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Daniel Boulud: On fine dining and why he left Washington

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The way Daniel Boulud explains it, he was one personality clash away from becoming a fixture on the D.C. dining scene. Before leaving Washington in the early 1980s, earning four stars at Le Cirque and launching his own New York restaurant empire, Boulud was offered a job at the forthcoming Four Ways restaurant at 20th and R streets in Dupont Circle.

Fresh off his stint working for Count Roland de Kergorlay at the European Commission, where the chef created the “most sought-after table on Embassy Row” (according to a 1982 Post story), Boulud was among a second wave of French chefs who was expected to remake Washington’s culinary scene. Instead, a clash with the general manager at the Four Ways sent Boulud packing to Manhattan, leaving behind friends and colleagues, such as Francis Layrle, then chef at the French Embassy.

“The minute I met the general manager,” said Boulud during an interview last week, “I hated him. And I don’t think he cared about me either . . I wanted to be a sous chef there, and he barely said hello to me at the first meeting. He treated me, like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I’m like, ‘Okay, thank you very much. This is it. I’m not staying with you here.’”

That’s when Boulud turned to his mentor, Jean-Louis Palladin, for help. Palladin was already a legend among his peers and the dining public. As a Michelin-starred chef back in Condom, France, and creator of Washington’s destination restaurant, Jean-Louis at the Waterate, Palladin was plugged into a network of chefs and general managers across the country. Palladin helped place Boulud as executive sous-chef at the Polo Lounge in New York’s Westbury Hotel.

“I told Jean-Louis . . .’I didn’t mind [being] a sous chef somewhere, but it had to be the right place,'” Boulud said. “I didn’t see any opportunity coming in Washington.”

The anecdote was no doubt the most concussive bomb that Boulud dropped during the 90-minute interview at The Washington Post. Could the chef have been as successful in Washington as he is New York, where he operates eight restaurants, including the three-star Daniel (not to mention dining outposts in such cities as Miami, Las Vegas, Toronto, London and Singapore)? Who knows, but Boulud he said his intention was to remain in Washington after his Embassy Row gig was finished. He apparently liked it here during the days of Palladin, Yannick Cam, Gerard Cabrol and other talented French chefs in the city.

Below are edited excerpts from the interview with Boulud.

On D.C. dining during Boulud’s day:

“I remember when I was here in D.C., there were a lot of French restaurants. I think D.C. has always been very, very vibrant for food. Like Boston in a way. Boston and D.C. were really the two cities that were the most active with their local chefs and their local food scene. Obviously in D.C., there’s been a little bit more corporate approach to dining for a long time, and now it’s kind of like growing a little bit more personalized in a way.”

On why it took him so long to open a restaurant in Washington:

“I had on many occasions over the years the opportunity to open something here, and I never felt right about it. Then CityCenter came, and because we have a restaurant in New York with [AvalonBay Communities, briefly a partner in the downtown D.C. development]. AvalonBay is the real estate developer, and our restaurant in New York, DBGB, is with Avalon. So that’s how we got together, because they asked us, ‘You know, we are doing this development in D.C. Would you come with us there?'”

On why he decided to open the casual DBGB in Washington instead of a fine-dining restaurant:

“I think in the neighborhood we have there, it seemed to be a little bit more young. We want it to be affordable and yet be a chef-driven restaurant. As soon as you go up into fine dining, I felt it would have been a more expensive proposition for diners.”

“Still, that does not mean with casual dining you can get away with everything. We care about service. We care about making sure the simple things are done right, from the temperature of the wine you serve to the detail in the dining room. Even in a causal way, we are doing it right.”

On his vision of a fine-dining restaurant:

“I want to make sure the fine-dining restaurant has a clientele who is local as much as tourists and foodies. Sometimes, I see a certain type of fine dining, there’s nobody local [eating there]. It’s all tourists. It’s fine, but to me, it’s not how I perceive fine dining. I think fine dining should be part of the community where it is, more than just for the people who are going to make a special occasion.”

On where he will find employees in Washington, which has a reputation for a limited pool of restaurant workers:

“We have a lot of kids and staff, young chefs and waiters, who are from Virginia, Maryland, D.C., and even up to Philadelphia and wouldn’t mind leaving New York to come to D.C. So it’s a question of relocating our contacts and see who is also here from people who previously worked with us.”

On how involved he will be with the D.C. location of DBGB:

“It’s easy to come down here, so a lot at the beginning, and then we have the corporate chef who comes in, the corporate pastry chef, the director of operations. We have also Ed Scarpone [chef of the DBGB in Washington], who has access to recipes and information from me, from the team. He can see everything happening in every restaurant. We have a cloud. So he can see every menu development everywhere, new recipes, as soon as we have something. We have a lady who’s in charge of communicating with all the chefs and me, and so we all have a string attached to each other.”

On the escalating rents and gentrifying neighborhoods in New York, which have forced restaurants to announce their closures, including WD-50 and Union Square Cafe:

“Daniel, we own that. That’s the one where we don’t have to worry about the landlord. The other ones, on average, we have about 12-, 15-year leases, and we have some options to renew. If it’s less than that, it’s very difficult. If you have 10 years, it could take five to six years to recoup [investment].”

On his time cooking for Count Roland de Kergorlay at the European Commission:

“I was 25 years old when I arrived in D.C. It was just myself and two people who worked and helped me in the kitchen. I was only cooking for three people most of the time. Some lunch and dinner. The wife of the ambassador was very excited about making sure we were the best table in D.C. So she would have people from The Post just come and have lunch.”

“It was great. No chef in an embassy ever had a spread in the paper. At the time, there was the Washington Star as well. I had a big spread in the Washington Star.”

On his introduction to Jean-Louis at the Watergate:

“I knew Jean-Louis from the minute I arrived here. I arrived maybe 3 o’clock in the afternoon, 4 o’clock, and by 5:30, I was in the kitchen at Jean-Louis. Jean-Louis was in France, still on vacation, because it was the end of August. So I spent a couple of hours with [his kitchen team]. A year before Jean-Louis arrived here, I went to eat at his restaurant in Condom with Michel Guérard and the entire team [Boulud worked at the time for Guérard]. We were doing the end-of-the-year dinner together with all the staff, and we did it as Jean-Louis was negotiating his deal in Washington, so he was not there. So I knew the first person I had to meet was Jean-Louis and the second one was Francis [Layrle at the French Embassy].”