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The Book of Daniel

Happy birthday, Daniel restaurant, you’re 20 this year! Here, eatery empire-builder Daniel Boulud (Café Boulud, DB bistro Moderne, Boulud Sud, DBGB), whose brand-new cookbook, Daniel: My French Cuisine, comes out in October, tells what it was like leaving a famed four-star restaurant to break out on his own, how he survived his first solo New York Times review, and why those very special “two week only” mushrooms are definitely worth making a reservation for.

Superchef Daniel Boulud inside his eponymous restaurant, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year

Slow-baked black sea bass with sumac

So, 20 years of Daniel!
Yes, 16 here on 65th Street, and four on 76th Street. The first Daniel was all the rage in the early ’90s—I wanted to succeed not only in catching up with the reputation I’d made at Le Cirque, but in making the restaurant very personal. It was a crazy, busy place, but always with the goal of perfection in mind.

How did—and do—the critics’ reviews affect you?
I remember when I opened the first restaurant, I had just come from Le Cirque, which had gotten two New York Times four-star reviews. I opened Daniel, and they gave me two stars. The staff was devastated, but I was excited—I said we’re going to have the best two-star restaurant New York has ever seen. It gave me such an adrenaline rush of conviction. And six months later we had four stars.

How old were you when you realized you loved cooking?
I would say 12. Being born and raised on the farm, I had to work in the fields. But I hated it, so I always tried to help my grandmother in the kitchen, cooking for dozens of people. The only thing we bought every week was fish from the market on Fridays. The rest was homemade, homegrown, home-raised—chicken, eggs, milk, beef, goat cheese, ham. And dandelions from the fields—the first dandelions in the spring are fantastic, but you want them before the flowers grow. So you go very early with a basket to pick them, because if you miss them, the next day it’s too late.

And you do something similar for your restaurants now?
Absolutely. For example, we have this forager who’s a lawyer with a passion for nature, and she started foraging in South Jersey and Pennsylvania. Now she brings us new treasures every week. It’s exciting because it really connects us with nature—we don’t have time to go every day to the countryside.

What’s your favorite dish?
We have sea bass in red wine with leeks and potatoes, but every season we change the combination. For me it’s always about what the season brings. For example, ovoli mushrooms, from Italy or Spain, are the rarest and finest mushrooms in the world. They’re orange and very delicate, and they last only two weeks.

What’s been your biggest challenge in life?
To find balance. You can put me to work 16 hours a day and I love it, but then after a time I realize—is it really good for me, for my family, for my life, to work so hard? Today this has been eased by being a bit more secure financially, and having an amazing team of management and staff.

What’s inspired you over the years?
The quality of the food in America, and making it better. A European comes to NYC and sees the beauty of the food and the freshness and quality of the ingredients, and the diversity of it. Especially the seafood along the coast here—it’s amazing.

What makes your new cookbook special?
It’s celebrating our 20 years, but it’s not going back to the food from two decades ago—it’s capturing the moment now. There’s also some storytelling about dishes and how they relate to the old traditional French cuisine. Some dishes go back to the 1600s and 1700s—I have a big collection of very old cookbooks, which I love to read.

What advice do you give to young chefs?
To take nothing for granted. I see many chefs who have very short-lived success. Also, I think it’s important to keep progressing—you cannot be too stubborn. Many chefs fail because they think it’s their way or the highway.

Is there something about you we don’t know?
In many ways, I used to be a madman in the kitchen. I think I’m working toward a more peaceful and certainly more stable life than I used to have.

What haven’t you done that you’d still like to do?
I often dream about having an Asian restaurant. It would be related to the history of France and also India and Southeast Asia, which were a little bit influenced by the French colonies. Maybe I will do that… But I feel lucky in what I’ve accomplished. I feel most rewarded to have chosen NYC and succeeded here, because this is certainly one of the hardest towns to do well in, and to stay in. It could have happened in Paris, it could have happened in Lyon—but New York has been an amazing ride.