the future?
“Sounds like a good one,” he said. “We’re going to try to find one today on the way out of town.”