The chef’s name graces the door, the awning, the menu. His image is everywhere.
After all, he is the main draw.
Celebrity chefs, almost all of them men, tower over our food landscape, with restaurant empires that dot the continent and often the globe. Las Vegas has become a grand buffet of chef outposts. And Washington has joined in, long ago graduating beyond Duke Zeibert’s pickles and strip steaks to a capital now served by culinary royalty.
In recent years, local titan José Andrés and frequent “Top Chef” contestant Mike Isabella have been joined by out-of-towners Jose Garces (Rural Society), Wolfgang Puck (The Source) and Michael Schlow (Tico DC).
With all these brand names in Washington, what reasonable expectation should diners have of enjoying a harissa spiced lambchop seared by the big cheese himself?
Short answer: very little. Which may rankle diners, who are hungry for a star sighting as well as sustenance.
“Went to DBGB hoping to get a glance of DB and asked our server if he was there. The server said that he is only there for events and if VIPs are planning to go,” a patron noted in a recent Washington Post Web chat. “From all the press I thought he would be sticking around for longer than a few days, but it seems that it’s a lot of smoke and mirrors. The food was great but why does the group promote the place with him if he is never going to be there?”
Interesting question. No man can be everywhere, not even a celebrated blowtorch-wielding Gallic chef whose gastronomic empire consists of 16 restaurants that spread out, like so much bechamel, across 10 cities, four countries and three continents.
The key to managing the multi-city star chef experience, it turns out, is to manage expectations.
What a star chef promises is that the cuisine will meet his high standards. What he will not guarantee is how often he will actually be in a specific restaurant sauteing the trout.
As it so happens, DB was back at DBGB in the District last week. The French master, not a splatter on his white chef togs and a luxury watch on his wrist even as he ducked in and out of the kitchen, held court in the airy CityCenterDC dining room, which is peppered in shades of chocolate and burgundy. No special event clouded the schedule. Nary a VIP in sight — unless, of course, you count the chef.
Boulud, 59 and in the kitchen for 45 of those years, is ceaselessly charming, but the dismayed diner’s Web post clearly irked him. (The only other moment that so disturbed the chef: when a hungry visitor almost took a bite of a dish that had grown cold.)
Indeed, for 21 / 2 hours, the time required to relish a multi-course tasting menu at Boulud’s grander Manhattan establishments, the chef politely but insistently returned to the question.
“I’ve been here. I’m going to be here, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s not like I’m a singer who sings in front of an audience of 20,000 and then goes home.”
Veteran restaurant consultant Clark Wolf agreed.
“A great chef doesn’t need to be there. That’s naive,” Wolf said. “The better question is how has he managed to maintain so many restaurants that are this good?”
If a successful chef does his job right and hires well, top chefs argue, it should not matter whether he is in the kitchen or elsewhere. Garces, with 14 restaurants, spent plenty of time in Washington before this summer’s opening of Rural Society in the Loews Madison Hotel but now leaves the cooking and operation to his staff.
“Since it’s impossible to be everywhere all the time, it’s also important to surround yourself with a great team, and I’m fortunate that many people who work with me have been with me for years,” Garces said.
Andrés also acknowledged that it’s impossible to visit all of his establishments on a regular basis, although he does seem to try.
“In D.C. with many of our restaurants so close to each other, I can show up for lunch at Oyamel, be in Zaytinya to taste a new dish, then be at Minibar for service,” Andrés said by e-mail because, naturally, like so many star chefs, he was traveling. “But, you will also find me on the phone, on a plane, and in the kitchens of our restaurants in Miami, L.A.”
Because of construction issues, Boulud had opened two establishments in September, the other in Boston, in a pinch of three days. Boulud declared: “That will not happen again.”
He did not look tired. It is possible that Boulud does not do tired, even with a 4-month-old son with his second wife.
Part of the answer to the dismayed diner’s question about the star chef being absent from the kitchen surrounded Boulud. He employs a gastronomic army, about 800 employees in his own company, and 700 more at his licensed/partner properties located in hotels.
A quartet of corporate chefs report to him, and, in turn, a squadron of executive chefs and specialists report to them, built on the French hierarchical system, the brigade de cuisine. Three of Boulud’s executive chefs have collected their own James Beard Awards.
“It’s all about being cognizant of the management and talent,” Boulud said. “No one can work with me without carrying the responsibility of being the chef. It’s not about making money but managing a business well. Customers are very faithful.”
Nearby, construction workers on ladders tinkered on the restaurant, which cost in excess of $2 million. Executives analyzed reports. A staff of more than 40 labored in the kitchen. On this day, less than two weeks after the opening, he had brought down from New York his executive chef charcutier, gastrospeak for sausage maker (also of burgers and pâtés). The dining room staff assembled for a quiz about the evening’s offerings.
Rest assured that no server will ever again tell diners that Boulud will be in Washington only for events and VIPs.
Washington has become a notably more sophisticated restaurant town since Boulud arrived here at age 25, his first job in the States, working for two years as a private chef for the European Commission. If the cuisine and service falter, if the chef isn’t attentive to the quality, even if he is only on the premises once a month, patrons will vote with their well-shod feet. And not every celebrated chef succeeds. In 2012, Eric Ripert dropped his name from Westend Bistro after five years; the following year, Alain Ducasse shuttered Adour at the St. Regis after a stint of equal length.
But the big names continue to set up shop. Mario Batali has plans for an Eataly dining and gourmet bazaar here in a few years, while pork-bun purveyor and Northern Virginia native David Chang will open a Momofuku here next year.
Boulud stressed that he will not ignore Washington. The District’s DBGB — there is another in Lower Manhattan, and the name is an homage to the legendary CBGB club — is also his first independent restaurant outside New York for which he has not partnered with a hotel. Whether or not he is here, the quality must endure. It’s his initials that are branded on almost everything in the place.
“When diners see me at Cafe Boulud,” the chef said of his Upper East Side restaurant, “they love to see me, but they don’t expect me.”
Indeed, the shock comes when diners actually get a glimpse of a polygamous restaurateur such as Boulud or Andrés.
Nor is the tradition new. Boulud’s illustrious mentor Paul Bocuse, now 88, operated multiple restaurants when Boulud first trained. Technology now helps coordinate the culinary agenda.
“We have thousands of recipes from all of the restaurants that we share in the cloud,” Boulud said. “We are all partners in this company with rewards and bonuses for people based on their performance.” The better a protege like DBGB executive chef Ed Scarpone performs, the better he is compensated.
Scarpone said of his boss: “He’s part of everything. He’s generous. If I called him at midnight, he would pick up.” They talk 20 to 30 times a week.
The coq au vin, simmering in a massive pan, is the dish that turned Connecticut-raised, tattoo-covered Scarpone into a Boulud acolyte.
“I was amazed that something so simple could taste so good. That dish changed my career,” he said.
“Ed! Ed!” Boulud yelled to his charge, stirring the vat-sized pot. “No one must turn their back on this!” Then the chef was off to a side table. “Allo! Ed! I want to wrap this differently,” Boulud said, then guided two line chefs, uncle and nephew Zamuel and Aparicio Perez, in the proper way to wrap stuffed trout in pancetta.
“Because of the quality we do, the people we have,” he said, “this place could continue without me.”
But that, Boulud and other star chefs made clear, will not happen.